The History of Mossel Bay is unique and was pivotal to the development of the rest of South Africa. The first economic transaction in South Africa took place here along with several other "firsts" that changed the history of South Africa..forever..

Mossel Bay. Do history stuff

This is where modern human behaviour emerged more than 164,000 years ago, and where Southern Africans first met European explorers more than 500 years ago – a meeting that’s celebrated at the Dias Museum Complex (the largest complex of its kind in the Southern Cape). Here you’ll find a Maritime Museum (housing a life-size replica of the Caravel in which Bartholomew Dias first rounded the Cape all those years ago); a Cultural Museum, a Shell Museum and Aquarium; an ethno-botanical garden with its Braille Trail and the famous Post Office Tree in which Dias hid a letter to his compatriot Joao da Silva (and, incredibly, da Silva found it!).

When the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 made the overland spice route to the East dangerous and expensive for Europe’s trading powers, Portugal’s King John II became determined to find an alternate via the as yet un-charted ocean south of Africa. On his orders, Bartolomeu Dias and his men sailed from Lisbon in August 1487 in three ships – the lateen rigged caravels São Cristóvão and São Pantaleão, and a square rigger under the captaincy of Dias’ brother, Pêro.

After voyaging round the Bulge of Africa and southwards past modern-day Angola and Namibia, Dias and his men reached further south than any European explorers before them. But at a point off the west coast of South Africa (probably near the Orange River Mouth), Dias decided to escape relentless southerly winds by turning south by west, and sailing out into the open ocean. After running dangerously southwards for thirteen days, Dias decided to sail eastwards again, hoping to find the coast of Africa – but in fact (and without knowing it), he’d rounded the Cape, as he had wanted to do. Finally turning northwards, the ships made landfall on St. Blaise’s day – the 3rd of February 1488 – at Mossel Bay, which Dias named Aguada de São Bras (St. Blaise’s Watering Place).

Mossel Bay

It was the first time that any Europeans had landed South African soil.

Here the crews drew water (at Dias’ Spring), and met some of the local Khoi San people. They then sailed eastwards and finally northwards to land at Kwaaihoek, near the Bushman’s River Mouth in KwaZulu-Natal, on the 12th of March 1488. After stopping there for some time, they turned back, and arrived home during the following May. The journey had taken 16 months.

The ship that’s now dry docked in the Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex’s Maritime Museum is believed to be a faithful replica of those caravels.

Since no plans for any caravel has survived, the drawings for this vessel were created by the Portuguese Sail Training Association (the Aporvela) from historical records and archaeological evidence.

The ‘Bartolomeu Dias’ (pine on oak, 23.5 metres long, with a displacement of 130 tonnes) was built by Samuel & Filhos, Lda., at Vila do Conde in Portugal, and was launched on the 14th of June, 1987, by Maria de Jesus Barroso Soares, the wife of Mário Alberto Nobre Lopes Soares, the 17th President of Portugal (in office from 1986 to 1996).

Named ‘Bartolomeu Dias,’ she sailed from Lisbon with a crew of 16 under master mariner Emilio da Sousa on the 8th of November, 1987. After stops at Madeira and Saint Helena, she arrived in Mossel Bay on the 3rd of February, 1988 – the 500th anniversary of Dias’ landing.

She then sailed to Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London, Port Edward, and Durban as part of the country’s Dias88 Festival, before arriving at her permanent home in Mossel Bay, where she was winched into position. The building was then closed up around her.

Visitors may board the caravel on payment of a small fee. IN order to preserve the display, the Museum’s management reserves the right to limit the number of people who can board at any one time.

Watch these videos :

The story of the replica of Dias’ caravel;feature=plcp

The Dias Museum and its Caravel;feature=plcp

The Famous Post Office Tree

In 1501, another Portuguese navigator, Pedro d’Ataide, sought shelter in Mossel Bay after losing much of his fleet in a storm. He left an account of the disaster hidden in an old shoe which he suspended from a milkwood tree (Sideroxylon inerme) near the spring from which Dias had drawn his water. The report was found by the explorer to whom it was addressed — João da Nova — and the tree served as a kind post office for decades thereafter. (More recently, a boot-shaped post box has been erected under the now famous Post Office Tree, and letters posted there are franked with a commemorative stamp. This has ensured that the tree has remained one of the town’s biggest tourist attractions.)

João da Nova erected a small shrine near the Post Office Tree, and although no traces of it remain, it is considered the first place of Christian worship in South Africa.

The Post Office Tree in Mossel Bay

Local History Collection

This collection of objects from the 19th and early 20th centuries is largely drawn from the collections of the old Mossel Bay Museum, which was closed in 2001 (it was housed in the building now occupied by the Craft Art Workshop. That building was erected in 1879, and was used by the Municipality until it was turned into a museum in 1975).

The name Mossel Bay (the Bay of Mussels) probably comes from Dutch shipping merchants in the late 16th and the early 17th Centuries. In one account, the explorer Cornelis de Houtman named the place Mosselbaai when he stopped here in 1595, whilst in another, the Dutch Admiral Paulus van Caerden named it when he came ashore on the 8th of July 1601. Whatever the case, though, the mussels and oysters on the shore would have been a welcome addition to the limited diets on board ship in those days.

