Table Bay claimed many ships in winter storms and any vessel unlucky enough to part from its anchors in the prevailing north-westerly winds, was mercilessly driven ashore. Even though most shipwrecks in Table Bay were not due to fog or mist, a lighthouse was nevertheless long overdue by the early 1820s.
This was the time when Deputy Governor Sir Rufane Donkin was posted to the Cape, and hoped not to stay long in this far outpost. He loathed his superior, the Governor, Lord Charles Somerset and found a sneaky way to score some brownie points against him during his extended absence. Donkin took a chance and commissioned the first lighthouse in the Cape and promptly sent this good news back to the Government in Britain, along with an assurance that it would only cost £200.
This estimate seemed to have been plucked out of thin air, as Herman Schutte, the Inspector of Government Buildings, estimated it would cost 13,400 rix-dollars (about £4,000). Schutte was one of the best builders, architects and surveyors in the Cape at the time, and played a large part in moulding the style of architecture. Donkin had no option but to accept Schutte’s quote and award him the building contract.
A disgruntled Lord Charles Somerset returned to find construction in progress and was most displeased that the prestige of beginning the Cape’s first lighthouse was stolen from him. It was too late to stop the building, but Lord Charles took some pleasure in noting the delays and increasing costs. After completion it became apparent that the interior space was far too small for the lighthouse keeper and his family and an annex room had to be added. Schutte was having trouble getting his money out of Donkin for all these extras and even though Lord Charles finally paid the bill, it wasn’t in time to stop Schutte going bankrupt.
The end result was the fine Greenpoint Lighthouse, still in use today (after increases in height and candle power). The addition of a fog horn – which is sounded every 30 seconds as soon as Robben Island is no longer visible – is a familiar sound to anyone living in Greenpoint and Seapoint.
Hindsight is a luxury, but it took the loss of three ships within a mile of Greenpoint Lighthouse in just ten years, to realise that this lighthouse alone could not protect the difficult coastline. In 1842, Mouille Point lighthouse was built only a kilometre away. The close proximity of these two lighthouses confuses locals to this day, and many people refer to Greenpoint Lighthouse as Mouille Point, even though this lighthouse is no longer standing.
You would think that with additional lighthouses around Table Bay and on Robben Island, and sophisticated 21st century navigational equipment, no ship should come to grief here. Yet wrecks still occur here and Greenpoint residents still come and stand on the shore to witness each addition to this ship graveyard.
This photo is from The Argus in July 1966, when the Seafarer struck rocks opposite Greenpoint Lighthouse due to a series of navigational errors. The Captain was found responsible for the stranding and lost his Master’s Certificate for two years. This information was gleaned from Brian Wexham’s fascinating book, Shipwrecks of the Western Cape.
The Cape Grace jogging map takes you from the hotel for 1.6 miles/2.5km hugging the coastline where possible, to Greenpoint Lighthouse, which is the turnaround point. Pick up a map at Cape Grace reception.