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The History of Mossel Bay

Mossel Bay’s history is unique and was pivotal to the development of the rest of South Africa. The first economic transaction in South Africa took place here along with several other “firsts” that changed the history of South Africa … forever….

Mossel Bay lies at the Eastern corner of a great triangle of land, suitable for grazing and growing of crops, stretching 300 kilometres from West to East, from Bot River. It is bounded on the North by the Rivier Sonder End, Langeberg and the Outeniqua Mountains, and on the South by the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The region measures about 100 kilometres northwards from Cape Agulhas to Storms Vlei at its widest point. The importance of Mossel Bay lies in the fact, east of George, the mountains draw very close to the coast. As a result, many rivers enter the sea directly without confluence, and the gradient is so steep that deep gorges are formed. Until comparatively recently wheeled traffic couldn’t follow the coastal belt from George to Humansdorp, so travelers were obliged to cross the Outeniqua mountains and continue their journey East through the Langkloof. To the West, there are no practicable harbours between False Bay and Mossel Bay. Mossel Bay was thus the only place where the land trade from the Little and Central Karoo, and the South Cape, could connect with maritime trade routes.

This connection began in the late fifteenth century when the Portuguese seafarers Dias and da Gama obtained sheep and cattle from the Khoi herders in Munro’s Bay. For tens of thousands of years the forbears of the Khoisan and the Khoikhoi lived in this region. Their legacy is the many beautiful place-names Attaqua, Hessequa, Outeniqua, Karoo, Gwaing, Gourits and many more. The Dutch East India Company’s stock traders who fanned out in search of meat for ships, and the later Trekboers, learned to speak the Khoi and San languages, and many place names in the region are direct Nederlands translations of the old Khoi names. The Khoi left no buildings, but the impressive rock fish-traps from Betty‘s Bay to the Gourits River are lasting memorials to the Strandloper people.

Threatened French and English intrusion led the D.E.I.C. to establish military outposts (buiteposte) at Mossel Bay, George and Plettenberg Bay in 1785, and so the first permanent buildings were erected in Mossel Bay, where the Maritime Museum now stands. An unlikely event supplied the first officer in charge. In 1772 Struensee, the liberal first minister of Denmark was overthrown in a coup d’état and executed. His private secretary, Hans Abue, fled to Holland and reached the Cape in the service of the Company. He served as Ensign and then Postholder at Mossel Bay for 33 years, dying in 1819 aged 78.

The French and English threat coincided with a wheat shortage. The Company persuaded Southern Cape farmers to plant wheat for shipment to Cape Town. Abue’s first task was to superintend the building of the Granary. In 1807 he superintended the replacement of the unsatisfactory flat roof with a pitched roof. This building, the sole remnant of the Company’s rule in the region, was demolished in 1955 in an act of official vandalism. It was rebuilt to the original design under the supervision of Mr. Gawie Fagan in 1988.

By 1730 there was a settled farming community in the district. The fall of The Company freed up economic activity and Mossel Bay achieved its destiny as a harbour handling imports of commodities and the export of agricultural produce. In 1811 the Cradock Pass above George was opened, giving direct access to the Little Karoo. This was replaced by the Montagu Pass in 1848. In 1820 the first buildings were erected in Church Street. English settlers began arriving. The Barry`s of Swellendam opened a warehouse in 1827. In 1847 they built a large warehouse, the first dateable stone building, now the Protea Hotel by Marriot. Between 1820 and 1902 importing firms built large stone warehouses in Bland Street and Church Street, of which ten still stand.

Mossel Bay thus acquired its characteristic appearance, the first mainly stone-built town in South Africa. Descendants of the Khoi, the Coloured community, moved into the town. Among other occupations, they worked as masons, carpenters, shoemakers, gardeners, stevedores, tailors, bakers and fishermen. Most lived in the Eastern and Northern parts of the old town. Building in stone went on. Whether it was a rich merchant’s house, a church, the town hall, the beach pavilion, a school, a quay, the lighthouse, a warehouse or a laborer’s cottage, all were built of stone, and beautifully built. First, the creamy-brown stone was used, but after 1900 the lovely pink stone was used for important buildings. The quality of the masonry improved with time until it reached its apogee in the magnificent tower and spire of St Peter`s Church.

Mossel Bay flourished in the absence of rail links. Diamonds were discovered in Kimberley in 1870, and Mossel Bay harbour was the nearest link to the sea. In 1885 both Cape Town and Port Elizabeth were connected by rail to the diamond fields, and Mossel Bay’s shipping trade began its slow decline. The coming of the railway in 1906, and the rail link to Oudtshoorn in 1915 removed the dependence of the Little Karroo on maritime commerce through Mossel Bay. The late Twentieth Century brought huge changes again, beyond the scope of this paper!

Written by Wesley Gavin

Thank you to Heritage Mossel Bay for supplying all the images and information.
Your dedication to the preservation of Mossel Bay`s history is much appreciated.


