Dr Abdullah Abdurahman (1872-1940)

Dr Abdullah Abdurahman, is known as the first black councillor in Cape Town. On looking into his life, he was clearly so much more than this.

Portrait of Dr Abdullah Abdurahman: top right in the mural within the Bo Kaap

I used to see thousands of tourists clicking away at picturesque buildings, not really paying attention to the portrait of the gentleman in the top right hand corner.

Dr Abdurahman was born in Wellington to fairly wealthy parents, who were able to afford him the opportunity of education. He studied at the SA College Schools, Newlands (which went on to become the University of Cape Town), and then to the University of Glasgow to study medicine, qualifying a doctor in 1893.

On returning to Cape Town, he set up his own successful private practice, plus entered into the world of politics.

In 1904, Dr Abdurahman was elected as the first coloured city councillor, and used this role to improve education by establishing the first secondary school for the coloured community. It was not an easy role in the beginning, facing the challenges of his white colleagues not wishing to sit next to him meetings, but he was a gifted orator and charismatic leader that soon these challenges would get easier.

He was the first coloured person to be elected to the Cape Provincial Council in 1914, a position he held until his passing in 1949.

His greatest political achievement was his election to President of the African Political Organisation, effectively the first political party to represent the coloured community against racial oppression. Dr Abdurahman led two unsuccessful delegations to London to secure rights for the coloured community, and it was only later between 1927-1934, that he started to work with African political leaders.

His efforts were finally rewarded in 1999, when Mr Mandela awarded him the Order of Meritorious Service Class I (Gold), for his contribution to making a united Democratic South Africa

Events and buildings are often discussed on our private walking tours, but I think it is really important to focus equal attention people.

The discovery of diamonds, a significant event which shaped the early part of the 20th century, lead to a significant wealth available to the Public Works Department having the funds to employ experienced architects from England.

Charles Freeman (1833 - 1911), arrived in South Africa in 1863 at the age of 30 years, recruited by the Natal government architectural branch. Nine years later he moved to Cape Town where he was awarded the tender (over six other local competitors), to build the Houses of Parliament. Shortly afterwards, it was established that Freeman's plans were flawed as he had not taken into consideration the presence of ground water leading to controversy over the overall design and costing for the Houses of Parliament. Freeman was fired and replaced by Harry Greaves)

It was however not all bad news for Freeman who went on to establish his own private practice in Upper Strand street, Cape Town and was very successful. Some of his famous buildings in Cape Town include: Methodist Church, Greenmarket Square (1878), Standard Bank Building, Adderley st (1880), and the Grand Hotel (1894), the first five star hotel in Cape Town, commissioned by the Union steamship company (demolished).

Standard Bank Building, Adderley St
Historical photo of Adderley St, taken around 1910, featuring the Standard Bank building

Controversy caught up with Freeman again, as he was the agent for Macfarlane's Castings and plate glass, and a conflict of interest was identified with him using these materials in his buildings. The expansion of plate glass used in the shop front windows along Adderley st, is largely attributed to Charles Freeman.

Methodist Church, Greenmarket Square
Union-Castle Ship in Cape Town

There are many people in Cape Town who have fond memories of the Union-Castle shipping line, either because they were lucky enough to travel on one of their ships, or because they brought their mail, comics and magazines from England.

It certainly has an interesting history.

In 1853 the Union Line was established (then called the Southampton Steam Shipping Company), transporting coal from South Wales to Southampton for the large liners. In 1854, all their five ships were taken over as transports for the Crimean War, returned to their owners two years later, but stood idle due to coal stockpiles in Southampton.

A year later, 1857, the Union Line was contracted to transport mail to South Africa, leaving Southampton every Thursday, the first being on the Dane, September 15.

Donald Currie owned the Castle Packet Co. and with his four ships operated the Liverpool to Calcutta route (sailing around the Cape of Good Hope), until business declined with the opening of the Suez Canal 1869. From 1869, the Castle Packet Company also started transporting mail to South Africa.