Although the Dutch governor of the Cape Colony, Jan de la Fontaine, visited Mossel Bay and erected a possession stone here in 1734, the first permanent European building — the Granary — was built only in 1787. The first shipment of wheat grown in the area was shipped from the Bay in July 1788.

Today the Granary is a shell museum and the largest in South Africa as well.

The Granary

Although a British force had invaded the Cape in 1806, and Britain had taken permanent possession of the Colony in 1814, the Mossel Bay area retained its Dutch-given name until it was declared a magistracy in 1848, when it was renamed Aliwal South (after the Battle of Aliwal in India, where the then governor of the British owned Cape Colony, Harry Smith, won victory over the Sikhs on the 8th of January 1846.) The name Aliwal South never stuck, however — even when the town was officially proclaimed in 1848, nor when it became a Municipality in 1852.

From the earliest days of the Dutch settlers, Mossel Bay acted as the major port serving the Southern Cape region and its hinterland, the arid Klein (or Little) Karoo. During the ostrich feather boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, more than 800,000 kg of feathers were exported through the port every year — which may have been the impetus that led to the construction of the first breakwater in 1912.

Fishing and farming remained the main activities of the area during the early years of the 20th Century, and the growth of the port reflected this. The discovery of natural gas fields offshore in 1969, of the FA gas field in the Bredasdorp Basin (also off the Southern Cape coast) in 1980, and of the nearby EM field in 1983, led to the development of the Mossgas gas-to-liquids refinery (commissioned in 1987 and renamed the PetroSA Refinery in 2002).

The development of the refinery led to a marked increase in property development in Mossel Bay, with the number of houses growing rapidly to accommodate the work force during the construction period.

View a 360 Panoramic image of the Dias Museum by SphereTravel



Many of the beautiful stone buildings in the old quarter of Mossel Bay (between Santos Beach and The Point) were built by stonemasons who emigrated from Cornwall in the late 19th century.

Some examples:

The Santos Pavilion (34.176607°S 22.136279°E) was built on Santos Beach around 1916. It now houses a restaurant and private apartments.

The Ochre Barn (34.180055°S 22.142856°E) was built in 1849 for the horses of Barry & Nephews (merchants) and restored in 2000 and 2007. It now houses the conference room of the Protea Hotel Mossel Bay.

The first municipal building (34.180031°S 22.143422°E; now the tourism office annex) was erected in 1858 and saw service as a dance hall, telegraph office, wool store, auction house, stage coach stop, and library.

The Craft Art Workshop (34.180102°S 22.143615°E) was erected in 1879 and was used by the Municipality until it became a local history museum in 1975. That museum closed in 2001.

Mossel Bay Advertiser Building (34.180761°S 22.143025°E) was built as the Standard Bank in 1902 by Cape Town architects Milne & Sladdin, and used by the bank until 1950.

The Vintcent Building (34.181431°S 22.143411°E) was originally a single storey general dealers. Built between 1820 and 1824 and bought by Prince, Collison & Co. in 1850. Named the Vintcent Building after Joseph Vintcent, who bought a partnership in the company and enlarged the building in about 1859. Now houses shops and offices.

Searle’s Manor (34.18158°S 22.146461°E) was built in 1902 as a warehouse for Searle & Co. (merchants) of Great Brak River. Restored in 2005–6, it is now used for apartments and offices.

The Customs House (34.181502°S 22.147303°E) was built 1874. The ‘wagon stone’ on the south corner was placed there to protect the building from damage by ox wagons.

Mossel Bay Boating Co. Offices (34.181415°S 22.147571°E) was built 1901 for the company that owned and ran the harbour. The clock tower is said to have been used to time how quickly ships were loaded and unloaded. The adjoining Goods Shed (34.181404°S 22.148019°E; built in 1900, with a clear span of 90 x 15 metres) was used as a cargo store and is now used as an indoor flea market.

The St. Blaize Terrace Houses (34.183164°S 22.153349°E) were built in 1909 and renovated in 1986.

Cape St. Blaize Lighthouse (34.186028°S 22.156152°E) was built 1864 to designs by the Colonial engineer, R. Robinson. The original light (on a masonry tower 20.5 metres in height) was stationary, but in 1897 a revolving, clock-work light, which required winding every three hours, was fitted. This was used until the late 1970s. The light is now fully automated

The War Memorial (34.185412°S 22.158061°E) was designed by W.J. Delbridge of the Royal Institute of British Architects (ARIBA), in the style of the art deco period, and probably modeled on the cenotaph in London. It was unveiled on the 28th of September, 1928. Plaques commemorate combatants who fell in the First and Second World Wars as well as in the Korean War, and in the South African Border War.


Pick up a copy of the Mossel Bay Historic Walk map from Mossel Bay Tourism’s information office on the corner of Church and Market streets, and take a gentle stroll through the streets of the old quarter. (Allow two to three hours.)