Sunday, April 25, 2010

Kalk Bay

For those who have never visited, Kalk Bay is a small seaside community on the Cape Peninsula that sits on the incline between False Bay and Kalk Bay Mountain. The colonial-style houses are small, eclectic and quaint, and are reached via steep lanes or step streets. The vibe of the place is arty, touristy, and, well, fishy – brightly coloured fishing boats row out in the morning and come home at noon with the day’s catch. Kalk Bay is also known for its clothing and jewellery boutiques, its antique shops, its galleries and seafood restaurants.

But before trendy tourism, Kalk Bay was about the not-so-glamorous industries of transportation, lime and fish.

In the C18th, when the Dutch still ruled the Cape, Kalk Bay became an important mini-port. Simon’s Town was being used as a winter anchorage for the ships of the Dutch East India Company, but the goods that were needed from Cape Town for the construction and provisioning of the town could not be easily transported overland as there was no adequate road. So the goods were taken to Kalk Bay instead, where they were loaded onto ships and taken across the bay to Simon’s Town.

The name Kalk Bay is derived from the Dutch for “lime”. Limekilns were set up to produce kalk from the shore’s shell deposits. The lime was then sent to Cape Town via the same ox-wagons that had brought goods to Kalk Bay for transportation to Simon’s Town. The lime was for use in the construction of buildings; it is this component that gives so many Capetonian houses their white-walled appearance.

The British took over control of the Cape in 1795. They built a proper road to Simon’s Town and Kalk Bay consequently fell into decline.

The village was revitalised in the early 1800s through its prosperous, though short-lived, whaling stations. It had no competition from Simon’s Town, as residents there objected to the smell of the rotting carcasses and burning blubber. Whaling was, at this point, the colony’s third biggest source of income (after agriculture and wine-making). But by the 1830s this source of revenue was petering out; the southern right whales on which the industry relied had been hunted to near extinction.

But although its whale population was diminishing, False Bay still teemed with fish. Fishing, which had always taken place, eventually took over as the predominant activity of the community. Seals were also hunted. The ascendancy of fishing in Kalk Bay was powered by the arrival of the area’s first Filipino settlers.

The CSS Alabama
The accounts of the first Filipino settlers are vague and contradictory. Some claim that a shipwreck left Filipinos stranded in the bay, perhaps as early as the 1840s. A few settlers reportedly arrived on the Confederate ship the Alabama in the early 1860s (the ship’s visit was later commemorated in the song Daar kom die Alibama). There were also Filipino sailors who deserted their ships while they were at anchor in False Bay.

Felix Florez (to the right) was an early Filipino settler who, as the leader of the Kalk Bay community, was responsible for enticing many of his fellow countrymen to settle there. He reported to them the good way of life to be had, and offered them shelter and fishing supplies to help get them started.

In 1872 Filipino nationalists rose up against the ruling Spanish government in what became known as the Philippines Revolution. This revolution, as well as the riots in the decades that led up to it, caused many Filipinos to flee the country. A Filipino Diaspora took place, and Kalk Bay became a haven for many.

The Philippines had been colonised by Spain all the way back in the C16th. With time the Spanish government gave all the indigenous Filipinos Spanish surnames so as to aid in the development of the country. The Filipino settlers to Kalk Bay therefore had surnames like Manuel, Santiago, Fernandez, and, of course, Florez. But there were also those few Filipinos who acquired their Spanish names through intermarriage with the colonisers. The Spanish features of the early Kalk Bay settlers (such as that of Maria Francis Florez to the left) attest to the fact that these Filipinos were, in fact, as much Spanish as they were Filipino. The settlers in Kalk Bay thus spoke either Spanish or Tagalog.

The Spaniards had introduced Roman Catholicism to the Philippines and the Kalk Bay settlers were consequently all devout Catholics. There was no church in Kalk Bay to begin with, so they would row across the bay to Simon’s Town for church, as well as for weddings and christenings. When someone died, a boat would be covered like a hearse and the body rowed across. Eventually, however, a small chapel was built in Kalk Bay.

Things improved for the Filipinos in 1874 when Father Duignam – an Irishman – was sent to Kalk Bay to be their priest. Father Duigman spoke Spanish, and this alleviated the language problem that they had been experiencing. Duigman was a strict disciplinarian, who carried a sjambok (a leather whip) with him so as to insist on 100%, punctual attendance at mass. But by all accounts he was much loved by the Filipinos. He had initially been sent to pastor them for just six months, but his devotion to the community resulted in him serving there for fifty years, until his retirement in 1925.

Father Duignam was unhappy with the small chapel in Kalk Bay. He bought three morgen (2.5 hectares) of land alongside Kalk Bay and there he built the church and convent of St James, named in honour of James of Compostela, Spain’s patron saint. This church no longer exists, but it lent its name to the present-day village of St James, which lies adjacent to Kalk Bay.

While the Kalk Bay community always had plenty to eat, life there was not easy. The men had to row far out into False Bay at times, and suffered all sorts of injuries and ailments, especially during the harsh winters. The life expectancy of these fishermen was between 40 and 50 years. Most of the women and children worked as domestics in houses or hotels.

The railway was extended to Kalk Bay in 1883. With this came the arrival of wealthy tourists, from areas such as Rondebosch and Wynberg, and they built seaside homes there. In 1862, an Englishwoman named Mrs Ross visited Kalk Bay and described it as “a little fishing hamlet, consisting of a few old-fashioned Dutch houses, and a dozen or so of fishermen’s huts straggling for a mile between the rocky beach, and the precipitous mountains that rise up almost immediately behind it. It is accounted a very healthy place, and is the favourite resort of well-to-do people.” Cecil John Rhodes and Count Labia both had holiday homes in Kalk Bay.

The distinctive Filipino character of Kalk Bay was of course diluted with time. The railway was extended to Simon’s Town in 1890 and thereby increased the traffic through Kalk Bay. In 1898 the USA took possession of the Philippines and some of the settlers returned to their homeland, reducing the community’s Filipino population. Others intermarried with the local coloured population. They eventually learned to speak Afrikaans. Portuguese and Italian fishermen moved into the area. Emancipated slaves (originally from Java, Malaysia and Batavia) settled there. White South Africans bought up property.

But descendants of the Filipino settlers still live in Kalk Bay today and they are very aware and proud of their Filipino heritage. They are part of the Philippine Commonwealth League and maintain strong ties with the Philippines, often supporting charitable organisations there.

To end off, here are a handful of firsts and only’s that you might not have known about Kalk Bay.

1) Kalk Bay is one of South Africa’s oldest traditional working harbours.
2) Holy Trinity Church boasts the oldest thatch-roofed lychgate in the country (built 1875).
3) Kalk Bay was the only community in South Africa to successfully resist the Separate Group Areas Act in the 1960s and it thus remained a mixed-race community.

Clivir Learning Community website. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License.


  1. Never knew what kalk meant...thanks Megs

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