Legends of the Cape of Good Hope

Stories from the Cape of Good Hope or the infamous Cape of Storms

The Cape of Storms

No one who has seen the vast and mysterious-looking bulk of Table Mountain looming up out of the ocean as their ship draws slowly through the dawn towards the southernmost tip of Africa could fail to be awed and impressed by this unique sight.

As Bartholomew Dias, the Portugese explorer who discovered the Cape in 1488, must have been. Standing on the deck of his tiny ship as the strange landfall slowly reared its mass above the horizon, he must have thought that he was witnessing the upsurge of some gigantic Titan of the deep – a Titan with it’s head veiled in the white clouds of the south easter wind, and it’s voice the roar of the yeasty tides that foamed around it’s feet. With him to share at this inspiring moment was a man who was to become a singular link between African and the discovery of American – Bartholomew Columbus, brother of the famed Christopher Columbus, who discovered America.

Camoes, the Portugese poet who describes in his beautiful poem Lusiadas, tells how the Titan Adamastor was condemned to dwell imprisoned forever in the ‘furtherest confines of the south’ – the Cape of Storms. This sentence was passed by Jupiter when the Titans had been vanquished after a war that lasted between these dieties for ten years. Jupiter remained in peaceful possesion of Heaven, and Adamastor and his brother Titans were incarcerated in huge mountains scattered around the world. Adamastor filled with bitterness at his imprisonment, and at losing the love of the beautiful Thetis, queen of the sea, swore eternal vengence on all who would approach him and disturb his brooding solitude. He shouted his rage to Dias;

‘. . . . Until now,

None of the human race has ever burst the ancient bounds

or come, like Jason with his Argonauts

in search for fleece of gold,

within the limits of my dread domain.

This you have done, and like the Delphic oracle

to you I speak these words of warning and of doom.’

The vengence of Adamastor was very real to the Portugese. they paid dearly in human lives for their enterprise in opening the sea route around the tip of Africa to the east. Dias made the return trip in safety, but in 1500 he made a second voyage to the sinister Cape of Storms, commanding one of the 14 ships belonging to Peter Cabral. Dias was on his way to Sofala (the legendary African port of gold) when the vengence of Adamastor overtook him.

As they battled to round the Cape, the fleet encountered a storm so violent that four of the ships vanished without a trace. The others battered and torn, were forced to turn back and lick their wounds.

Alas, Dias’s ship was one of the four that vanished, and Adamastor’s words of doom were fulfilled. from this sad disaster appears to have sprung the legend of the Flying Dutchman.

And that’s the end of that story!

The Flying Dutchman

This tale features in the lore of many sea-going nations, differing only in the nationality of the cursed individual. In all the cases, the legend is basically the same: a captain and his phantom ship with its ghostly crew are doomed to spend all eternity trying to double the Cape, but are always blown back by storms. The Flying Dutchman is one of the worlds most famous ghosts; In the forth centuary guise of the Hollander Captain Van der Decken ( who purportedly diced with the Devil for his soul) he has been sighted by many salors.

Therse reports were made seriously and in good faith, and were entered into the logs of the ships that sighted his own vessel. A famous instance occurred on the11th July 1881. One of the boats sailing in a special squadron under Louis of Battenburg ( Great uncle of the present Duke of Edinburgh) was the HMS Bacchante. On it a certain young midshipman, later king George V of Britain, recorded in his diary:

‘At four a.m. the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows.’

The lookout man on the forecastle reported that the ship was close to the portbow, where the officer of the watch also saw her clearly:

‘. . . a strange red light, as of a phantom ship, all aglow, in the midst of which light the mast, spars and sail of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up.’

And that’s the end of that story!

Two other warships, the Cleopatra and the Tourmaline which were steaming in company with the Bacchante, also sighted the phantom. to sailors the appearance of the Flying Dutchman was always regarded as an evil omen and in this encounter true to legend, their fears were proven well grounded. barely seven hours later, the royal midshipman relates:

The ordinary seaman who had reported the Flying Dutchman fell from the topmast cross-trees, and was smashed to atoms. His body was committed to the deep with full navy honours, and his mess mates were left certain that Van der Decken had gained another member for his ghostly crew.’

The Flying Dutchman ledgend has it, will always hail any other vessel in sight so that the phantom crew can send letters to the families and homes they left so long ago.

