Cape Cross: The lure of white gold - News - Gondwana Collection


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Cape Cross: The lure of white gold

Avatar of inke inke - 24. February 2017 - Discover Namibia

Guano being transported by boat to a ship, 1920. (Source: Kleyenstüber, National Archives of Namibia)

A few old graves with weather-beaten crosses, two stone padrões (pillars crowned with a cross) and a cacophony of seals mark the place that was a hive of activity at the end of the 19th century. It’s difficult to believe that a windswept, desolate promontory could attract explorers, entrepreneurs and industry. Strangely, Cape Cross did. It also boasted the first railway line and water distillation plant in the country - and the first postal robbery.

It was first noted four hundred years earlier. Portuguese sailors left their home shores to sail down the unexplored coast of Africa, marking new territory. They ventured into the ocean in their small caravels, guided by the stars and at the mercy of storms, scurvy, hostile locals and a treacherous coastline. On Diogo Cão’s first expedition his fleet travelled more than 1200 kilometres. A year later he set sail again, mapping the unchartered coastline and reaching the barren, windblown Cabo do Padrão in 1486. Here the crew erected their last padrão, claiming the territory before heading home. Diogo Cão did not return with them. The details of his death remain a mystery.

The desolate coastline was left to the wind, mist and desert sands and remained undisturbed by Europeans until the 1800s. When the members of the German navy gunboat Wolf erected a noticeboard in 1884 claiming the land as part of the German protectorate, they failed to notice the padrão. It was only in 1893 when the German cruiser Falke surveyed the area in search of a safe harbour that the padrão, by now leaning at an angle, was found. 

German colonisation led to further investigation of Cape Cross. Manager of the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft, Ernst Hermann, observed that the seals at Lüderitz migrated northwards and as seal skins were potential income, sent Englishman Walter Matthews to investigate. This was no easy feat as there was no fresh water beyond the Omaruru River mouth. When Matthews reached Cape Cross, he found thousands of seals. He also discovered vast deposits of guano. Seabird droppings were regarded as a wonder fertiliser in Britain at the time, a “white gold”, and the rocks of offshore islands were scraped bare during the guano rush.

Matthews returned and reported sighting seals but never mentioned the guano. Instead, he contacted his wealthy uncle, CJ Elers, in London and proposed that they exploit the guano and seals at Cape Cross. The Damaraland Guano Company was formed and they applied to the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft for a concession to look for guano deposits between the Omaruru and Ugab rivers. As the German company did not have the resources to pursue all potential enterprises, they granted the company a concession for a ten year period.

All the material for the settlement had to be shipped from Britain, including food, equipment, tools and a condensation plant to provide drinking water. With no jetty or harbour, everything had to be conveyed to shore through the breakers in small boats. By the end of 1895, the company had also shipped approximately 70 workers to Cape Cross (from Britain, Germany and the Cape) and employed about 30 local inhabitants from the Brandberg area and surrounds. Its vision paid off and in the first nine months 5,700,000 kilograms of guano and 2500 seal skins were exported. It also paid 134,000 Marks to the German Colonial Government in taxes. A police station, post office and customs office were opened, manned by Schutztruppe. The Damaraland Guano Company was required to pay 4000 Marks a year towards their salaries and supply them with food. The company also built the first railway line, laying a 21-kilometre track across the pan to transport the guano and another strip to the seal colony to convey the culled seals. A small steam locomotive, Prince Edward, was shipped to Cape Cross for this purpose. It was also used to draw wagons carrying workers to their worksites and to transfer bagged guano to the beach to await collection.

Life on the bleak desert coastline was not easy. It exacted a toll on the ships and the men. A shortage of water meant that additional water had to be transported by oxwagon from the Omaruru River, a long and arduous trek through soft sand. Unable to grow fresh vegetables, the men suffered from scurvy. If a ship was overdue, there was a shortage of food, although fresh meat was at times procured from people from the Okombahe in Damaraland. The ships that loaded guano were carriers of disease and Cape Cross was quarantined in 1901 to stop the spread of smallpox. 

In the same year, a postal service was introduced to carry post between the settlement and Swakopmund. The post carrier was confronted by an armed man between Henties Bay and Wlotzkasbaken and abandoned his postbag. The bag was recovered in the vicinity and a man was apprehended in connection with the crime but was released due to lack of evidence. 

The bustle and success of Cape Cross was short-lived. Production dropped dramatically to 500,000 kilograms of guano and 1400 seal skins in 1902. The area had been stripped of guano and the seals had grown wary and were either difficult to cull or had left. The company ceased operation in November 1903 after only nine years, a year before its concession expired. 

Over the decades the concession to collect seal skins changed hands several times. Finally in 2001, the last of the buildings was razed to the ground to make way for the Cape Cross Lodge. Today, the Cape Cross Seal Reserve draws visitors and the lodge, those yearning for solitude and peace. It’s easy to miss the rich history of the area. The small graveyard remains, testament to those who docked and lived here, and replicas of the original padrão stand in memory of the intrepid Portuguese explorers who courageously navigated into the unknown.

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