Cape of Good Hope

From New World Encyclopedia
Map of South Africa, showing the Cape of Good Hope on its southwest edge.
Map showing the locations of the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Agulhas.

The Cape of Good Hope (Afrikaans: Kaap die Goeie Hoop, Dutch: Kaap de Goede Hoop, Portuguese: Cabo da Boa Esperança) is a rocky headland on the Atlantic coast of South Africa. It is a common misconception that the Cape of Good Hope is the southern tip of Africa and the dividing point between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The true southernmost point is Cape Agulhas, about 200 km (120 mi) southeast. However, when following the coastline from the equator, the Cape of Good Hope marks the psychologically important point where one begins to travel more eastward than southward. Thus the rounding of the cape in 1488 was considered a significant milestone by the Portuguese attempting to establish direct trade relations with India and the Far East.

In 1488, navigator Bartholomew Dias named the Peninsula "Cabo Tormentoso," or the "Cape of Storms." It was later renamed by King John II of Portugal "Cabo da Boa Esperanca"—the Cape of Good Hope, because of the great optimism engendered by opening a sea route to the East.

The term "Cape of Good Hope" was also used to indicate the early Cape Colony commissioned by the Dutch East India Company, and established in 1652 by the merchant Jan van Riebeeck as a re-provisioning station in the vicinity of the Cape Peninsula. Just prior to the formation of the Union of South Africa, the term referred to the entire region that was to become the Cape Province in 1910.


Map showing the Cape Peninsula, illustrating the positions of the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point

South Africa is located at the southernmost region of Africa, with a long coastline that stretches more than 1,550 mi (2,500 km) and across two oceans, (the Atlantic and the Indian).

The Cape Peninsula is a generally rocky peninsula that juts out for 75 km (47 mi) into the Atlantic at the southwestern extremity of the continent. At the southern end of the peninsula are the Cape of Good Hope, and about 2.3 kilometers (1.4 mi) to its east is Cape Point. Geologically, the rocks found at the two capes—and indeed over much of the peninsula—are part of the Table Mountain Group, and are formed of the same type of sandstone as those exposed in the faces of Table Mountain itself. Cape Town is about 50 kilometers to the north of the Cape, in Table Bay at the north end of the peninsula. Table Mountain overlooks Cape Town. The peninsula forms the western boundary of False Bay.

The Cape of Good Hope is sometimes given as the meeting point of the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean. However, Cape Agulhas, about 200 km (120 mi) to the southeast, is defined by the International Hydrographic Organization to be the dividing point between the two oceans.

The term Cape of Good Hope has also been used in a wider sense, to indicate the area of the early European colony in the vicinity of the cape.

National park

Both the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point offer spectacular scenery. The whole of the southernmost portion of the Cape Peninsula is the wild, rugged, scenic and generally unspoiled Table Mountain National Park. The park runs approximately north-south along the range of mountains that make up the mountainous spine of the Cape Peninsula, from Signal Hill in the north, through Lion's Head, Table Mountain, Constantiaberg, Silvermine Nature Reserve, the mountains of the southern Peninsula, and terminates at Cape Point.

The park is not a single contiguous area; the undeveloped mountainous areas which make up most of the park are separated by developed urban areas on shallower terrain. Thus the park is divided into three separate sections. The section that covers the southernmost area of the Cape Peninsula stretches from Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope in the south, as far north as Scarborough on the Atlantic coast and Simon's Town on the False Bay coast. It was formed from the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve.

The South African Marine Living Resources Act is strictly enforced throughout the Table Mountain National Park, and especially in marine protected areas. Disturbance or removal of any marine organisms is strictly prohibited between Schusters Bay and Hoek van Bobbejaan, but is allowed in other areas during season.

Plant and animal life

Cape Point is the southeastern promontory of the Cape Peninsula.

With its diverse habitat, ranging from rocky mountain tops to beaches and open sea, the Cape of Good Hope is home to at least 250 species of birds.

"Bush birds" tend to be rather scarce because of the coarse, scrubby nature of fynbos vegetation. When flowering, however, proteas and ericas attract sunbirds, sugarbirds, and other species in search of nectar. For most of the year, there are more small birds in coastal thicket than in fynbos.

Large animals are a rare sight in the Cape of Good Hope, but there are a wealth of small animals such as lizards, snakes, tortoises, and insects. There are some herds of zebra, eland and a variety of other antelope. Small mammals include rock hyrax (dassie), striped mouse, water mongoose, Cape clawless otter, and white deer. Baboons also inhabit the area.

The area offers excellent vantage points for whale watching. The Southern right whale is the species most likely to be seen in False Bay between June and November. Other species are the Humpback whale and Bryde's whale. Seals and Dusky Dolphins or Orca, the Killer Whales may also be seen.

The strategic position of the Cape of Good Hope between two major ocean currents ensures a rich diversity of marine life. There is a difference between the sea life west of Cape Point and that to the east due to the markedly differing sea temperatures.

The Cape of Good Hope is an integral part of the Cape Floristic Kingdom, the smallest but richest of the world's six floral kingdoms. This comprises a treasure trove of 1,100 species of indigenous plants, of which a number are endemic. Two types of fynbos ("fine bush"), coastal fynbos on alkaline sands and inland fynbos on acid soils, are found.

Characteristic fynbos plants include proteas, ericas (heath), and restios (reeds). Some of the most striking and well-known members belong to the Proteacae family, of which up to 24 species occur. These include King Protea, Sugarbush, Tree Pincushion, and Golden Cone Bush.