In 1872, the Cape Colony was granted the status "Responsible Government" with the first Prime Minister being John Molteno. Molteno was keen to avoid a monopoly and granted joint contracts to both companies of the condition that the two companies would not merge. According to the 1888 contract, amalgamation was forbidden, so identical services were offered by both companies leaving alternatively every Thursday (Union from Southampton, Castle from London), tickets were interchangeable.

Discovery of gold in South Africa, increased the number of travellers to South Africa, which created the two shipping lines to try and compete with other on the quality of the services on board the ship and the speed of travelling between England and South Africa.

In 1890, the Castle Mail Packers Company introduced the 5625 ton Dumottar Castle ship (a superior ship, offering different classes and which Winston Churchill travelled on when he was a reporter during the Anglo-Boer War).

The Union responded with a bigger ship (Scot) and reduced the sailing time to 15 days.

This fierce rivalry created more luxurious, faster ships, and led both companies to look at opportunities to create a luxury hotel in Cape Town for the wealthy British travellers. Union opened the first luxury hotel, The Grand Hotel, in 1894, the Castle responded by opening the Mount Nelson Hotel in 1899. This fierce competition created a financial strain for the Union Line, and in 1900, with the new mail contracts, having had the forbidden amalgamation clause removed, Donald Currie approached the Union Line to merge the two companies and the became the Union-Castle Line in May 1900.

Mount Nelson Hotel

The grounds of the Mount Nelson Hotel have an interesting history, but today I will be looking at the opening day, March 1, 1899.

Sir Donald Currie (knighted in 1881), founder of African Lands and Hotels Limited, (and owner of the Castle shipping line), purchased the grounds for 20,000 pounds and the title deeds were registered to him Feb 1, 1898.

The old mansion house gave way to a brand new hotel with 150 rooms, a bar, laundry (stables for horses, transporting guests to and from the docks in the horse-drawn omnibus), and electricity for lighting and heating.

The Carisbrooke Castle, arriving Tuesday February 28, 1899, brought the first pioneer guests to stay at the Mount Nelson Hotel and on Saturday March 4, the Mount Nelson hotel hosted a grand opening for guests including the contractors, architects, Castle employees and the Press. The new manger of the hotel, Mr Emile Cathrein (perfect for this role as he already owned a number of large hotels in Switzerland and experienced at offering a luxury service to his guests), announced in his opening speech that the Mount Nelson was not created in response to competition, but filling a much wanted need for the travelling public.

After multiple speeches and lunch, the Mount Nelson hotel was officially open.

The Key Ceremony at the Castle of Good Hope

One of my most common questions/comments is why our Castle of Good Hope does not look like a castle, but a fort?

The very first castle was a square, and when Jan van Riebeeck left Cape Town (after ten years of service as the Governor), in 1662 for Batavia, he left behind an inadequate defense system for the newly appointed Governor Zacharias Wagenaar.

Two years later, 1664, war broke out between Britain and the Netherlands, so the VOC sent instructions that a stronger fort was required.

Medieval castles (Europe), had traditional towers, a wall and moat so that archers could fire down from the towers, plus act as retreat for further resistance should the castle wall be breached. With the improved gunpowder quality and gun-making techniques, these designs became more vulnerable as muzzle speeds increased with a greater weight of shot.

Isbrand Goske arrived at the Cape with his assistant, Peter Dombaer (master builder and engineer) and brought with them the plans for the new castle. These plans were based on the new modern type fortress made famous by the French fortress engineer, Sebastian Vauban. Vauban's designs included geometric design which established clear lines of fire and at the same time offering concealment and protection.

Outline plan of original fort compared to new Castle

Intial ideas were to build the new castle around the original fort, and once completed, demolish the fort. It was decided that this would not work as it would leave the Cape without any defense. Once the new site was selected close by, the mammoth task began.

Behind the buildings in the distance, Signal Hill (with the trees on the top), where the rocks were taken from to build the castle

Stone was taken from the granite outcrop on Signal Hill. Long holes were bored into the rock, filled with gunpowder and resealed for maximum explosion to displace the rock. The rocks were broken up and transported to the site in a cart drawn by six oxen.

