The Cape of Good Hope is historically linked with the search for and defence of a sea route to India. It is a history of rivalry in trade and war between the Portuguese, the Dutch, the English and, to a lesser degree, the French.
The earliest recorded voyage round the Cape was made in 1488 by the Portuguese navigator, Bartolomeu Dias. He never discovered the long-sought route to India, but in 1498 another Portuguese, Vasco da Gama, rounded the Cape, reached India and returned to Europe in 1499. The route to the I ndies had been found. The trade potential was enormous. The Portuguese moved quickly to consolidate and protect the route, claiming the right to overlordship of the Indian Ocean and domination of its trade.Early expeditions all called into southern Africa as they passed, to collect water or barter with the Khoikhoi for fresh meat, but no efforts were made to set up a permanent outpost. Table Bay itself was not explored until 1503, when Admiral Antonio de Saldanha climbed Table Mountain and visited Robben Island. Later that century the Portuguese lost their dominant trading position, and the Netherlands and England both set about finding routes to the East.
In 1580, Sir Francis Drake rounded the Cape, and by 1591 the first English expedition bound for the Indies had left Plymouth. By 1594 the Dutch too were on their way. Early in the 17th century, national efforts were controlled respectively by the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company. It was The Netherlands, with its larger merchant fleet, which dominated trade. The Dutch East India Company established a victualling station at the Cape, and in 1652 Jan van Riebeeck was dispatched to command it. His brief was to provide fresh water, vegetables and meat for passing Company mariners, who suffered all kinds of deprivation on the long voyage from Europe, as well as repair their vessels.
A strategic base Dutch rule ended with the first British invasion in 1795, part of the military strategy of the Napoleonic Wars. The colony was handed back in 1803, only to be invaded again in 1806 when Napoleon once more became a danger. This time, the Congress of Vienna (1815) confirmed the British occupation and the Cape colony was formally ceded to the British. The aim was unashamedly strategic: by then, the Cape had become a naval base on the sea route to India and the Far East. The Cape became an important focus of imperial communication – a vital link between the motherland and far-flung territories. Mail ships came and went, the Royal Navy set up its local headquarters in Simon’s Town, and many thousands of eager white immigrants landed here, ready for the long trek north to make their fortunes in the diamond and gold fields. The 1890s was a decade of almost unparalleled growth as South Africa’s economy boomed. During World War I, the strategic value of the route became important, as merchant shipping which might otherwise have used the Suez Canal was diverted south. After the war, the route was no longer profitable and trade dwindled until the fresh outbreak of war in 1939, when history repeated itself.
Decline and recovery
The Egypt-Israeli war of 1967, which closed the Suez Canal, once again focused attention on the Cape. With the end of that crisis, trade sanctions were imposed on South Africa in the 1980s and traffic tailed off until the Cape’s most frequent visitors were bulky supertankers simply too big to pass through the Suez Canal. Regular passenger transport declined massively; the last mailship voyage took place in October 1977 . Today, with sanctions over, ships are queuing to get into South Africa’s ports, the cruise ships are heading south, and the future looks hopeful.