Where did the name ‘Mossel Bay’ come from?

Mossel Bay was first named Bahia or Aquada Sao Bras (Watering Place of Saint Blaize) by Vasco da Gama in 1497. Prior Bartholomeu Dias in 1488 referred to it as Agra dos Vagueiros, Bay of Herders which he saw in the distance.

Commelin wrote in 1646 that the name Mossel Bay had been given by Paulus van Caerden in 1601. Van Caerden gave the following description in his manifest: “Vonden het een schoon landt, sonder veel geboomte, dan wel herten ende Olyphanten, bequaemen, behalven water, weynigh verversings als mosselen, dies het die naem van Mossel Baey gaven.”

“We found it a lovely land, without many trees, but with deer and elephants. Apart from water, we got little refreshment except for mussels, and therefore gave it the name of Mossel Bay.”

A timeline of Mossel Bay`s History

1488 3 Feb, Bartolomeu Dias fleet, two vessels, arrives on names day of Saint Blaize. At the landing site, the seafarers found a stream of fresh water. A skirmish with the Khoi took place, resulting in a cross bow being fired.

1497 Vasco da Gama arrived on 25 November, as their second expedition to the East. Names the Bay, Aquada de Sao Bras. They encountered friendly Khoi, traded an ox for a red cap and some bracelets. This was the first trading transaction on Southern African soil in which explorers took part. The First people entertained these visitors with music from their reed flutes, and the sailors danced. These reed instruments had 3 notes only, and the tune was carefully recorded by Da Gama. Vasco Da Gama set up a padrao/stone cross and a wooden cross on the ‘high southernmost point’, which unfortunately were destroyed by the Khoi right after. Similar crosses were erected at Kwaaihoek and Namibia.

1500 Pedro d`Ataide, Captain in Fleet of Pedro Cabral, on a return trip, leaves a letter in a boot in a tree near the watering place. The letter warned of antagonism towards Portuguese in Calcutta, advising explorers to go to Malakat.

1501 July, Jaco da Nova en route to India, finds the letter anof d’Ataided in thanksgiving of being warned of danger, erected a small chapel, an Ermina, on a high spot.

1595 Cornelius Houtman, the first Dutch seafarer to sail to India via the Cape called. Traded goods for a few sheep. Houtman drew the first map of the Bay, mentions the fresh water, and a big tree.

1601 Named Mosselbaai by Admiral P van Caerden as he found only Mussels to eat.

1652 Jan van Riebeech arrived at the Table Bay to establish a garrison for the VOC.

1729 The first “Leenplaas” (Hagelkraal) was awarded. From this time onwards more farming communities settled in the district.

1785 The Dutch East India Company established a ‘Buitepost’ (outpost), in Mossel Bay. The Garison consisted of an officer and six soldiers and they were tasked to prevent the French from claiming the land. In 1772 Struensee, the liberal first minister of Denmark was overthrown in a coup d’etat and executed. His private secretary, Hans Abue (the officer), fled to Holland and reached the Cape in the service of the Company. He served as Ensign and then Postholder at Mossel Bay for 33 years, dying in 1819 aged 78.

1786 The Granery erected.

1811 Mossel Bay fell under the jurisdiction of George. Formerly the area fell under Swellendam.

1818 Due to the development of the growing community, now well established commercial shipping activities took off.

1820 The land surveyed in 1818 and plots were set out. Mr CW Pohl bought stands 1, 2, 3 set out along Church Street. He built a house on 1, and a single-story shop on Plot 3, facing Bland Street. The shop became double-story in 1824 and later sold to Acker, then to Prince, Collins & Co and enlarged again.

With the first buildings built in Church Street, the English settlers began arriving.

1844 First record of a Market revenue. Mr H O Acker appointed as First Postmaster.

1843 The first rubble quay in Varkensbaai erected by Harris on permission granted .

Daniel Bland built a stone quay in Pigs Bay at his own cost. Long enough take one vessel, later extended to measure 47m. 1860, Cape authorities take over Blands jetty

1845 First NG Kerk Built. First School Lessons given in the Vestry ‘konsistorie’ in 1847

1848 Mossel Bay was declared a town and magistrate’s district.

1851 Horse Racing Track on farm Boplaas – apparently of the first, if not first in SA.

1852 Mossel Bay declared a Municipality on 12 July. To be known as Aliwal (Mossel Bay).

The Municipality would consist of the village, the Point, and the public gracing, bordered by the sea, the farms Sevenfontein (Voorbaai) and Droogefontein.

1855/6 Anglican Church School Chapel built.

1858 1st Municipal Building, known as Market House, built. A plot of 223 sqm was awarded To Messrs. Gustav Buschick, Joseph Vintcent, D du Plessis and Daniel du Plessis Bland, for the erection of a building to serve as a venue for municipal meetings, a library and a reading room. Fully funded by the shareholders.

