Molo articles

History  & memory

The Making of Church Square

Church Square before the cobbles and the cars

When I was a child, I enjoyed digging in my grandmother’s garden for treasure. Back then, my finds consisted largely of glass, and fragments of crockery. Still, in my eyes the glass became diamonds, and the crockery hinted at greater riches to be found – a whole cup, a teapot. It’s fair to say that I’ve always been interested in excavating the past, probably well before I knew what this meant.

More recently, I wrote a book on slavery, which meant that Church Square has been in my consciousness. While I know that the significance of Church Square extends beyond slavery, it is to colonial accounts that we must resort in order to trace the specific history of the area now known as Church Square.

What’s in a name?

This piece of land is regarded as one of three tracts of land around which the burgeoning Cape Colony developed, shortly after Jan van Riebeeck arrived in April 1652 under instruction from the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Van Riebeeck’s orders were to build a fort and a hospital, to cultivate fruit and vegetables, including grain, and to procure cattle by trading with the Khoi tribes in and around the settlement. His first ordinance, promulgated at a Council meeting on 8 April 1652, announced the building of the fort.


An illustration of the facade of the Groote Kerk

But first, a fort

According to Cape Town: The Making of a City (Nigel Worden et al), “The 1652 occupation was a pre-emptive move to exclude the English, with whom the Dutch were at open war”. Located halfway between Europe and the East, and with the availability of fresh drinking water and the potential for procuring meat from the Khoi, Table Bay was of strategic value to the trading superpowers of the day.

But the fort was also intended to keep the Khoi out of the settlement. In the instructions given to Van Riebeeck prior to his departure from Holland, the VOC directors wrote about the need to build a defence post, against both potential trade rivals and “the natives, who are a very rough lot”. Work on both the fort and the garden began within the first month of the colonialists’ arrival, with Van Riebeeck writing to the Company directors in a dispatch dated 31 December 1653 that the fort had been completed.

Built largely of clay, the fort was never very stable – nor much of a fortification, for that matter. In 1665, the Company instructed Van Riebeeck to build a stone castle. Construction commenced in 1666, and the Castle was completed in 1679.

A late 19th century or early 20th century view of the eastern side of Church Square

A late 19th century or early 20th-century view of the eastern side of Church Square

Church cemetery to city square

The Castle was also the location of a church and cemetery. But in 1667, a decision was made to stop burying people in the Castle, and a site – an abandoned garden plot, near the Company’s Garden – was found for a new church to be built. In 1678 the foundations of the new church were laid; while in 1679, foundations were laid for the building of a new Slave Lodge – an imposing edifice, without windows, meant to house the Company’s slaves. This brick building was constructed adjacent to the old lodge, which had been gutted in August 1679.

Meanwhile, in 1682, work began on the Company Hospital, situated at the bottom end of the Company’s Garden. In 1699, part of the unused garden plots at the end of the Company’s Garden were granted to Governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel, his brother Frans, and to Samuel Elsevier, a Company official.

According to a report commissioned by the City of Cape Town’s Urban Design Unit and completed in January 2006, Church Square was consciously created as an open space that gave access to the Church. In the report, the authors (Mary Patrick, Tony Manhire and Harriet Clift) write: “Deeds confirm that the creation of the Square was deliberate, and that granting of so-called ‘huis’ erven took place at the same time that the Church was completed” – in 1704.

Parliament Street circa 1920

Parliament Street circa 1920

Place of residence

The Groote Kerk was enlarged in 1781, and the original cruciform (cross) design made way for a rectangular shape. By this time, Church Square was a residential area. Says genealogist and historian June McKinnon, referencing Cornelius Pama’s Vintage Cape Town, “In the north-east corner, the VOC built an impressive house as the residence of the Secunde, Otto Henny, who entertained Captain Cook there with Omai, a Tahitian, who caused quite a stir because the populace had never seen a South Seas Islander before.”

Slave market

Given its proximity to the Slave Lodge and other institutions associated with the Company, the history of Church Square is irretrievably linked to slavery. Historians remind us that the Cape was a slave society, in that slavery was not one of a few sources of labour; it was the labour force. Indeed, Van Riebeeck’s first request to the Company was for slaves; and while this request was not granted until five years later, he procured slaves from passing ships in the interim. During this time, 38 male and 37 female slaves were co-opted from a Portugese slaver en route from Angola to Brazil by the crew of the Dutch Amersfoort, and remained at the Cape. Shortly afterwards, the Hasselt landed 228 slaves from Angola, who Van Riebeeck described as “attractive, sturdily built and cheerful”.

For the duration of the VOC’s rule – from 1652 to 1806, with a break between 1795 and 1803 during which time the Cape was occupied by the British – more than 65 000 slaves were brought to the Cape, with the Company the largest slave-holder. Slaves were said to have been sold under a fir tree in Church Square. Today, a plaque on a busy traffic island marks the spot where this tree, felled in 1916, once stood.

While slaves had little leisure time, they accompanied their masters to church, conveying them in sedan chairs, driving their carriages, or carrying their heavy Bibles. Since the Christian faith was for the most part denied to slaves, in the belief that Christians could not be enslaved, they waited in the rain and sun while their masters worshipped. In addition to slaves, it’s said that Church Square was popular with the town’s dogs – so much so that a dog-whipper needed to be employed. More recently, this popularity has been attributed to the Square’s proximity to the church cemetery, especially during the smallpox plague of 1755, which saw many hasty burials!

A slave carrying water in the shadow of the original church before it was rebuilt

A slave carrying water in the shadow of the original church before it was rebuilt

Remembering the dead

With the site’s morbid history, it’s easy to believe the stories that it was once a burial ground – part of the Groote Kerk’s cemetery. Not so, according to the findings of the Archaeological Impact Assessment undertaken in December 2005 on behalf of the City. Six test pits were dug to depths of between 110cm and 120cm, on various parts of the square. While no human remains were found, material uncovered by the digs included animal bone fragments and incomplete teeth, ceramic pieces, remnants of red bricks, broken clay pipe stems, seashells, “and a single piece of ostrich eggshell”. However, these are thought to have been transported from elsewhere in the city and used as landfill, in order to raise the square above the water level.

These days when I think of Church Square, I like to think of it as a place of connection. On nights when the square is deserted, I imagine the space as it once must have been, long before the first Europeans set foot on the land at the bottom of Africa: where Khoisan cattle herders gathered their beasts for the walk home at the end of a long day’s grazing. Perhaps they’d stop of an evening, exchanging news of the masted ships spotted powering into Table Bay, or of debris washed ashore – the Cape had long been known as the Cape of Storms, for a reason. Perhaps they’d discuss family concerns, or cattle sickness and other pestilence. Or perhaps this was a gentler time, when a young man could croon his admiration for a woman who caught his eye.

This article first appeared in the December 2016 edition of Molo: In the centre of the city. Download a PDF version or scroll through the digi flipbook below. 

Maxine’s novel, Softness of the Lime, will be published by Umuzi in July 2017.

Images provided by Urban Lime

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