Cape Town Feature

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Cape History at a Glance

It's said that Cape Town owes its very existence to Table Mountain. The freshwater streams running off its slopes were what first prompted early explorers to anchor here. In 1652 Jan van Riebeeck and 90 Dutch settlers established a refreshment station for ships of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) on the long voyage east. The settlement represented the first European toehold in South Africa, and Cape Town is still called the Mother City.

Those first Dutch settlers soon ventured into the interior to establish their own farms, and 140 years later the settlement supported a population of 20,000 whites and 25,000 slaves brought from distant lands like Java, Madagascar, and Guinea. Its strategic position on the cusp of Africa, however, meant that the colony never enjoyed any real stability. The British occupied the Cape twice, first in 1795 and then more permanently in 1806, bringing with them additional slaves from Ceylon, India, and the Philippines. Destroyed or assimilated in this colonial expansion were the indigenous Khoekhoen (previously called Khoikhoi and Hottentots), who once herded cattle and foraged along the coast.

Diamond and gold discoveries in central and northern South Africa in the late 1800s pulled focus away from Cape Town, and Pretoria, near Johannesburg, was designated the capital in 1860. In 1910, Cape Town was named the legislative capital, and it remains so today. The diamond and gold boom fueled rapid development in Cape Town and throughout the country.

The wounds of the 20th century belong to apartheid. While apartheid ended in the 1990s, its legacy still festers, and although the city is made up of many nationalities that mingle happily, it remains divided along racial, economic, and physical lines. As you drive into town along the N2 from the airport, you can't miss the shacks built on shifting dunes as far as the eye can see—a sobering contrast to the first-world luxury of the city center.

Much of South Africa's rich and fascinating history is reflected in Cape Town. Most of the sites worth seeing are packed into a small area, which means you can see a lot in just a few hours. Mandela's tiny jail cell at Robben Island has been preserved, and you can learn about his banishment there as well as about the ecological significance of the island. The District Six Museum tells the heartbreaking story of the apartheid-era demolition of one of Cape Town's most vibrant neighborhoods, and the Bo-Kaap Museum tells the story of the city's Muslim community, who settled here after the abolition of slavery. For a taste of the city's long naval history, visit Simon's Town. The Castle of Good Hope, former seat of the British and Dutch governments and still the city's military headquarters, is the oldest colonial building still standing in South Africa.

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