At this time this little town nestled on the warm Northern slope of the Cape St Blaize peninsula, waiting for the trading boom that was to occupy the next two decades.”

1860 State takes over Blands quay

1861 First Police Station – at the time there was no formal prison, prisoners were locked up in a small room in the customs house. During the day they repaired roads or carried out other public services.

1862 Pilkingtons Jetty erected. This 122m long jetty started in Bland street. This First public works project was funded by public subscription. Completion festivities celebrated by all residents.

1864 St Blaize Lighthouse completed in March when the fixed light was installed.

1867 Diamonds were discovered in Hope Town. Much of the hardware that was imported from Britain and Germany, was shipped through Mossel Bay harbour en route to diamond fields. The harbour was considered to be closer to Kimberley than Cape Town.

1869 Robinson Pass opened, allowing easier access to the Karoo.

1871 1st Edition of the Mossel Bay Advertiser published

1872 The first public school opened as the Non-denominational Public School later known as Jongenskool

1874 Queens Warehouse built and housed the Customs offices.

1879 Second Municipal Building erected.

1880 Sept. The vessel Trojan of the Union Lines called, town residents could for 1st time see the magic of ‘electric light’

1880 First Post Office was in Powrie’s Chemist Shop. The first Telegraph service started around the same time.

1881 Kleinbosch Water Scheme commenced. Up until then the town relied on two boreholes and a stream which were quite inadequate for the growing community. Droughts and water shortages were common and earlier pictures depict people queuing for water.

Until 1885 when 26 miles of pipes were laid but there was no adequate reservoir.

1883 December, Name changed to Mossel Bay (without Aliwal) by the Commissioners of the Town.

1864 St Blaize Lighthouse completed

1886 Schermbrucker Reservoir was commissioned.

1887 Victoria Park laid out in honour of Queen Victoria. Later renamed Harry Giddey Park

1892 First public clock was installed in the Klipkerk on 12 November.

1894 The Herbert Baker designed Town Library built. In July 1888 there were 3771 books and 51 members in the old library housed in the 1st Municipal building. Our earlier city fathers were keen readers. The service was paid for by subscription and twice a year, books were ordered from England. Up to 1870 only English books were available. The librarians were the recorders and custodians of Mossel Bay social records, and artefacts.

1890’s Residents considered themselves to be the most burdened under taxes and debt – this in relation to its size and valuations of properties.

1895 Harbour wall was build

1897 Mossel Bay Boating Co founded. The company managed the harbour.

1903 Mossel Bay received a telephone service. This service only became automatic in 1971. Mossel Bay had telephones before it had electricity .

1906 Rail line extended from Worcester to Mossel Bay by Cape Central . First train reached Voorbaai on 22 January.

1910 The Coronation Hall (Town Hall) and Rink Hall (Recreation & Markets) built in honour of Coronation of King George V.

1912 The Hospital built. Funded by public contribution and treatment charges, matched £ for £ by Cape Government.

1916 Santos Pavilion was built. It was a popular venue for social events. Visiting Royalty and travellers were treated there often.

1920 First Register of buildings opened by Municipality

1920 First Prison built

1922 Power Station Built above Santos Beach. Electricity arrived

1925 The Poort Tea Room and changing rooms were constructed.

1927 New Magistrate’s Court

1928 Rail Bridge over Gouritz River completed

1954 Tarka and New Sunnyside, at the request of the Coloured community, declared coloured housing areas.

1959 Provincial Hospital in Linkside was opened

1960 1 May – Oil discharge terminal in sea commissioned. Enabling Tanker to discharge oil and gas at said terminals, connected to the Tank Farm originally located at the Point.

1962 The Post Office Tree declared a National Monument.

1963 ‘Shoe’ Post Box at the Post Office Tree erected.

1969 Padrao (Vasco da Gama replica) erected above Munro’s Bay.

1987 Mossel Bay Gas to Liquid (GTL) Refinery project initiated.

1988 500 Year celebration of the landing of Dias on 3 February 1488. Re-inactment of voyage from Lisbon to Mossel Bay, in a commissioned replica Caravel.

1989 GTL Plant Refinery construction commences in Mossel Bay. Major influx of skilled personnel and migrant workers (PetroSA).

1989 3 Feb – Official opening of Dias Museum, houses the Caravel.

1992 Mossel Bay Gass to Liquid Refinery Commissioned. At the time the largest GTL Refinery in the world. Presently the third largest.

The establishment of the GTL plant brought about substantial growth in economic development, population, and especially influx of informal settlers.

2019 Brull Padda off-shore field; owners Total & partners, announces major gas finds.



Compiled by Mrs. Carina Wiggle

Our sincere gratitude for the tremendous contribution that she is making towards the conservation of Mossel Bay`s history and historic buildings.

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