The Catacombs, February 6, 1968. Picture: Billy Monk Collection
Cape Town - An exhibition, chronicling the underground dockside culture of Cape Town during the height of apartheid will be on show at the Investec Cape Town Art Fair at the Cape Town International Convention Centre from February 15 to 17. Curated by Craig Cameron-Mackintosh, it’s a collection of 25 previously unseen nightclub photos by photographer Billy Monk.

Henry Trotter, author of Sugar Girls & Seamen: A Journey into the World of Dockside Prostitution in South Africa, tells us why these photographs are such an important part of Cape Town’s history.

A woman in every port. That’s what they say. It’s one of the most pronounced images we have of historical port interactions, that of dockside dalliances between foreign sailors and local women.

But in Cape Town, we have struggled to understand what these relationships might look like. That’s partly because most morality policing didn’t bother with port hanky-panky, preferring to focus on the pimps and prostitutes operating from brothels. Easier to nab. So there’s not much of an archival record of the dockside sex trade.

It’s also because the dockside nightclubs where sugar girls and seamen met were places of normal recreational amusements, like dancing and singing. Nothing overtly criminal in that.

So what happened in the dockside, stayed in the dockside.

The Catacombs, October 24, 1967. Picture: Billy Monk Collection

That is, until Billy Monk came around. From 1967 to 1969, Monk was a bouncer at The Catacombs, one of the dockside’s iconic clubs. Fancying himself as something of an artist, he shot hundreds of photographs of the motley mix of people who came through The Cat’s doors.

Though he did this to make extra money - selling prints as mementos to the sailors - he ended up becoming a crucial witness and participant in the underground history of this period.

Monk went on to a string of other oddball jobs. Like diamond diving in Port Nolloth, a job that may have cost him his life. In 1982, he was shot and killed in Green Point in some bizarre altercation with two men.

Newspaper reports were vague and it never became clear why. The phrase “diamond smuggling” has subsequently popped up a few times.

While Monk is now gone, his pictures live on - saved by his friend Paul Gordon and then Jac de Villiers (with David Goldblatt’s golden endorsement) and made known to the public through writer Lin Sampson in the early Eighties. The custodianship is now changing hands to Craig Cameron-Mackintosh under the Billy Monk Collection, whose focus is to safeguard and showcase this rich archive and tell Monk’s story.

Shot in the dark, but with a bright, explosive flash, Monk’s pics reveal the shadowy world of Cape Town’s dockside scene. They revivify the 1960s in raw, naive, black-and-white images, animating a recreational space duplicated in sailor towns around the world.

The pictures show The Catacombs as a large club painted with a kitschy mish-mash of heraldic crests, angels, fountains, Egyptian pyramids, wagon wheels, Chinese lanterns, life preserver rings and a Medusa. The furniture looks like repurposed office desks topped with linoleum, with chairs stolen from a grade school classroom.

The Catacombs, April 3, 1969. Picture: Billy Monk Collection

The women are dressed in ’60s minis, kitten heels, shiny tights, go-go boots and sandals. The men wear suits, turtlenecks, naval uniforms or full-on drag regalia.

While many of the photos are staged - with couples posing for the shot - many others emerge from Monk’s artistic eye. He captures the Escala exhibitionists who strip to their underwear and dance on stage next to the band. Who flash their bras or boobs. Who stand on tables singing in inebriated joy. He also captures the unposed. Drunk men and women draped on top of each other. Couples grabbing and gripping each other, kissing passionately. Heaps of bodies passed out next to their tables.

So who were these carousing and cavorting Catacombers?

First, there are local women offering their time and services to the sailors. As this was classified a “whites only” club, most of the women are white. But some also appear to be coloured women passing as white.

They’re light-skinned, but something in their features suggests a more complicated ancestry. Most look in their twenties, thirties or forties. None appear underage.

They were independent agents. The club owner would not have had any formal control over their “work”. But for this club to survive, the presence of these women was essential for getting the men in the doors and keeping them there.

Second, the sailors. In Monk’s photos we see a lot of Japanese men. Trawlermen on two-year contracts to fish the South Atlantic for tuna, using Cape Town as their base of operations. So every few months, they’d spend a week or two ashore, enjoying some R&R at places like The Cat.

This is before the days of containerisation, so the cargo ships would have had to stay in port for weeks at a time to unload and re-load the cargo holds. They would have come to the clubs often.

The Catacombs, February 28, 1967 Picture: Billy Monk Collection

Monk also captures Royal Navy lads in their uniforms. This would have been a more common sight in the ’60s, during the height of the Cold War.

Indeed, in one photo, a young man wears a cap with the name HMSEskimo on it. This was a frigate that berthed in Cape Town on its way to Beira, Mozambique - sent to enforce the sanctions against the white Rhodesian regime, which had just declared independence from Britain.

Third, there are a number of gay and transgendered folks. They look at ease there, as if they feel an equal sense of belonging in this space with the sailors and the girls. A space where their true persona can shine - atop a table, microphone in hand. It’s not clear whether any of them were there to partner incoming sailors (as prostitutes), but they would have at least found it a safe space to enjoy one another’s company.

Last, there are the coloured musicians, in bands like The Zhivagos and the Playa Boys. Such clubs might be “whites only”, but white supremacist laws typically made allowances for black entertainment. More importantly for the band members and the sailors, this offered a space where different races could jam together, as when seamen brought their own trumpets to the club to play.

But as you look at Monk’s collection, you do see one peculiar thing: the tables are full of Coca-Cola bottles, but rarely beer, wine, rum or whisky. How is that possible? As a nightclub, liquor would have been the primary item that could be marked-up, sold and profited from.

The Catacombs probably did not have a liquor licence. So they sold Coke freely, but then one would have had to smuggle in a bottle of the hard stuff as needed. Stored just off-site, like in the boot of a car. (This is what other club owners did at the time.)

In fact, Monk was able to afford the down payment on his home thanks to the under-the-table business he had going on. He sold illicit bottles of brandy, known as “Harries”, to patrons on behalf of the unlicensed club.

The Catacombs, October 13, 1967. Picture: Billy Monk Collection

But why would all of these different sorts meet at the same nightclub? Because, in times of oppression, when certain groups of people cannot express themselves openly, they must look for “third spaces” where they can enjoy a degree of acceptance. And during apartheid, there were precious few such spaces.

So foreign sailors, white and coloured prostitutes, gay men and transgendered individuals - all marginals at the time, vulnerable in their own ways - found The Cat a place where they could enjoy themselves.

That is why these pictures are so special. They reveal a unique confluence of characters, shaped by their shared history.

It has now been five decades since Monk took his illuminating photos of The Catacombs.

Since then, at least two dozen seamen’s clubs have lit up Cape Town’s red-light district, such as the Navigators’ Den, Athena, Copacabana, Topaz, Manila Bar, Disco Snack, El Greco, Club Mediterranean and Disco K.

The Catacombs, December 23, 1967. Picture: Billy Monk Collection

But as this unique maritime milieu ebbs into history, it need not recede from our memory.

This 50th anniversary of Billy Monk’s photos offers the perfect opportunity to remind ourselves of this fascinating - and important - aspect of Cape Town’s heritage.

To do so, go to the Investec Cape Town Art Fair at the Cape Town International Convention Centre from February 15 to 17 to see a collection of 25 previously unseen nightclub photos by Monk, curated by Cameron-Mackintosh.

* Trotter is author of Sugar Girls & Seamen: A Journey into the World of Dockside Prostitution in South Africa.

Cape Argus