The Flying Dutchman has been seen by many people simultaneously. A great crowd of holiday makers on Glencairn beach, near Simonstown, watched her for as long as half an hour, and in 1939 she was clearly seen sailing off the Muizemberg coast. In 1959 the Dutch freighter Straat Majelhaen reported seeing ‘a huge windjammer’ coming straight towards it’. Her sails were full set, and a man was seen at the wheel. She appeared so swiftly out of the night that there was no chance of avoiding a collision, but just as she was about to strike she seemed to disintegrate, and vanish before their eyes.

How the Mountain got its Tablecloth

No tale about Table mountain could be better known than that of the confirmed old smoker and retired pirate, Van Hunks. Van Hunks’s haunt is the prominent clump of rocks standing in the saddle of land that connects Devil’s Peak to Table Mountain, “Breakfast rocks”. His actual home is said to have been in Cape Town, and several houses long since demolished, were thought to have been his original abode.

Sitting in the lee of breakfast rock on the saddle when the south-easter starts blowing and watching the fabled table cloth cascading over the face of table Mountain, one can almost picture the following scene taking place. . . .

It seems that Van Hunks suffered one thing in common with another famous compatriot of his, Rip van Winkle: they were both afflicted by nagging wives. in Rip’s case, he was driven out by his wife because as he was a young and able bodied man, she felt he should help more with the chores around the house. In escaping these wearisome tasks he took refuge in the Catskill Mountains were he fell into his celebrated sleep.

Van Hunks on the other hand was no longer young when he took to the mountians to get away from the sharp tongue of his wife. Although he had been a rogue and a fearless villian all his pirating days, the sound of his wife bearing down in a rage aroused more fear in him than the shadow of the gallows tree! He was no match against a broadside from her fiery tongue. The trouble was that she could not stand the smell of his old pipe and the strong shag with which he filled it. If he dared to light up this beloved comforter in the vicinity of her nostrils, out he went, willy-nilly! he only climbed the mountain in summer; the cold spray from the seven seas had seeped into his bones and in winter he would take his aching joints into the taverns instead.

But in good weather, high on the saddle of land on the mountain, he would light up his old clay pipe and settle himself comfortably on a warm boulder, and send clouds of blue smoke wafting up from the old pipe, a small keg of the best black shag tobacco cradled btween his knees.

One day he was slightly disturbed to find his solitude invaded by a rather odd looking figure who was climbing the mountain towards him. The stranger seemed to have some difficulty walking – as though his boots were a size too small for him. An old black frieze coat hung to his knees, almost brushing the heads of the purple bushes of erica as he shuffled upwards, and an old wool hat was pulled well down over his eyes.

He dropped down on a comfortable rock next to Van Hunks, and mopped his brow. Van Hunks thought he saw steam emanating from under the brim of his wool hat.

Sit down a moment and cool off matey,’ said Van Hunks kindly. It’s warm enough for the Devil himself today!’

The stranger gave him a peculiar stare from beneath his slanting eyebrows, but said nothing. Van Hunks puffed awhile in silence. The stranger puzzled him. Surely he had seen him before somewhere? Unaccountably Van Hunks was reminded of some of the worst scenes from his pirating days: he seemed to hear the screams of the chained slaves as the great Spanish galleasses sank below the shark infested waves of Hispaniola, and the gurgle of a captive swingingf rom the yard arm; the reek of gunpowder was in his nostrils as he led his whooping, blood-stained pack over the side of a reeling, desperate galleon, death-locked with grapnels to his own looming ship. and through it all – a press of contorted faces and screaming mouths – hovered into view while the face of this stranger now sitting so peacefully beside him looked on…..

Van hunks started, as if awakening from a bad dream. The noise of battle and sudden death sank to mere whispers amid the silver trees; then the lonely cry of a wheeling seagull was the only sound.

The stranger spoke in a deep voice.

Well mynheer Van Hunks’, he said affably. ‘It is good to sit here and smoke. It soothes the nerves and clouds old unpleasant memories. Unfortunately I have run out of tobacco, or I would join you’. He tapped the bowl end of a large black pipe which stuck out of his back pocket.

You know my name? said Van Hunks suspiciously.

Oh I know everyone,’ replied the stranger sweepingly. ‘Don’t worry, as for you, Ilike what I know. You are a man after my own heart.’ Van Hunks, relieved, pushed the keg of shag towards the stranger. Fill up, mate,’ he growled. ‘The past is past and I’ve no quarrels left with anyone. I’ve lived a full life and enjoyed every minute of it. This tobacco is the best and I smoke more of it, Mynheer, than any man alive.’ ‘A great statement,’ said the stranger mildly, digging into the keg with his long sinewy fingers. ‘In the port that I hail from we smoke day and night and I’ll wager you here and now that I can smoke more than you at a single sitting!.

