Take a sho't left to the corner of Somerset Road and Buitengracht Street and you'll come face to face with a haunting reminder of Cape Town's colonial past: Prestwich Square Memorial - the final resting place of thousands of unnamed Cape slaves. Picture: Lee Delcie/African News Agency (ANA)

Cape Town - Green Point: an enclave of Cape Town's posh suburban landscape interspersed with chic cafes, fashionable restaurants, and home to the city's "gay village".

But scratch beneath its richly-honed surface and you'll discover that the upmarket district, dubbed the "Soho of Cape Town", is home to something more symbolic than just overpriced coffee and its eponymously-named white elephant of a football stadium.

Take a sho't left to the corner of Somerset Road and Buitengracht Street and you'll come face to face with a haunting reminder of Cape Town's colonial past: Prestwich Square Memorial - the final resting place of thousands of unnamed Cape slaves. 

The story goes that back in 2003, during the construction of a new luxury apartment complex on nearby Prestwich Street, bulldozers uncovered something other than just topsoil and debris. 

During their excavation, construction workers unearthed at least 2 000 human bones in an expansive 20 metre-long burial ground of thousands of slaves, which archaeologists from UCT later dated as between 180 to 270 years old. 

The South African Heritage Resources Agency allowed an archaeological team to exhume the bones - despite protests, which were re-buried in 2008 at their new burial ground - the Prestwich Memorial. 

Picture: Lee Delcie/African News Agency (ANA)

It's in an ossuary in this single-storey building where 2 500 individual boxes containing the remains - and untold histories - of the unidentified slaves today line rows of shelves. Numbered and noted, they provide a stark visual reminder of the memories of some of the people whose very blood and bones built the foundations of this country's history, and who are now interred here for time immemorial.

The symbolism behind the location of the memorial isn't lost, either. The memorial is built next to the country's first Presbyterian Church, which, after slavery in the Cape colony was abolished in 1838, was the first church to allow freed slaves a place to worship. 

The discovery of the bones, the first of its kind of this magnitude in the country, led to the halting of the proposed property development and threw a spotlight on the often untold stories of the city's tragic slave history. It's a story early historians often omitted from their recompenses of the Cape, focusing instead on the successes of the Dutch settlers who maintained a flourishing slave trade in the colony from the mid 17th to the early 19th century. 

More bones in unmarked graves have been discovered in and around the Green Point area since the 2003 discovery - along Alfred Street, Chiappini Street and Napier Street. But, unlike the bones found in Prestwich Street, none of these remains have been marked or commemorated in any way. Instead, every day, thousands of people walk the streets of Green Point, oblivious to the fact that they're walking on mass graves. 

While the true identities of the thousands of slaves may never be known, the preservation of their remains at the memorial site offers some repatriation for their contributions to building the Cape colony. 

However, the memorial's significance is often overshadowed due to its juxtaposition to another building.

The popular Truth Coffee Roasting coffeehouse is situated adjacent to the memorial centre. On any given day, droves of coffee-lovers, including your quintessential Cape hipster-types, frequent the trendy coffee establishment; many, without batting an eyelid at the conspicuous building next door. 

There's no smelling the coffee of the truth behind Truth either. No branding or imagery identifies the symbolic mausoleum a mere 30 metres away.

Weekend Argus

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