Observatory - Steeped in History and Heritage by Patric Mallet

A couple of days back I had a dream where I visited the renovated premises of my once favourite shop as a kid in Salt River just around the corner from where I once lived in lower Rochester Road as a kid. The shop was Abrahamses Pet Shop. It was the biggest store of its kind in Cape Town and had premises on both sides of the Lower main Road. On the one side feed and pigeons and on the otherside all sorts of pets and pet goetes. In my dream it had all gone and I was like Rip van Winkle waking up in a shell of a building trying to find what use to be there.

Then in real life the next day someone that I last saw 40 years ago, Edwin Anglis, came to see me to discuss a project that he was doing to make a documentary film on Observatory.We recalled our old times and it brought back memories of when Kallie Hanekom at 8 oak Street had wat I called his underground left library that he made available to us. I also thought about a group of us young workers under James Dryja and myself who started the All Africa Southern Socialist Working Youth and Students Organisation after we broke away from the Young Christian Workers Movement as an independent body inspired by Liberation Theology with the newspaper that I edited - YOUNG VOICE (young church for social change) which was later banned, and reappeared as NEW VOICE and also banned.

We had a little office next door to the Peninsula Literacy Association where Judy Favish, Trevor Manuel and others operated from upstairs from what in later years would become the Heidelberg Tavern, and in earlier years, according to my old mentor Wolfie Kodesh, was a butchery owned by the Yutar family whose offspring was Percy Yutar the prosecutor at the Rivonia trial.

Observatory has old roots of struggles going back to the 16th century. Records from as early as 1510 the year that the greatest Portuguese military general of the time Francisco d’Almeida and his soldiers were killed and defeated by Khoena resistance, indications are that the start of that battle on the beach at Salt River occurred inland at what would become Observatory. The area from around the Lower Main Road down to the Liesbeeck River and where Valkenburg stands, was the area where the Goringhaiqua had a traditional settlement. Initially hospitable to the Portuguese they turned on and repelled the Portuguese when d’Almeida’s men attacked the Khoena and stole some cattle. The Khoena counter attacked and ran them off but the Portuguese decided to come and teach them a lesson. The lesson was taught the other way around in a fantastic defeat for the Portuguese.

In 1613 a man from the same Goringhaiqua community in what would become the Observatory district was lured on board a ship of the English East India Company, the Hector, kidnapped and taken to London for a year. There like in the Pocahontas story, Chief Xhore was paraded as a spectacle, dressed in European clothes and taught English. He was returned a year later and in the following year 1615 the English attempted to establish a penal colony in the area with the assistance of Chief Xhore under Captains Peyton and Crosse with a group of convicts from Newgate prison. After bad behaviour on the part of the convict settlers, Chief Xhore drove them off and they sought refuge on Robben Island. Only 3 of the original settler party of over 20 made it back to England three years later. Xhore was killed by the Dutch in 1629.

He was succeeded by Chief Autshumao (whom the history books called Harry the Strandloper, claiming that he was just a beachbum). Autshumao had formed a breakaway clan from the Goringhaiqua and moved from the Observatory area to strategically set himself up at the mouth of the Camissa River in Table Bay, gathering around him maroons (runaways or drifters) from the Goringhaiqua, Gorachoqua and Cochouqua, who called themselves the Goringhaicona (children of the Goringhaiqua). In 1630 Chief Autshumao agreed to go with the English to Jakarta (Batavia) and returned a year later as the official facilitator for supplying passing vessels with information, meat and fresh-water through being an intermediary for trade. He and 30 of his followers were first established on Robben Island and then from around 1638 they re-established themselves in Table Bay at the Camissa River. This process represented the first foundations of the City of Cape Town some 22 years before the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck, by a man from Observatory. Van Riebeeck effectively stole his business and set up a fort exactly where the Goringhaicona trading village was established.

In 1657 van Riebeeck granted 14 parcels of land along the Liesbeeck with Coornhoop farm in what became Observatory being the epicentre. Effectively the European move into the Goringhaiqua village and grazing land became the first frontier. In 1659 there was an outbreak of war on this frontier with the Dutch settlers led by another great Khoena leader, Nommoa (also known as Doman) from the Observatory based Goringhaiqua and other Peninsula Khoena. Coornhoop today is the historic 17th century farmhouse situated in Dixton Road, Observatory.

The war lasted for almost two years and as a result after the war a fortified Uitkyk tower was erected in the vicinity of the Mowbray Maternity home was established and a cavalry established with imported horses. This represented the earliest colonial buildings until the Royal Observatory emerged between 1821 and 1840 followed by Valkenburg, Wrensch farm which grew into Wrensch Town kick-started new developments. Large building programmes emerged from this to accommodate first the growing English lower middle-classes in the south of Observatory and then the working class artisans and labourers in the north.

