EARLY one morning in May 1797, a small party of pleasure-seekers left the Castle on horseback for the foot of Table Mountain. The group, consisting of the friends of Andrew Barnard, then secretary in the British administration at the Cape and his vivacious wife, Lady Anne, aimed to climb to the summit via Platteklip Gorge and spend the night.
Remarkably, the small party was accompanied not only by several of their servants, but also 12 slaves hired as porters and guides to carry up a tent, mattresses, blankets, table and a campstool, as well as a plentiful amount of food and drinks.
As Lady Anne remarked in her journal: “It was an expensive party of pleasure”, as they had to pay five rixdollars per slave to their owners.
By this stage in the history of Cape Town, there was already a sharp distinction between the way the elite of society and its underclass interacted with Table Mountain.
For the privileged, the mountain was a place of leisure, of picnics and wildflower picking, while for the poor it was a place of backbreaking toil, to which they went only to chop wood, collect water or act as porters for the pleasure-seekers.
However, it was not always thus.
For many hundreds of years prior to colonial settlement, there was a group of indigenous Khoi people who lived permanently in the Table Valley (later known as Strandlopers by the Dutch) who collected shellfish at the coast as a means of subsistence. They roamed freely over the Table Mountain chain, hunting wild animals, gathering roots and harvesting wild fruits and nuts.
Larger groups of Khoi, who consisted of semi-nomadic herders (known as Saldanhars or Kaapmans by the Dutch) migrated annually to their traditional grazing land in the Table Valley to pasture their cattle and sheep and to establish their encampments in the foothills and forests of Table Mountain.
In addition to living on the mountain and using it for subsistence, indigenous people also used it as a place of refuge, with the local inhabitants rushing their families off to the mountain ahead of any skirmish which might endanger them.
The close interaction these indigenous people had with the mountain continued uninterrupted during the first contact with European explorers from the late 15th century onwards, when European ships called at the Cape on their way to the East to take on fresh water and barter for cattle with the local inhabitants.
This was the way of life at the Cape when Jan van Riebeeck arrived in 1652 to establish a refreshment station to provide fresh food and meat for Dutch ships on their way to the East.
The official journal which he and his men kept at the time contains numerous references to Khoi encampments in the forests in the Wynberg and Hout Bay areas and near the pastures on the lower mountain slopes.
The free access which the permanent and semi-nomadic people had to their traditional lands in and around the Table Valley was inexorably curtailed as the Dutch made their intention to establish a permanent settlement clear.
Encroachment was gradual but relentless and by 1657 the small settlement began slowly expanding into the erstwhile grazing, hunting and gathering lands of both the permanent and semi-nomadic inhabitants of the Table Valley.
That land loss would be inevitable, was evident on the very day that van Riebeeck and his men went to view land on the eastern side of Table Mountain which he had decided to grant to Dutch freemen to establish farms.
Not only was this area regularly used by the Khoi for their camps, there was a Khoi encampment there at the time. Thus when Van Riebeeck was overheard talking about establishing farms by Autshumato of the Strandlopers (known as Harry by the Dutch) and the chief of the Khoi group already camped there, they asked where they were supposed to go.
Van Riebeeck noted in the Company journal that the group was not happy with his response that they could live under the protection of the Dutch and that there was grazing enough for all.
Moreover, despite knowing the land earmarked for farms was already occupied, the Dutch went ahead with their scheme for expansion.
By 1658 the Khoi were under such pressure in their traditional lands on and around Table Mountain, they were forced to seek permission for continued access to their pasture lands in present day Kloof Nek and behind Lion’s Head. But since this land had been appropriated to graze the Company’s cattle, permission was refused and the Khoi were only allowed to pasture their cattle along the Twelve Apostles mountain chain.
With the continued encroachment of the settlement into the traditional lands of the Khoi people, conflict was inevitable, first occurring in 1659 when the Khoi attacked the sawyer, Cornelis, who had been granted land to fell timber in the present day Kirstenbosch area.
This signalled the beginning of a steady and relentless process of land dispossession of the indigenous inhabitants of the Cape, as Van Riebeeck regarded the inevitable victory of the settlers as the fruits of conquest.
