The location of South Africa’s first recorded battle and earliest known war memorial was lost to history for five centuries. Already in 1512, a mere two years after the event, returning sailors were unable to identify the site. Thus, while researching Knot of Stone between 2004–2009, I could only imagine the setting: a disused railway yard where old tracks traced the former curve of Table Bay. Then, in 2012, the site was ‘rediscovered’ and found to resemble the book’s original description with uncanny accuracy. Today, sadly, the location remains an unfitting memorial for the dead.
Knot of Stone begins with the discovery of a centuries-old skeleton in an abandoned shunting yard which was imagined as follows: “Prof Mendle set off, Sonja by his side, between piles of sleepers and tracks choked with weeds. He led her past a disused warehouse with its derelict loading bay, and then on beyond a platform strewn with splintered packing crates and old pallets. Everything was broken, barricaded and abandoned…”. (KoS p.8)
A new discovery?
To commemorate the anniversary of Almeida’s death in 2012, I accompanied Dr Stewart Young, a polymath and gifted dowser, to an undisclosed site beyond the Castle of Good Hope—a site farther east of what I’d previously considered possible—until he halted me and then intuitively said: “We should be able to see where Almeida was killed from here”. However, barred by locks, chains and a razor-wire wall, we were unable to enter the industrial shed which, or so my companion alleged, covers the spot where Almeida lies buried. The following day, with permission to wander around, I discovered how well the location fits the historical record, including its proximity to the Liesbeeck/Salt River Canal, and that this ‘discovery’ could reveal the first recorded battle site and earliest known war memorial in South Africa’s history.
These two maps portray the changing curve of Table Bay as seen, firstly, two hundred and fifty years ago and, secondly, as it appears today. The first reveals the natural shoreline, the latter the land reclamation project of the intervening centuries. In both maps the Castle of Good Hope—here a star—establishes a fixed point of reference while the arrows point to the vicinity of Almeida’s death. The first arrow points to the area described in Knot of Stone, the second to a site since identified by Dr Young. In physical terms the two sites—or arrows—are about four kilometres apart and, like the Castle itself, lie a kilometre inland today.
In a windswept wasteland between Table Mountain and the sea, near the Liesbeeck-Salt River Canal, lie the forgotten bones of Almeida and his sixty compatriots. The spot where they fell lies under a derelict railway yard—beneath a low, red bricked shed—surrounded by rusting wagons, old splintered crates and wooden pallets. Laid to rest five centuries ago, their bones have been lost to memory and long overlooked by subsequent historians. Drawing on the popular memory of his contemporaries, the poet laureate Camões wrote:
The Stormy Cape which keeps his memory Along with his bones, will be unashamed In dispatching from the world such a soul Neither Egypt nor all India could control. Camões, Lusíads, 1572.
Luís de Camões’s epic poem predicts that the Cape of Storms (Cabo Tormentoso) will preserve both Almeida’s memory and his bones. At that time, the Cape was seen as a Portal to the Indies: a threshold between the cold Atlantic and a warm Indian, and as “earth’s extremest end”. A century later, in 1652, under another flag, the Cape became the furthest south of all Holland’s colonies. Almeida’s bones thus rest at a cornerstone of colonial history.
Hearing about the death in Lisbon, King Manuel announced a day of mourning and forbade his ships from calling at the Cape, again, unless in dire necessity, and thereby prevented Almeida’s bones from returning to Portugal. King Manuel was superstitious, believing the fallen sons of Lusus (Portugal) protected his realm and, allegedly, added: “as long as his bones are there, all is safe”.
“While Almeida’s bones lie at the Cape, all is safe.” Manuel I, 1510.
At the time, Manuel I (shown directly above) ruled over the first global empire and was then one of the most powerful men in the world. His decision against further landings along the Cape coast would ultimately delay European occupation for another 142 years.
The attack on Francisco d’Almeida at the Cape of Good Hope, 1510. From Pieter van der Aa’s Naauwkeurige verzameling der gedenkwaardigste zee- en landreysen naar Oost- en West-Indië, Leiden, 1707.
In 1512, two years after Almeida’s murder, a passing Portuguese ship touched at the Cape to collect fresh water. On board was the former master of Almeida’s boat and a relative of one of the deceased, Cristóvão de Brito, who asked to be taken ashore to see the grave. On finding the site “without a sign of those who lay there”, Brito had a wooden cross and cairn of stones erected to mark the spot. This ensemble became the first memorial built by white interlopers in South Africa.
The only historical illustrations of Almeida’s murder—and of Brito’s subsequent visit—were made two centuries after the event, in 1707. These were published by Pieter van der Aa, a renown cartographer and printer from Leiden, Holland, in his collection of notable land and sea travels to the East. Printed as fold-out folios, the engravings were often removed by collectors and so not easily recognised or identified by later historians. The scene showing several seamen erecting a cross was only ‘rediscovered’ by Cape Archivist, Victor de Kock, in 1952.
Erecting a cross to mark the grave of Francisco d’Almeida, 1512. From Pieter van der Aa’s Naauwkeurige verzameling der gedenkwaardigste zee- en landreysen naar Oost- en West-Indië, Leiden, 1707.
In traditional African societies—unlike western Christendom—the bones of the ancestors are seen as sacred and kept close to the family hearth. As such, ancestral graves are integral to a healthy domestic-social life and the bones important for settling disputes, putting the deceased to rest, and for predicting the future. Bones are also used to call up the Ancestors, like witnesses to a trial, in order to see justice served. Seen in this context, Almeida had to die at the Cape of Torments.
At Almeida’s posthumous trial—that is, speaking metaphorically—the Ancestors came from the far-off shores of Kenya and Tanzania. And to this Camões adds that Almeida was killed for the plundering of Kilwa and Mombasa in 1505, five years earlier, on his outbound voyage, when his men brutally butchered the local Swahili and Arabs. His death was a retribution.
Cape Town’s history is thus as much part of East Africa as it is a part of South Asia: the geo-politics of each overlap. More so, Egypt and India had a knock-on effect all the way down the coast—from Melinde to Mombasa, from Kilwa to Sofala—ending at the Cape of Good Hope. And Almeida’s murder demonstrates this.
While the site may never be excavated nor his bones ever found, the ‘discovery’ raises a telling question: To whom do his bones belong? To his family, to his country, or to his old fraternity?
African Sacred Ibises over Cape Town’s forgotten shoreline, an alternative view of Table Mountain, 2011. Photograph courtesy of Michael Golby.
Cape Town’s proposed regeneration programme for the Voortrekker Road Corridor and “Salt Rivièra” renewal project will, I hope, include a new memorial for all the victims and descendants of the Almeida/Khoena conflict. There is currently no other memorial in South Africa or Portugal and, as far as I know, none were ever erected to commemorate this tragedy. Not one in five hundred years? Well, perhaps it is time to let Hope grow out of Torment as the Cape outgrows its Storms.
Bird’s eye view of the battle-burial site (encircled) and its proximity to the Salt River Canal, Voortrekker Road and Ysterplaat Station. The proposed urban and recreational development project, if successful, could offer unparalleled opportunities for the identification, excavation and commemoration of this long-lost battlefield, its graves and original stone cairn memorial.