Many popular horticultural plants such as pelargoniums, freesias, daisies, lilies, and irises also have their origins in fynbos.

Landsat Image over SRTM Elevation, showing the Cape Peninsula in the foreground. Image credit: NASA/JPL/NIMA.
Wild ostriches at the Cape of Good Hope
Fynbos vegetation in the Western Cape area


1888 Map of the Cape of Good Hope with German text
A triangular postage stamp from the Cape of Good Hope, 1855.

Stone Age hunter-gatherers who used stone tools and fire arrived in the Western Cape area around 100,000 B.C.E. They survived the Ice Age, when water levels were around 120 meters lower than their current levels. Fossils indicate that by 8000 B.C.E., the inhabitants had developed bows and arrows for hunting. Nearly 6,000 years later, a large migration of tribes further inland brought contact with skilled agriculturalists, prompting cape inhabitants to grow crops.

Some speculate that before European explorers reached the Cape of Good Hope, Chinese, Arabian, or Indian explorers/merchants may already have visited it, and kept records of these visits. The Old World maps such as Kangnido and Fra Mauro map made before 1488 may be evidence of this.

The Khoikhoi were originally part of a pastoral culture and language group found across Southern Africa. Originated in the northern area of modern Botswana, the ethnic group steadily migrated south, reaching the Cape approximately 2,000 years ago. Migratory bands of Khoi living around what is today Cape Town intermarried with San peoples. However the two groups remained culturally distinct as the Khoikhoi continued to graze livestock and the San subsisted as hunter-gatherers. The Khoi resided in the Cape area when European explorers and merchants arrived in the fifteenth century. Europeans referred to the Khoikhoi as "Hottentots."

The first circumnavigation of the Cape of Good Hope by Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias occurred in 1488. Along with the accounts of early navigators, the accounts of shipwreck survivors provide the earliest written accounts of Southern Africa. In the two centuries following 1488, a number of small fishing settlements were made along the coast by Portuguese sailors. In 1652, a victualling station was established at the Cape of Good Hope by Jan van Riebeeck on behalf of the Dutch East India Company. For most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the slowly expanding settlement was a Dutch possession. The Dutch settlers eventually met the southwesterly expanding Xhosa people in the region of the Fish River. A series of wars ensued, mainly caused by conflicting land and livestock interests.

Great Britain seized the Cape of Good Hope area in 1797 seeking to use Cape Town in particular as a stop on the route to Australia and India. The Dutch East India Company declared bankruptcy, and the British annexed the Cape Colony in 1805. The British continued the frontier wars against the Xhosa, pushing the eastern frontier eastward through a line of forts established along the Fish River and consolidating it by encouraging British settlement. Due to pressure from abolitionist societies in Britain, the British Parliament first stopped its global slave trade in 1806, then abolished slavery in all its colonies in 1833.

The area remained under British rule until it was incorporated into the independent Union of South Africa, created from the Cape and Natal colonies, as well as the republics of Orange Free State and Transvaal, on May 31, 1910.

Looking ahead

The Cape Peninsula is a narrow finger of land with beautiful valleys, bays, and beaches. The Cape of Good Hope at its tip is the most southwesterly point of Africa where the cold Beguela current on the west and the warm Agulhus current on the east merge. This allows for a rich diversity of marine life. One of the world's highest sea cliffs at 250 meters (820 ft) above sea level, it provides an excellent vantage point for whale and dolphin watching.[1]

As one of the great capes of the South Atlantic Ocean, the Cape of Good Hope has been of special significance to sailors for many years. It is a major milestone on the clipper route followed by clipper ships to the Far East and Australia, and is still followed by several offshore yacht races.

These features make the Cape one of the most popular tourist attractions in South Africa. In addition, the Cape is encompassed within the Table Mountain National Park, which is in turn part of the larger Cape Floral World Heritage Site (2004). Both National Park and World Heritage Site status provides for conservation measures and environmental protection. Of particular scientific interest are the plant reproductive strategies including the adaptive responses to fire of the flora and the patterns of seed dispersal by insects. The pollination biology and nutrient cycling are other distinctive ecological processes found in the site.[2]


  1. Cape Point-South Africa, Activities & Attractions. Retrieved February 13, 2009.
  2. UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Cape Floral Region Protected Areas.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Balson Holdings Family Trust. Cape of Good Hope Land Grants and related histories. Retrieved February 11, 2009.
  • Cape Town. Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. Retrieved February 11, 2009.
  • Elbourne, Elizabeth. 2002. Blood Ground: Colonialism, Missions, and the Contest for Christianity in the Cape Colony and Britain, 1799-1853. McGill-Queen's studies in the history of religion, 19. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 9780773522299.
  • Hocquard, Emmanuel. 2000. Cape of Good Hope. Los Angeles: Green Integer. ISBN 9781892295408.
  • Poussin, Alexandre, and Sonia Poussin. 2008. Africa Trek I: from the Cape of Good Hope to Mount Kilimanjaro. Portland, OR: Inkwater Press. ISBN 1592993575.
  • Ross, Robert. 1999. Status and Respectability in the Cape Colony, 1750-1870: A Tragedy of Manners. African studies series, [98]. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521621229.
  • Theal, George McCall. 1969. History of the Boers in South Africa; or, The Wanderings and Wars of the Emigrant Farmers from Their Leaving the Cape Colony to the Acknowledgment of Their Independence by Great Britain. New York: Negro Universities Press. ISBN 9780837116617.
  • Towards a New Age of Partnership. History of the Cape of Good Hope. Retrieved February 11, 2009.


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