Cape History at a Glance

It's said that Cape Town owes its very existence to Table Mountain. The freshwater streams running off its slopes were what first prompted early explorers to anchor here. In 1652 Jan van Riebeeck and 90 Dutch settlers established a refreshment station for ships of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) on the long voyage east. The first European toehold in South Africa, Cape Town is still called the Mother City.

Those first Dutch settlers established their own farms, and 140 years later the settlement supported a population of 20,000 whites and 25,000 slaves brought from distant lands like Java, Madagascar, and Guinea. Its strategic position on the southern edge of Africa, however, meant that the colony never enjoyed any real stability. The British occupied the Cape twice, first in 1795 and then more permanently in 1806, bringing with them additional slaves from Ceylon, India, and the Philippines. Destroyed or assimilated in this colonial expansion were the indigenous Khoekhoen (previously called Khoikhoi and Hottentots), who once herded cattle and foraged along the coast.

Diamond and gold discoveries in central and northern South Africa in the late 1800s pulled focus away from Cape Town. However, in 1910, when the Union of South Africa was created, Cape Town was named the legislative capital, and it remains so today. The diamond and gold boom fueled rapid development in Cape Town and throughout the country.

The wounds of the 20th century are due to apartheid. Although apartheid ended in the 1990s, its legacy of underdevelopment remains, and Cape Town still remains divided along racial, economic, and physical lines. As you drive into town along the N2 from the airport, you can't miss the shacks built on shifting dunes as far as the eye can see—a sobering contrast to the first-world luxury of the city center on the other side of Table Mountain.

Khayelitsha is the main "black" township, attached to which are numerous squatter camps, more politely known as informal settlements. Well over a million people live in Khayelitsha today, most of whom originated in the underdeveloped Eastern Cape province, where work is scarce and the medical and educational facilities have all but collapsed. For these reasons relatives of Khayelitsha's inhabitants arrive almost daily.

Much of South Africa's rich and fascinating history is reflected in Cape Town. Most of the sites worth seeing are packed into a small area, which means you can see a lot in just a few hours. Mandela's tiny jail cell at Robben Island has been preserved, and you can learn about his banishment there as well as about the ecological significance of the island. The District Six Museum tells the heartbreaking story of the apartheid-era demolition of one of Cape Town's most vibrant neighborhoods, and the Bo-Kaap Museum tells the story of the city's Muslim community, who settled here after the abolition of slavery. For a taste of the city's long naval history, visit Simon's Town, where you can tour a retired submarine. The Castle of Good Hope, former seat of the British and Dutch governments and still the city's military headquarters, is the oldest colonial building still standing in South Africa.

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