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Early Bo-Kaap part 1

Early Bo-Kaap part 1

The history of the Bo-Kaap

The Dutch East India Company (DEIC) or the Vereenighde Oosindia Companje (VOC) decided to start a refreshment station at the Cape in 1652.
This is on the back of their expanded occupation of the south east Asian island region which began around 1607. The islands of what we know today as Sumatra, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and others then became known as the “Spice Islands”.

By around 1740 during the first Dutch occupation, the Cape started to experience a certain problem. The demand and interest by white European people from countries like Holland, England, Scotland, Germany, France, Italy, Portugal and others started to increase. These folks were keen to live in the Cape, do business in the Cape and by then even saw the Cape as a favorable holiday destination.

So, this rise in European interest meant the Cape had a problem in that there was no infrastructure to support this growing demand. No or little housing, buildings, warehouses, hotels etc.
The original custodians of this land, the KhoiKhoi, were not skilled to do the required trades. Yes, there were slaves imprisoned at the Slave Lodge, however, the new project required much more labour as well as better skilled artisans and tradesmen to work on the expansion of the Cape.

Since the VOC had colonised the Spice Islands from the early 1600s, the Dutch had trained those locals to be of use to their colonisation aspirations. So the VOC chose tradesmen from Batavia especially (modern day Jakarta Indonesia) to build infrastructure for the expanding European population and interest in the Cape of Good Hope. Trades such as bricklaying, carpentry, roofing, furniture making and more were required. These were indentured workers who were no doubt poorly paid, much like the indentured workers who were brought from India to work on the sugar cane fields of Natal. They also happened to be of the Muslim faith, just like the vast majority of the slaves who were brought to the Cape from as early as 1658.
The two reasons why the VOC chose to enslave people from the Muslim faith were (i) the fact that the Dutch considered it “unchristian like” to enslave another Christian, and (ii) the fact that the VOC felt the Muslim people would not consume alcohol which would hinder their production.

But now the VOC was sitting with a second issue, where were these tradesmen going to live? This is how it was decided to zone the area which later became known as the Bo-Kaap, as a place for these artisans and their families to reside in.
Jan de Waal arrived in the Cape around 1715 and later became an official for the VOC. He scored the tender to construct the original houses in the area. It is believed that the first dwellings were built in what is today known as Leeuwen street.
The brief was to design small single story apartments, flat roofs, small windows, maximize the space hence no or little place for washing lines or gardens.
This is how the original name of the area was Waalendorp, after Jan de Waal, with the main street known as Waal straat. This street ran from lower Pentz street down to the Slave Lodge. It was during the second British occupation when they Anglicised quite a few of the Dutch street and place names, which is how the section of Waal straat between Buitenghraght straat and the Slave Lodge became known as Wale street.

The houses were built using one of the two shale rock types in the Cape, namely the Malmensbury Shale which was mined from the lower slopes of Signal Hill. They used mud and clay for mortar. This was to bond the shale rock and stone and also for plaster.
As a result, the buildings were very hydrophilic, susceptible to rising and penetrating damp problems. The few windows meant little ventilation, and together with the damp issues, as a result, the residents regularly suffered from asthma and other bronchial ailments.

To try and overcome the damp problem, the residents resorted to a method that was already in use for ages along the coastal Mediterranean region.
They collected sea shells which were baked in a kiln similar to a pizza oven. Once removed it was allowed to cool after which it was placed in wine barrels and crushed. The resulting white powder was called lime. This lime was then mixed with sea or freshwater to form a slurry, which was then slushed onto the walls as a waterproofing measure. This method is called lime washing or white washing.
So, initially, all the house were white in colour, and this lime washing had to be done multiple times a year to try and maintain its effectiveness. It was more about waterproofing than decoration, however, the residents made sure to re coat the houses before the end of Ramadaan as they prepared to celebrate their new year ahead.

When one walks up Dorp straat, Leeuwen straat or Pentz staaat especially, you will notice how each house is different in design, particularly around the architraves, facades, doors, windows and front walls. There is a specific reason for this.
Before I get into that, let me just acknowledge that gentrification, renovation and modernisation of the houses in some cases, led to a deviation from the original architecture where improvements have been done kind of “out of syllabus”.
The original residents were tradesmen mostly from Batavia and they would be contracted to European bosses. Now, if I was working for a German man for instance, he would fine tune me to work in the German style and theme.  If my neighbour worked for an Italian boss he would be trained the Italian way.
So when it was weekend or when we would have had free time, we would start decorating our houses using the styles we learnt from our bosses. This trend became a kind of fashion and some residents even tried to out shine each other. The reason why this was possible is the fact that even though the houses were built for renting, the VOC did not mind what residents did to the buildings.

As time went on the residents themselves referred to this area as the “Bo-Kaap” meaning “Upper Cape”. They referred to the area below Buitengraght straat as the “Onne Kaap” meaning the “Under” or “Lower Cape”.

Michael Wilcox
Tourist Guide




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