Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Cape of Good Hope

The Cape of Good Hope is so laden with historical associations, so mythic, so much a part of the saga of Europe’s discovery of the rest of the world, that arriving there in person is almost absurd. One thinks of Bartholomew Diaz, reaching it for the first time in 1488 aboard the tiny caravel São Cristóvão, and naming it Cabo das Tormentas, the Cape of Storms—only to be corrected later by King João II of Portugal, in view of the infinite commercial potential of a new and viable sea route to India and back again: Cabo da Boa Esperança, Cap de bonne-espérance, Kap der guten Hoffnung, Kaap die Goeie Hoop, the Cape of Good Hope! One thinks of Vasco da Gama sailing by aboard the São Gabriel and pushing on past what is now the Eastern Cape and further up the coast, arriving on Christmas Day, 1497, and therefore calling the place Natal. One recalls the Flying Dutchman, forever doomed to tack and beat and tack again without ever passing beyond the Cape, its ghostly crew in perpetual torment. One also thinks of Admiral Elphinstone, General Craig, Commanders Hardy and Spranger, and their two fine battalions of Royal Marines, ordinary sailors, and men of the 78th Highlanders, who at the Battle of Muizenberg in August 1795 wrested control of the Cape from the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, and promptly dismantled Dutch instruments of torture, then destroyed the pieces. One thinks of resourceful Lady Anne Barnard, and her dim view of the Acting Governor, General Francis Dundas, and “the little politicks of our Lilliput court.” One thinks of Cecil Rhodes, financed by N. M. Rothschild and Sons, the diamond monopoly, and his fevered vision of a red stripe extending all the way from the Cape to Cairo. One thinks of passengers alighting at the Cape, repairing to the Mount Nelson Hotel for tea, then boarding a Union Limited and Union Express sleeper bound for Witwatersrand and Pretoria... On it goes. A couple of baboons, a few bad-tempered ostriches, a herd of eland, abundant zebra droppings, and a wealth of hazy schoolroom memories—after the Cape, to paraphrase Yeats, what more is possible?

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