Given that Cape Town was the most important port on the sea route between Europe and the East, for the first half century that the British administered this strategic maritime jewel, it is surprising that little effort was made to develop any infrastructure that could transform Table Bay into a safe, more productive harbour facility. In fact, for the first half of the nineteenth century, the imperial authorities merely ummed and ahed over harbour and breakwater development proposals, while vessels calling at the Cape had to make do with a single wooden jetty, dating from the time of Jan van Riebeeck, on which all goods and people had to be on– and offloaded.
The tragic state of infrastructure underdevelopment in Table Bay was revealed in a report published in 1837, which stated that, while a vessel might discharge a cargo of 375 t at St Katherine’s Docks, in London, in two-and-a-half days, it would take 47 days to do the same at Cape Town. This, together with the expense of repairing vessels, the damage and waste of ground tackle during the winter and the actual loss of vessels, amounted to an estimated yearly average loss of £25 000 (R36.5-million in today’s value) to the shipping trade in Cape Town.
This is not to say, however, that residents, merchants and even the local government were complacent in attempting to improve harbour facilities in Cape Town. In fact, in the decades before 1860, numerous petitions were signed, letters of protest were published in newspapers, two official commissions were appointed to investigate infrastructure needs, motions were raised in the Cape Legislative Council and a number of plans were designed by the Cape’s colonial civil engineer, Charles Michell, for a harbour and breakwater.
Despite these endeavours, the imperial overlords in London declared time and again that the development of harbour infrastructure, though necessary, was too expensive and beyond the means of that colonial backwater.
The only improvement that was undertaken during this period was the construction, in 1842, of two stone jetties, the first close to the old wharf at the Castle of Good Hope and the other at the bottom of Bree street. Such construction was primarily financed by money collected from harbour wharfage charges, a taxation scheme that had been introduced by the new harbour board, established in December 1836.
While complacency over the construction of, in particular, a breakwater, could not have continued indefinitely, given the strategic maritime importance of the Cape, government’s hand was finally forced to action in 1858, when severe winter storms wrecked some 30 vessels anchored in Table Bay. Such was the extent of the devastation that the insurance company LLoyds, of London, thenceforth refused to cover any vessels wintering in Table Bay. Given such a development, government had little option but to finally undertake the development of both a breakwater and new dock facilities to streamline harbour activities.
Thus, in the spring of that year, the Cape Parliament finally authorised the construction of a breakwater and docks at a cost not exceeding £200 000. However, this amount fell far short of the estimated £1-million (R1.5-trillion in today’s value) it would cost to complete the most recent harbour design that had been completed on commission in 1856 by Captain James Vetch, an engineer and harbour surveyor for the Royal Admiralty. Vetch’s design essentially included the construction of a 1 508 acre inner and outer harbour that would be protected by a 1.5 km breakwater and pier.
Britain’s leading harbour engineer of the day, Sir John Coode, was appointed engineer-in-chief of the new project and asked to make some economical modifications to Vetch’s designs. Coode subsequently appointed Thomas Andrews (not to be mistaken with the architect of the Titanic) as the resident engineer to work on the details.
Following his arrival, Andrews spent much of 1859 modifying Vetch’s design and, at the end of the year, he put forward a plan to construct an inner and outer harbour on 8.5 acres and 4.5 acres respectively and a 3 000 ft breakwater. The cost of the project was estimated at just under £400 000. The main reduction in costs was attributed to Andrews’ decision to build the inner dock on the shoreline so that the rock that was scooped out for the basin could be used to construct the breakwater. Interestingly, this would be the only dock in Cape Town to be excavated out of the shoreline rock. Andrews also proposed to reduce costs by using local black convicts, all of whom would be housed in a new custom-built ‘breakwater prison’ (which is now Marriott Group’s premier Breakwater Lodge hotel).
Given that the new estimate was still double Parliament’s budget for the project, then governor Sir George Grey had to go on the charm offensive and persuade MPs, particularly those from the Eastern Cape constituencies, who were annoyed by the infrastructure expense being lavished on Cape Town, to approve the extra funds. He achieved this with relative ease and the project began on September 17, 1860, when Queen Victoria’s 16-year-old son, Prince Alfred, laid the first foundation stone.
From every perspective, building the new harbour and breakwater was the single largest enterprise the South African colonies had ever undertaken. It was technically very challenging, involving new blasting techniques, diving machines, cranes, steam machinery and a broad-gauge railway to convey rock to the necessary locations. Such was the scale of the project that it took ten years to complete the construction of the breakwater and the 335.28-m-long dock, which is today still known as the Alfred Basin.
As fate would have it, the Alfred Basin was completed in July 1870, just as South Africa found itself on the brink of a new economic era with the discovery of diamonds.
The Alfred Basin is still very much in use today, forming the inner working docks of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.