Mossel Bay

The History

Mossel Bay’s history 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….

Thank you to Heritage Mossel Bay for supplying all the images and information.
Your dedication to the preservation of Mossel Bay`s history is much appreciated.

Introduction to Mossel Bay

Mossel Bay lies at the Eastern corner of a great triangle of land, suitable for grazing and growing of crops, stretching 300 kilometres from West to East, from Bot River. It is bounded on the North by the Rivier Sonder End, Langeberg and the Outeniqua  Mountains, and on the South by the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The region measures about 100 kilometres northwards from Cape Agulhas to Storms Vlei at its widest point. The importance of Mossel Bay lies in the fact, east of George, the mountains draw very close to the coast. As a result, many rivers enter the sea directly without confluence, and the gradient is so steep that deep gorges are formed. Until comparatively recently wheeled traffic couldn’t follow the coastal belt from George to Humansdorp, so travelers were obliged to cross the Outeniqua mountains and continue their journey East through the Langkloof. To the West, there are no practicable harbours between False Bay and Mossel Bay. Mossel Bay was thus the only place where the land trade from the Little and Central Karoo, and the South Cape, could connect with maritime trade routes.

This connection began in the late fifteenth century when the Portuguese seafarers Dias and da Gama obtained sheep and cattle from the Khoi herders in Munro’s Bay. For tens of thousands of years the forbears of the Khoisan and the Khoikhoi lived in this region. Their legacy is the many beautiful place-names Attaqua, Hessequa, Outeniqua, Karoo, Gwaing, Gourits and many more. The Dutch East India Company’s stock traders who fanned out in search of meat for ships, and the later Trekboers, learned to speak the Khoi and San languages, and many place names in the region are direct Nederlands translations of the old Khoi names. The Khoi left no buildings, but the impressive rock fish-traps from Betty‘s Bay to the Gourits River are lasting memorials to the Strandloper people.

Threatened French and English intrusion led the D.E.I.C. to establish military outposts (buiteposte) at Mossel Bay, George and Plettenberg Bay in 1785, and so the first permanent buildings were erected in Mossel Bay, where the Maritime Museum now stands. An unlikely event supplied the first officer in charge. In 1772 Struensee, the liberal first minister of Denmark was overthrown in a coup d’état and executed. His private secretary, Hans Abue, fled to Holland and reached the Cape in the service of the Company. He served as Ensign and then Postholder at Mossel Bay for 33 years, dying in 1819 aged 78.

The French and English threat coincided with a wheat shortage. The Company persuaded Southern Cape farmers to plant wheat for shipment to Cape Town. Abue’s first task was to superintend the building of the Granary. In 1807 he superintended the replacement of the unsatisfactory flat roof with a pitched roof. This building, the sole remnant of the Company’s rule in the region, was demolished in 1955 in an act of official vandalism. It was rebuilt to the original design under the supervision of Mr. Gawie Fagan in 1988.

By 1730 there was a settled farming community in the district. The fall of The Company freed up economic activity and Mossel Bay achieved its destiny as a harbour handling imports of commodities and the export of agricultural produce. In 1811 the Cradock Pass above George was opened, giving direct access to the Little Karoo. This was replaced by the Montagu Pass in 1848. In 1820 the first buildings were erected in Church Street. English settlers began arriving. The Barry`s of Swellendam opened a warehouse in 1827. In 1847 they built a large warehouse, the first dateable stone building, now the Protea Hotel by Marriot. Between 1820 and 1902 importing firms built large stone warehouses in Bland Street and Church Street, of which ten still stand.

Mossel Bay thus acquired its characteristic appearance, the first mainly stone-built town in South Africa. Descendants of the Khoi, the Coloured community, moved into the town. Among other occupations, they worked as masons, carpenters, shoemakers, gardeners, stevedores, tailors, bakers and fishermen. Most lived in the Eastern and Northern parts of the old town. Building in stone went on. Whether it was a rich merchant’s house, a church, the town hall, the beach pavilion, a school, a quay, the lighthouse, a warehouse or a laborer’s cottage, all were built of stone, and beautifully built. First, the creamy-brown stone was used, but after 1900 the lovely pink stone was used for important buildings. The quality of the masonry improved with time until it reached its apogee in the magnificent tower and spire of St Peter`s Church.

Mossel Bay flourished in the absence of rail links. Diamonds were discovered in Kimberley in 1870, and Mossel Bay harbour was the nearest link to the sea. In 1885 both Cape Town and Port Elizabeth were connected by rail to the diamond fields, and Mossel Bay’s shipping trade began its slow decline. The coming of the railway in 1906, and the rail link to Oudtshoorn in 1915 removed the dependence of the Little Karroo on maritime commerce through Mossel Bay. The late Twentieth Century brought huge changes again, beyond the scope of this paper!

Written by Wesley Gavin 

A timeline of Mossel Bay`s History

1488    3 Feb, Bartolomeu Dias fleet, two vessels, arrives on names day of Saint Blaize. At the landing site, the seafarers found a stream of fresh water.  A skirmish with the Khoi took place, resulting in a cross bow being fired.

1497   Vasco da Gama arrived on 25 November, as their second expedition to the East. Names the Bay, Aquada de Sao Bras. They encountered friendly Khoi, traded an ox for a red cap and some bracelets. This was the first trading transaction on Southern African soil in which explorers took part. The First people entertained these visitors with music from their reed flutes, and the sailors danced. These reed instruments had 3 notes only, and the tune was carefully recorded by Da Gama. Vasco Da Gama set up a padrao/stone cross and a wooden cross on the ‘high southernmost point’, which unfortunately were destroyed by the Khoi right after. Similar crosses were erected at Kwaaihoek and Namibia.

1500   Pedro d`Ataide, Captain in Fleet of Pedro Cabral, on a return trip, leaves a letter in a boot in a tree near the watering place.  The letter warned of antagonism towards Portuguese in Calcutta, advising explorers to go to Malakat.   

1501   July, Jaco da Nova en route to India, finds the letter anof d’Ataided in thanksgiving  of being warned of danger, erected a small chapel, an Ermina, on a high spot.

1595   Cornelius Houtman, the first Dutch seafarer to sail to India via the Cape called.  Traded goods for a few sheep. Houtman drew the first map of the Bay, mentions the fresh water, and a big tree.

1601   Named  Mosselbaai by Admiral P van Caerden  as he found only Mussels to eat.

1652   Jan van Riebeech arrived at the Table Bay to establish a garrison for the VOC.

1729   The first “Leenplaas” (Hagelkraal) was awarded. From this time onwards more farming communities settled in the district.  

1785   The Dutch East India Company established a “Buitepost” (Outpost), in Mossel Bay. The Garrison consisted of an officer, Hans Abue and six soldiers, tasked to prevent the French from claiming the land



How Mossel Bay was Named

Mossel Bay was first named Bahia or Aquada Sao Bras (Watering Place of Saint Blaize) by Vasco da Gama in 1497. Prior Bartholomeu Dias in 1488 referred to it as  Agra dos Vagueiros, Bay of Herders which he saw in the distance.

Commelin wrote in 1646 that the name Mossel Bay had been given by Paulus van Caerden in 1601. Van Caerden gave the following description in his manifest: “Vonden het een schoon landt, sonder veel geboomte, dan wel herten ende Olyphanten, bequaemen, behalven water, weynigh verversings als mosselen, dies het die naem van Mossel Baey gaven.”

“We found it a lovely land, without many trees, but with deer and elephants. Apart from water, we got little refreshment except for mussels, and therefore gave it the name of Mossel Bay.”

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