Now if there was one thing that could make Van Hunks sit up and take notice, it was the chance of a good wager. ‘What stakes, What stakes? The old pirate growled eagerly.

The stranger leaned forward.

‘Your soul against a barquentine of red gold,’ he whispered evilly, his reddish eyes glinting.

Van Hunks roared in his beared, ‘You’re a rum cove! My soul went by the board years ago matey! And as for your red gold. I’ve enough hid away for many a rainy Cape winter yet. However, a bet is a bet and I will smoke against you for the sheer love of the thing!’

Then Van Hunks upended his Keg of strong black shag and poured the leaf into two equal heaps on a convenient flat rock. ‘Share and share alike,’ he grunted. ‘I think you will find we are equal.’

‘Fair and genourous,’ agreed the stranger. Let us begin.’

A long silence followed, broken only by the steadypuffing of the Clay pipes and an occasional gurgle as a pull was taken of Van Hunk’s flask to wet a dry gullet.

soon, down went the sun behind the mountains, and the moon came up behind the Tygerberg, lighting thewaves to a silver shimmer below them; but on they puffed, neither one giving way to the other. And gradually, a choking white cloud grew around them.

By morning the entiire top of Table Mountain was hidden beneath billowing folds. The cloud poured down the rock faces like a white waterfall and the burghers below closed their doors and windows and sat indoors in wonderment. The wind tossed the huge cloud about and roared with glee. Never had a south-easter such as this descended on the city of Cape Town since Van Riebeeck first planted his hedge of Almond trees in Kirstenbosch!

Still the two smoked on, and the cloud grew. The bristly face of Van Hunks had grown red and sweaty, and his breathing was laboured; but his companion was in a far worse state: his sinister countenance had first turned white, then green, and at last he rolled off his boulder seat with a terrible groan, ‘Brimestone and sulphur are as nothing to this truly devilish poison,’ he gasped.’Quick give me a drink – I burn, I burn!

Van Hunks sympathetically passed his flask across. There what did I tell you? No one can stand up to an old roaring rover like Van Hunks!’ The stranger threw back his head and took a long pull. The liquor sizzeled and smoked as it went down his throat, and his wool hat fell off!

Van Hunks found himself staring at two sharp horns that adorned the strangers head.

‘Horns!’ he gasped. Old scratch, as I’m a sinner!

The very devil himself!’

With a screech, the creature jumped out of his coat, boots and all, and exposed himself in his full rightful regalia of pointed tail and cloven hooves. ‘Right again, Van Hunks,’ he crowed, and I don’t like to play a losing game!’

There was a great blaze of lightening, and a smell of sulphur, and the white cloud was momentarily illuminated by a red glow – then it whirled skywardsin blinding fragments. Finally, the tumult ceased and the mist cleared, rolling away to reveal neither the stranger, nor Van Hunks – only a bare patch of scorched earth where they had sat, the charred remains of two pipes, and an empty keg of black shag tobacco . . .

From that day, the area became know as Devil’s Peak. When the south-easter blows, those who are old and wise will look up at the tumbling white cloud and say, ‘The Devil and Van Hunks are at it again!’

And that’s the end of that story!

Groot Constantia

We cannot pass by without mentioning the beautiful homestead of Groot Constantia, nestling amid its oak trees and vineyards. This great house, a perfect blending of Dutch-German design, was built in 1685 by the director of the Dutch East India Company, Henrik van Rheede, Lord of Mydrecht, who bestowed it upon the Governor, Simon van der Stel. As a token of gratitude, it is said that Van der Stel named the valley and house after Mydrecht’s daughter, Constance.

Simon van der Stel was particularly fond of taking a constitutional dip in the little ornamental swimming bath, situated a short way above the house.

Leading to this pleasant pool is an avenue lined with oak trees which form a shady tunnel, and it is said that Van der Stel can be seen on many warm sunny morning strolling up to take his dip amid the dappling of the leaf shadows under the dazzle of the South African sunshine.

And that’s the end of that story!

Stories and pictures reproduced from the book ‘Myths and Legends of Southern Africa’ told by Penny Miller