The Early Seafairers

“There must be a route around the Cape to India…” King Joao II from Portugal  said to the squire of the royal court  and sailing master, Bartolomeo Dias. In 1486 he appointed Dias to search for the route with two carvels and a support ship. In August 1487 they depart from the Portugal shore, sail along the west coast of Africa, turn west around the Cape of Good Hope and reach the only natural bay along the African coast in February 1488. Dias calls the bay Aquada de Sao Bras  (Bay of St Blaise). He finds a fountain at Munro Bay where they could replenish their water. The local Khoi is unsatisfied with the visitors that came over the big water and the groups can not understand each other.  A skirmish ensues wherein a Khoi is killed by an arrow from a cross bow. The further voyage of Dias ends at Kwaaihoek near the Boesmansriver mouth where his crew forces him to turn back.  The voyage however, showed that a route to India was possible. The Bay of St Blaise would become an important docking bay on this route.

With the experience of Prince Henry the Voyager and the voyages of Diaz, King John II of Portugal, in 1497, sends the experienced Vasco da Gama with a fleet of tow carracks, one carvel and a supportive ship to sail to India by means of a route around Africa. He reaches Mossel Bay by November 1497. This time the seafarers and the Khoi reach a better understanding and exchange a red cap and beads for an ox.  The first people entertained them with music from their reed flutes and the sailors dances. Da Gama erects a padrao (stone cross) and a wooden cross but the Khoi destroys it afterwards. A replica of the padrao is standing near the Post Office Tree today. Da Gama reaches Calicut by May 1498. It is avoyage of more than 10 000 km on the ocean – by far the  largest voyage out of sight of land at that time. On the return voyage Da Gama loses half of his crew due to illness and leaves one ship behind. He  arrives at Mossel Bay again in March 1499.

In 1500 Padras Alvares sails the same route as Da Gama with a fleet of 13 boats. After two devasting storms, only six of his boats remain. One of his captains, Pedro d”Almeida embarks at Mossel Bay to leave a message and report in the boot of a sailor at the large milkwood tree on the beach. Joao da Nova finds this letter in the boot by 1501. In this way, the milkwood tree, now more than 500 years old, becomes the first post office in Southern Africa.

In 1601 Paulus van Coerden names the bay Mossel Bay because of all the many mussels he found there when landing during a  voyage.

The route around the Cape with Mossel Bay as a place to berth for fresh water,  shelter and exchanging messages is established after these voyages. It paved the way for trading and the establishment of an outpost.

From Mill to Museum (1901-1988)

The Bartolomeu Dias museum complex, close to the landing place of the Portuguese navigator Bartolomeu Dias in February 1488, is one of Mossel Bay’s main tourist attractions. The original building, which now accommodates the Maritime Museum, was built in 1901 by E J Meyer of the farm Geelbeksvlei to house a wheat mill as well as a saw mill. A progressive farmer, Mr Meyer erected the mill to be close to the harbour as well as the planned railway line between Oudtshoorn and Mossel Bay. The railway line did not materialise and Mossel Bay and Oudtshoorn eventually became linked via George in 1913. The first image below shows the site of the complex circa 1905. No 1 is the mill. No 2 is the Barry and Nephews building (1849), which later became the Ochre Barn and now houses a luxury hotel. The second image shows the mill c 1950-1960. No 1 is the mill. No 2 is the Barry and Nephews building / Ochre Barn. No 3 is the Suidwestelike Graankoöperasie-gebou (South-Western Grain Co-operative building) which was built c 1951 on the site of the historic granary (1786/1787). The Co-operative building was demolished in the 1980’s to make place for the replica of the granary on its original footprint. The replica was built in 1987 and now serves as the public entrance to the museum complex. The third image shows the mill building as it looks now. It was converted to a museum in 1985/ 1987, and the roof was modified to house a replica of Dias’s caravel built in Portugal and sailed to Mossel Bay to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Dias landing in 1988.

Sources and acknowledgements: Bartolomeu Dias Museum, Wikipedia, Heritage Mossel Bay

Mossel Bay Map & Seal Island

Cut-out (top) of map dated June 1734 of the South African coastline from Mossel Bay to Saldanha (bottom) from the journal of Pieter Theodore de la Fayolle, skipper of the Dutch ship, the Ridderkerk. The journal and map are kept in the Nationaal Archief in Amsterdam. The cartographer’s name is not mentioned in the journal, but as compass positions were used, it was probably the ship’s navigator. The cut-out provides an interesting view of the seal island, which appears bigger on the map in relation to its surroundings than at present. The map also shows its location in a deep cove. This could probably be attributed to the less-advanced cartographic skills early in the 16th century and the lack of technology available to the cartographer. However, the appearance and the size of the island above the sea level as well as changes to the coastline could also be the result of rising sea levels over the centuries. According to sources quoted by C J F Muller in his MA thesis “Die Geskiedenis van die Vissery aan die Kaap tot aan die Middel van die Agtiende Eeu (University of Stellenbosch – 1938) 3 000 seals were counted on the island during Vasco da Gama’s first visit to Mossel Bay in 1497. An unnamed Portuguese seafarer referred to “innumerable sea wolves” on the island in 1575.

