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Peninsula was almost an island, with a canal from Table Bay to False Bay

Published Sep 27, 2018


One of the more fanciful proposals to receive serious consideration during the first decade of European settlement at the Cape was the plan to turn the Peninsula into an island by cutting a canal from Table Bay to False Bay.

This was first mooted by Jan van Riebeeck in response to an incident in October 1653 when the Dutch lad who tended the livestock was murdered by disgruntled Khoikhoi while the armed guard was fetching food from the cook.

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The rustlers achieved complete surprise and 42 of the Company’s precious cattle and draught oxen were driven off towards Hout Bay, aggravating tensions between the interlopers and the locals.

Van Riebeeck began to think about physical boundaries and systems of defence, questions that would occupy his mind for several years.

He first raised the possibly of digging a canal in April 1654. Canals were common features in the Dutch landscape and the idea was favourably received by the Lords Seventeen. Visiting commissioner Rijckloff van Goens, sr, (1619-1682) ordered Van Riebeeck to plot a route and measure the distance when he visited the Cape briefly a year later.

However, the commander’s enthusiasm had cooled by then and he wrote to Batavia outlining his reservations regarding the terrain and the large number of labourers that would be needed.

A line of forts and redoubts seemed a better option.

The order remained, however, and in February 1656 Van Riebeeck travelled to False Bay with an escort of soldiers to see “whether a canal could be constructed across the flats in order to make this Cape into an island”.

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The investigation revealed that the Liesbeek River and various tributaries, streams and lakelets were for the most part interconnected and flowed sluggishly into large brackish lake (today’s Zeekoevlei). However, the remaining stretch to False Bay was blocked by 10 or 12 successive ranges of high sand dunes which could not be cut through.

He strongly recommended that the project be dropped as it was devoid of advantages and would cost millions of guilders without profit to the Company.

Seven months after sending his report, an answer arrived from the Netherlands. The canal project was to be abandoned and permission was given to build a redoubt to house a garrison of 12 to 15 men. Commissioner Van Goens would examine the site during his next visit in March 1657.

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Van Goens, an energetic former general and admiral, inspected the whole Cape territory from end to end, including the “isthmus” between the two bays. Next, he sent surveyors to beacon off the shortest distance between them in a straight line - and ordered them back when they made a mess of their first attempt. Van Riebeeck could only bite his tongue and bide his time.

More to follow.

* Jackie Loos' "The Way We Were" column is published in the Cape Argus every week.

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** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus

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