A short history of Dassen Island

The VOC's monogram - the first of all corporate logos - was chiselled into the rock Rijpermunde in 1657. A house, "'t Losie St Elisabeth", was built above the bay facing the mainland, with two cannon flanking the bay. Every summer after the breeding season, a boatload of sealers went to the island, and returned with barrels of train oil. Seventy-two thousand seals were taken in the two seasons 1654 and 1655. The Company's directors then suggested that sealing should be left to free enterprise. Some freemen who earned their bread in the coastal waters, on the islands and inlets between Robben Island and St. Helena Bay, and were aptly named the Saldanhavaarders, applied for the job. They owned a like clubs, flensing knives, trypots and barrels. They were paid 10 guilders per barrel of oil, which was more than a soldier earned in a month. They were permitted to graze a few sheep on Dassen Island for their own refreshment, but these had to be removed at the first threat of war. When Theuntje, the wife of Saldanhavaarder Bart Borms, fell foul of the law, she was banished to the island for six weeks. (Theuntje's crime was malicious slander. Bart, who was illiterate, signed documents with a neat drawing of an anchor.)

When Simon van der Stel became head of the Cape station he cancelled their contract, rejected their objections, and again burdened the Company with the task of sealing. A house was built for the seasonal visitors, but there were also periods when two or three men permanently occupied the island. Their task was to collect eggs for the tables and feathers for the beds of the officials in town, while protecting the animals and birds against vandalism by ships' crews in the off-season. Sweet potatoes were planted for winter rations, but the visitors still had to bring their own supply of fresh water. At least three of the Company's men died and were buried on the island.

From 1707 on a marksman accompanied the sealers, which brought an end to clubbing. The Company's soldiers considered the killing, skinning, cutting out of blubber, disposing of carcasses, firing trypots, filling barrels with oil, and preparing thousands of hides for tanning and shipping them to Table Bay, hard labour and a dirty and stinking work. They were replaced by convicts who were shipped over from Robben Island for the task, from 1717 to 1750. Better houses, whitewashed and thatched in the Cape vernacular style, were built on Dassen Island in 1705 and 1732.

In the summer months when the Southwester (locally called the Southeaster) blew, the Company's outward bound ships often sheltered behind the island. The convicts on Dassen Island then provided the first essential refreshment of fresh sorrel, coney or rabbit meat, fish and wild geese for the disease-ridden crews, and when there were not enough sailors fit enough to sail the ship to safety in Table Bay, some of the island's convicts, who were all former sailors and soldiers, were sent to man the ships and conduct them to Table Bay. One such vessel was Reijgersdal, that was refreshed at Dassen Island in 1747, brought to anchor behind Robben Island, and soon after was blown from its anchors and driven helplessly with an incapacitated crew on to the beach near Ganze Craal, with the loss of its cargo and the majority of its crew. Some of its wreckage ended up on Dassen Island.

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, and particularly after the American war of independence.

Considerable numbers of British and American whalers and sealers turned up in Cape waters in the Southern spring, seeking to supply the new demand for oil for the machines of the Industrial Revolution. (Earth oil, you will recall, was only discovered in America in the 1860's, almost a century later.) They clubbed to heart's content on Dassen Island, ignoring the government's protests, as all islands situated outside bays were in their opinion open to international exploitation.

In 1791 SV van Reenen acquired the Company's former outstation Ganze Craal. (It is now a national monument, and visible from the West Coast road.) He applied to the government for the use of Dassen Island, to keep his purebred merino sheep away from contact with others. The government refused, for fear that this enterprising farmer may provision foreign ships,that were appearing in Cape waters in greater numbers every year, and so prevent them from spending their money in Cape Town.

Maps drawn of the island during the Dutch occupation are naturally not very accurate, but are always very interesting. There are three or four from this period in the Cape Archives. The map of 1656 already shows a small hut ("'t Losie St Elisabeth") on the east side of the bay, from where they would have had a lovely view of our stretch of coast. The map of 1731 calls the big, shallow and sandy bay on the north side of the island "Lulle Putters Baaij", and on the map of 1755 it is called "Lelijputten Baaij". Interesting names, but not Dutch, as the various spellings show. When I last visited the island in 1982, that beach stood full of penguins. There is no trace to the origin of the name in the Archives, and I have not found an explanation for them. Is it possible that someone at the Cape in 1731 knew Jonathan Swift's tale of Lemuel Gullilver? There is a passage in the book, in which he describes how he walked out of the sea towards a distant beach: "The declivity was so small, that I walked near a mile before I got to the shore." Tiny fellows on the beach watched his approach with curiosity. The island was called Lilliput. Do I really think so? No, it's just an idea.

At the end of the previous century a lighthouse was built on top of rockRijpermunde. This is the light that sweeps the dark interior of your house for three seconds every twenty seconds or so, whether you are home or not. By that code it is known around the world. The rock Rijpermunde, with a base circumference of130m, was smoothed over with cement and a brick wall was built around the base, so that the huge boulder became a rainwater trap, that became a freshwater cistern in wet seasons. At about the same time a low stone wall was erected all around the island, some 30 yards from the sea, to confine the penguins to the coastal strip.

Rabbits can hop over the wall if they have a mind to, but hundreds of tortoises were fenced in. There are many tortoises on the island. Maybe Nature Conservation wants to spare us a few dozen. It seems to me that we have plenty of room for them here.

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A short history of Dassen Island

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