The Seal Island is one of Mossel Bay’s most famous landmarks and has been one of the town’s biggest tourist attractions for many decades because of the large colony of South African fur seals (also known as the Cape fur seal or brown fur seal) inhabiting the island. It was proclaimed the Mossel Bay Seal Island Reserve in 1988. However, the seals, also referred to by Paulus van Caerden in 1601 as “zee-paarden” and by other sailors of that era as “zee wolven,” were not always as protected as they are now. According to the MA thesis of C F J Muller (Die Geskiedenis van Visserye aan die Kaap tot aan die Middel van die Agtiende Eeu – University of Stellenbosch, 1938), Vasco da Gama’s fleet shipped in seal meat during his first visit to Mossel Bay in 1497 and they estimated the seal population at 3 000. In 1830, Alexander Munro, after whom Munro Bay is named and progenitor of many of the Munro’s still resident in the Mossel Bay area, won a tender to hunt seals on the island for a period of 7 years. See tender advertisement in the Government Gazette of 17.12.1830 (Lantern, 1988) below. It is not known when the culling or harvesting of the seals ended in Mossel Bay. The South African or Cape fur seal however became a protected species in South Africa in 1973, and commercial seal harvests were banned in 1990. There is scientific evidence (1978) that a Jackass Penguin breeding colony existed on the island, but was crowded out by the seals.

The Granary

The original Granary was built in 1786/87 by the then VOC Governor Cornelius Jacob van der Graaff to store grain cultivated by farmers in the district and hinterland, until it was enough for a shipload. This saved a 2-3 month trip by ox-wagon to Cape Town. The first shipload of grain shipped to Batavia on the Johanna Jacoba in July 1788. This was the start of formal shipping activities of Mossel Bay. The Granary was demolished in 1951. It was reconstructed in 1987, on exact footprint, from original plans found in the Archives in the Castle in Cape Town.

The Shell Museum

Also known as Shirley’s Building. Built c.1902 as a grain store and warehouse for the roller mill complex. The unusual angled corner is also a feature of the mill building. Grain was raised by a crane to the top floor for storage. Converted to a museum by Architect G. Fagan.

Munro Bay

This tranquil scene (first image) belies the important role that this particular section of the Mossel Bay coastline played in the history of Mossel Bay as well as South Africa. The Portuguese explorer and navigator Bartolomeu Dias landed here on 3 February 1488, an event which eventually gave rise to the birth of the Republic of South Africa as we know it today. Dias’s likely landing place is the cove marked with an arrow on the copy of the 1788 map (second image) of the bay. The map was produced by the Van Keulens, the famous 17 th and 18 th century Dutch cartographers. The position of the fountain, which is on the current Bartolomeu Dias Museum property, is also indicated on the map. This is the fountain from which the indigenous Khoisan people as well as Dias, his crew and many subsequent generations of Portuguese and Dutch navigators drew their fresh water over centuries. The first export ship load of wheat from Mossel Bay was also dispatched from this landing place to Batavia in July 1788 on board of the Johanna Jacoba. The Cape Governor, Lord Charles Somerset, initially granted permission for the building of a quay at this spot, but the plan was abandoned in favour of the more suitable Pig’s Bay to the east. Munro Bay is named after Scotsman Alexander Munro (c 1795 – c 1860) who came to the Cape as a member of the 93rd Sutherland Regiment of Foot in 1805. Upon his discharge from the military, he received permission to remain at the Cape. He married Martha Maria Boshoff and they raised their family on the property now known as Munro’s Corner. The property is also incorporated into the museum property. Alexander built the first of the Munro Cottages (see first image) at Munro’s Corner circa 1830 at a cost of 25 pounds. In 1832 he won a concession to hunt seals on Seal Island for a period of seven years. He also opened a tavern on the property, but the drunken behaviour of the patrons (sailors, farm workers and other locals) became such a problem that the authorities withdrew the licence for a number of years before giving it back to him again. The third image shows Munro Bay in the early 1900’s from the direction of the Pavilion at Santos Beach. The fourth image shows Munro Bay from a spot roughly where the waterfront restaurants are situated now. Many of Alexander Munro’s descendants still live in the greater Mossel Bay area. – Sources and Acknowledgements: Bartolomeu Dias Museum, Mossel Bay; Terugblik op die Geskiedenis van die Eerste Munro’s in Suid-Afrika – D J Olivier (1997); Die Munro’s van Munrohoek,Mosselbaai – Helena Scheffler (Restorica, April 1986);; In the Footsteps of Alexander Munro – Abrie de Swardt;

The Old Post Office Tree

Mossel Bay’s Old Post Office Tree (Poskantoorboom), located in the grounds of the Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex in Market Street, is a National Monument with a history dating back to 1501. It is perhaps the town’s best-known tourist attraction and has drawn tourists from across the world over the years. In 1501 the Portuguese navigator Pedro d’Aitade left a letter to another Portuguese navigator, Admiral João da Nova, in an old shoe which he suspended from a milkwood tree close to the spring from which explorer Bartolomeu Dias had drawn water in 1488. Da Nova, who has a suburb in Mossel Bay named after him, found the letter two months later and the tree served as a de facto post office for navigators many decades afterwards. The second and third images show the tree c 1940-1950. The building to the right of the tree on the second image now houses the Shell Museum. It was built c 1902 by E J Meyer as a store for his mill which was located in what is now the Maritime Museum (main building) in the complex. In later years, the store became known as the Shirley Building after Mr Joe Shirley who used it for his plumbing business. A boot-shaped post box was erected under the famous tree in the 1960’s, and letters posted there are franked with a unique commemorative stamp. The fourth image is of a first-day cover showing the postmark dated 20 December 1963. Finally, although it appears to be already a very old tree on the older images it is disputed by some historians that this is the actual tree on which d’Aitade hung the shoe.

Sources / Acknowledgements: Wikipedia; Bartolomeu Dias Museum, Mossel Bay; www.antieke (first-day cover); SAR & H Collection.

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