The loss of power by the Khoi, which was bound up with the loss of their land, was starkly symbolised by the fact that they could now no longer gather bitter almonds on the mountain or dig for roots there whenever they chose, as permission to do so first had to be sought and Van Riebeeck, as commander of the Cape, refused permission on the grounds the colonists themselves needed the almonds to plant a barrier against incursions by the Khoi.
Bitter indeed was the irony, since the bitter almonds traditionally eaten by the Khoi were to be used against them, to keep them out of the land they had now lost.
The remnants of this self-same hedge are still to be seen at Kirstenbosch today.
Thus, within only six years of Van Riebeeck’s landing, the Khoi had lost the Table Valley and with it, unrestricted access to their grazing and encampment grounds on and around the Table Mountain chain.
This land loss marked the beginning of a process of alienation from the natural environment in general and Table Mountain in particular.
From the 18th century onwards, the interaction of the remnant Khoi groups, the growing slave population and the emerging black underclass of free men and women to Table Mountain was very different to that which had existed earlier. While the poor continued to use the mountain for subsistence – fetching water from the mountain’s springs, collecting wood for home use and sale and collecting indigenous plants for personal medicinal use – the mountain was now primarily a place of work, where male slaves were sent to collect wood and female slaves did the family washing in the streams.
Slaves living on the farms situated on the lower slopes of the mountain toiled in the vineyards and in the fields and were also used as porters, carrying the specimens gathered by a growing number of foreign botanists, naturalists and scientists attracted by the natural riches of Table Mountain.
By the early 19th century, picnicking at beauty spots on the lower slopes of the mountain where carriages could reach was a popular pastime among the elite and large parties accompanied by servants and slaves carrying food, drink, rugs and chairs were regularly seen along scenic routes to Constantia, along the lower reaches of Lion’s Head, as well as over Kloof Nek to Camps Bay.
By the mid-19th century, walks to the summit of Table Mountain via Platteklip Gorge or trips on horseback via Constantia Nek began to emerge as a leisure pursuit among the governing classes of Cape Town.
Typically, these parties hired a number of porters to act as guides, to carry their abundant provisions (including wine with which to fortify themselves on the way up) and to prepare a “Champagne tiffin” to welcome them when they reached the top.
Meanwhile, poor women who took in washing as a means of making a living worked lower down the mountain, lining the banks of the streams flowing down Table Mountain in large groups with their tucked up petticoats, beating the linen of affluent families on the rocks.
The divide in the way in which the privileged and the poor related to Table Mountain persisted well into the 20th century.
Hence, the leisure use of the mountain, particularly the growing sport of mountaineering and rope climbing, was monopolised by those who had the leisure and affluence required to afford this expensive past-time and the power to exclude people from their ranks on the grounds of ethnicity or race, as shown by the membership composition of the Mountain Club of South Africa (MCSA).
Jews were excluded from the club until the 1940s, while the first black member was only accepted in 1986.
So it isn’t surprising a separate mountain club, the Cape Province Mountain Club, was established in District Six in 1931 to cater for those excluded from the MCSA.
It would not be until the mid-20th century that mountain hiking, climbing and camping began to be taken up with enthusiasm by large numbers of people from historically disadvantaged communities, especially the youth – as may be seen in a small collection of joyous photographs housed in the District Six Museum.
It was during this period that the mountain played an especially important role in the lives of such communities, offering a refuge from the harsh reality of the apartheid world they ordinarily inhabited. The mountain chain, with its myriad entry points, was open to all, as the authorities had not been able to devise ways to impose apartheid on this huge area.
During pre-colonial times, the permanent and seasonal inhabitants of the Cape had enjoyed a positive relationship with the Table Mountain chain – the mountain provided resources for their subsistence, grazing for their cattle, shelter for their encampments and refuge in times of turmoil.
Notwithstanding the history of alienation inflicted by dispossession and the socio-economic and racial stratification of Cape Town during the intervening centuries, our mountain heritage, from which the majority still remains estranged, needs to be reclaimed.
For all those who call Cape Town home, we need to overcome our divided history of interaction with the Table Mountain chain and all become pleasure-seekers and protectors of our mountain heritage.
l Dr Khan is an independent researcher, with an interest in heritage.