The Castle walls

At the building site, 200 soldiers cleared the shrubbery and began digging the foundation. Shells were transported from Robben Island and burned to obtain lime which were mixed with clay (ratio of 1:1) for mortar. Two lime kilns were built and imposed a strain on depleting firewood at the Cape.

Foundation stone

January 2, 1666, the foundation stone was laid by Wagenaar and for the 300 workmen a feast of 2 oxen, 6 sheep, 100 loaves of bread, and 8 barrels of beer.

It is believed that the foundation stone lays underneath Leerdam bastion.

Statue of Mr Mandela, City Hall

Unveiled on July 24, 2018, this bronze statue of Nelson Mandela, installed in exactly the same spot where he made his speech to the gathering crowds on the Grand Parade (February 11, 1990)

The tender for the statue was awarded to Koketso Growth (headed up by Dali Thambo), who in turn commissioned the two artists, Barry Jackson and Xhanti Mpakama.

Mr Mandela elected to speak to the crowds on the lower balcony so the he could be closer to his people

The Bronze statue stands at 1.95m and weighs 120kg. Originally Jackson and Mpakama prepared a maquette, and after receiving approval, the final model was 3D printed in foam, and finally the statue was cast in bronze. Attention to detail was key, artists gave the appearance of his grey suit, polka dot tie and used the same text featured in braiile.

On February 11, 1990, Mr Mandela left his reading glasses in the vehicle and borrowed Winnie Mandela's to read his speech.

Jackson and Mpakama placed Winnie Mandela's glasses in his hand to tribute historical accuracy to what happened on that day
Today you walk up the few steps at the City Hall and get a perspective as to how close Mr Mandela was to the crowds on the Grand Parade
Taken from the archives, Mr Mandela reading his speech, February 11, 1990 (wearing Winnie Mandela's glasses)
July 24, 2018, the unveiling of the statue with Helen Zille, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Patricia DeLille and Alan Winde
To give you some perspective where Mr Mandela stood at the City Hall

Artists Barry Jackson and Xhanti Mpakama have collaborated on numerous bronze statues which can be visited at The Long March to Freedom, Century City

Dutch East Indiaman Africa

This model of the Dutch East Indiaman Africa is located inside the museum at the Castle of Good Hope. She was built in Rotterdam in 1673 and on her fourth voyage she arrived at the Cape in July 1683, but sank April 1684 in a storm north of Mauritius on the return voyage.

The East Indiamnn were large, armed ships carrying passengers and cargo and built specifically for the trading routes between Europe and Asia. They were designed to carry as much cargo as possible rather than speed, and when their need demised, they were ultimately replaced during the late 1830s with a smaller, faster ship, the Blackwall Frigate.

Dutch East Indiaman Amsterdam (replica at the Maritime museum, Amsterdam
Dutch East Indiamen Amsterdam (replica at Maritime museum, Amsterdam)

To get a idea about life on board one of these ships the Maritime museum, Amsterdam has built a life-size replica of the Dutch East Indiaman Amsterdam, which you can go on board, visit, plus enjoy a virtual reality experience (takes you back a few centuries to life on board one of these types of ships).

On deck of the Dutch Indiaman Amsterdam
On board the replica of the Dutch East Indiaman Amsterdam
So many cannons on board, the East Indiamen ships were well-armed to protect from pirates
Plenty of wine on board

Lesley Cox

As Cape Town (and the rest of the world) experience lockdown I am spending the next 21 days writing short posts on some of the historical aspects of our city centre. This is something I have been meaning to do for ages, but while tour guiding the days run away. Now is the perfect opportunity for me show you some of our historical gem spots.

The Grand Parade

The Grand Parade has hardly changed in the last 350 years as old photos reveal it as a place for markets and gatherings

The Key Ceremony

The best place to view the Grand Parade is by entering the Castle and climbing up the steps on to the perimeter


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