In the Wake of the Alabama

‘May you be fully aware of your fortunate lo to enjoy that Paradise on Earth, the Cape of Good Hope, which the beneficent Creator has enriched with his choicest wonders.’

Carolus Linnaeus; Swedish botanist and taxonomist, 1707-1778

The Waterfront Charters ‘Sailing in the Bay’ cruise is an exciting proposition for many reasons. Not only do guests get to experience the thrill of true monohull sailing aboard our doughty schooner Esperance, they also get to view the wonderful panorama that is Table Bay, with all its surrounding magnificence and heritage. The sight of Table Mountain flanked by her companions Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head is one that all adventurers around the world have on their bucket lists; it is a sight that is synonymous with the history of this country. One of our oft quoted slogans is ‘to view Table Mountain as the earliest explorers saw her’, and this sight will never fail to thrill, regardless of how often it may happen in a lifetime – ask any of our skippers or crew members.

With that view comes the inescapable history of the Cape, and aboard Esperance you are surrounded by the places that have been written up in the annals of history. Table Mountain is bisected laterally by the Platteklip Gorge, and this gorge saw the first ascent by a European visitor in 1503, when Antonio de Saldanha climbed to the Table to look over the bay. He certainly wasn’t the first human to climb the mountain; nomadic tribes have been around in the Cape for well over two millennia, and the Khoe speaking pastorals settled down here around two thousand years ago. They brought cattle and sheep, and were the forefathers of the  Goringhaiqua, the dominant local people when the Europeans first sailed into Table Bay.

Saldanha’s name lives on; in the dim distance as you plough over the swells is Saldanha Bay, and this is where the Confederate raider, the CSS Alabama, put in to refit and reprovision during the American Civil War in 1863. When she sailed, the slopes of Table Mountain were crowded with people who watched her sail gracefully across Table Bay as she set off to plunder the supply ships that were heading towards the Union harbours. Interestingly, she never made it to the USA herself, being sunk by the USS Kearsarge off the French coastline in June 1864. The Cape history is tied up with many disparate events; a Confederate sailor from the Alabama who died during the refit was buried near Saldanha until the 1990’s, when his remains were repatriated to the United States. The folk song ‘Daar kom die Alabama’ was born of this event, and lives on around campfires.

Robben Island’s history has been explored in a previous blog; suffice it to say that the island forms a remarkable and ineluctable part of South African history, and is well worth a visit on another occasion. She sits firmly in the middle of Table Bay, and like the shoreline that surrounds her, has seen many a sailing vessel come to grief on her rocky promontories and beaches over the formative centuries. As Esperance glides over the Atlantic on a balmy Cape day, it can be hard to imagine the turmoil of a Table Bay north-westerly storm, but they have been part and parcel of the triumph and tragedy that was the growing of a nation.

Bloubergstrand lies to the east of Table Bay, and for those who have not chosen Esperance as their floating photography platform, it provides the iconic view of Table Mountain and her acolytes seen in many a photo album. Blaauwberg, as it was originally known, is also the site of one of South Africa’s historical turning points; the Battle of Blaauwberg, fought between the Dutch and British in January 1806. It formed (oddly) part of the Napoleonic wars: the Cape Colony belonged to the Batavian Republic, a French vassal. Britain recognised the Cape sea route as vital to the French cause, so decided to annex it. A landing was affected at Melkbosstrand , and around 5000 British soldiers defeated the 2000 or so Batavian soldiers around Blaauwberg’s hills. The Batavians’ cause was not helped by the foreign units who had been hired to help defend the city; they headed for the hills, literally, leaving the Batavians to fight off the Redcoats alone. They didn’t succeed, and a peace treaty was signed in Papendorp – now Woodstock – on the 9th of January by the magnificently named Lieutenant-Colonel Hieronymus Casimir von Prophalow of the Batavian occupants of Cape Town and Lt Gen Sir David Baird of the British forces, and for the next one and half centuries or so, the Cape was a British colony. And therein lies many a tale…

All this and more awaits you as you stretch your legs out on Esperance’s jutting bowsprit, sipping a chilled drink and taking in the sights, the history and the magnificence of the Cape experience. All booking details on the website, of course: treat yourself to one of Cape Town’s favourite cruises. We love it as much as you will.