At the Royal Observatory itself, as were earlier at all the farms along the Liesbeeck inclusing Coornhoop, there were many slaves and in the period just after the abolition of slavery 12 of the West African Royal Navy Kroomen were brough to the Royal Observatory to supplement the labour force. All of these were part of the founding population of Observatory. On the Mowbray side of Observatory there were also farms with slaves and in Mowbray itself the Driekoppen site got its name from a mini uprising of slaves who when caught had their heads decapitated and put on pikes. Thye lime kilns at the upper part of Observatory was also worked by slaves. After the abolition of slavery the slaves and later indentured labourers settled in Salt River, Observatory and Mowbray but as a result of the Apartheid Group Areas Act were forcibly removed from Observatory and Mowbray. At that time observatory was much bigger than today. Large sections of terraced houses on the Mowbray side and between the Christian and Muslim Graveyards were bulldozed over to make way for Settlers Way and also for the Hospital extensions and UCT student accommodation.

Among the emergent middle classes that took root from the 1850s were strong Muslim and Jewish communities. Many of the Jewish community were left socialists and likewise among the Muslim community there was also a strong progressive and left orientation. Hadji Ojer Ally who had come out from Mauritius was the prime campaigner for the establishment of the Muslim Cemetery in Observatory. He also was one of the early activists in the formation of the African Political Organisation of Matt Fredericks and Dr Abdurrahman. H O Ally was highly active in the African and Indian congress movements in Kimberly and in Fordsburg and he accompanied Ghandi on his trip to London to petition Parliament.

Rivonia trialist sentenced with Nelson Mandela to life imprisonment, Denis Goldberg also grew up in Observatory and has wonderful stories of his Jewish childhood in the area. He is one of many who served in the national liberation movement who lived at one time or another in Observatory – Christian, Muslim, Jew and Atheist who started their resistance road on the streets of Obs. As can be seen from its historical roots, that ‘resistance fighters’ associated with Observatory go a long way back. The Jewish presence in Observatory was still strong in my childhood with Dr Shattenstein the main doctor in the south section in Station Road and Dr Shapiro in the Lower Main Road serving the far northern side and Salt River where we lived at the time.

There are many strands to Observatory’s history and the heritage that underpins today’s vibrant multicultural bohemian village and community is a rich tapestry of events , painful and joyous, but is largely hidden due to ignorance and colonial overlays, much as is most of the vibrant stories that give us a better idea of who we are and where we come from.

Recently a first World War Memorial to our soldiers was defaced by protestors who simply saw it as a colonial symbol, not realising that this has great significance for black South Africans. On the border of Observatory and Mowbray there was a large transit camp for the black soldiers that went off as ‘Springboks’ to fight in Europe. These hundreds of African men were to die when their ship the SS Mendi was sunk in the English Channel. From this transit camp the soldiers marched to Duncan docks and boarded the SS Mendi. As their ship sank in the cold English channel waters the Reverend Wauchope Dyobha cried out to the men : Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die... but that is what you came to do... Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers, Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies.And they took off their boots and stamped the death dance on the deck of the sinking ship. Perhaps those who organise community affairs in Observatory should inscribe the Mendi story at that memorial cross so that youngsters will know their history and not deface it.

Those who enjoy their tipple and entertainment at Tagores should stop awhile and think of the Guajarati family, the Khshevs who had run Oxsole Shoe Repairs in Trill Road since 1903 before they were first forcibly removed under Apartheid from their home upstairs and later had to give up the property in the 1980s. Observatory was also always divided along class lines that ran like steps on a ladder downwards from the middle-class south to the largely ‘halfnatjie and coloured poor working class in the north at its poorest in lower Rochester Road, the border blending with the factories.

From the Old Lion Match Factory in the direction of Salt River, up to Rochester Road the class stratification intensified and co-related to colour. Artisans to unskilled labourers, from ‘Quadroons’, through to ‘Halfnatjies’, to ‘Coloured’, to Indian and African in old race-terminology lived in a progression. The poorest and most mixed community lived in a dense small terraced house section in lower Rochester Road below the lower Main Road, Cole street, Grant Street, Nansen Road and Lower Scott road. A truly non-racial community united in poverty, but with Observatory’s iconic entertainment spot in their midst – the Bijou. Part of my growing up years was living with my mum who rented rooms in this area and living with my late sister May and her family first in Lower Rochester Road and then on the corner of Cole and Nansen Streets. We were more orientated towards Salt River where we shopped, but also to Observatory. One of my sister’s first jobs was as an usherette at the Bijou.

Today a very vibey, cosmopolitan and mixed community again thrives in Observatory…… but most do not know its roots.