The Cape Agulhas Lighthouse, the 2nd oldest working lighthouse in South Africa, celebrated its 150th anniversary in a gala ceremony this past March. The ceremony also celebrated the opening of South Africa's newest public recreation area, the Agulhas National Park.
The lighthouse which strongly resembles and is based on the design of the famous Pharos of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, is also home to the first lighthouse museum in South Africa.
At the dedication ceremonies the Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Dr. Z Pallo Jordan said that "the South African government, in proclaiming the Agulhas National Park not only recognized its international responsibility towards bio-diversity but has also demonstrated a sensitivity towards unique landscapes. Africa can only have one southern tip where two oceans meet. The irreplacability of this landmark (the lighthouse) warrants a special dedication. The Republic of South Africa recognizes this and donates the southern tip of Africa as part of the Agulhas National Park as a gift to the world"
Although the new national park is destined to be a top tourist attraction, the main reason for the creation of the national park is for the conservation and long term management of the plant bio-diversity of the region. The area has approximately 2000 species of indigenous plants, 21000 migrant and resident wetland birds and significant numbers of archaeological sites. The Agulhas area also provides an amazing history of early explores attempting to conquer the wild sea off the southern most tip of Africa
As is the case with most lighthouses, a lot of shipwrecks and pleading by local officials had to occur before a lighthouse could be built. One such example was a meeting held in Cape Town in 1840 which was attended by many concerned citizens and members of the maritime community. One local resident testified, " I have been painfully called upon to witness, with my own eyes, ship after ship cast away, valuable cargos strewed along the beach and hundreds of human beings at a time washed up dead upon shore. There was the Arniston on May 30, 1815, a total wreck, when out of 378 persons on board, only six escaped. No less than 372 bodies of men, women and children were washed on shore ... I saw them...with my own eyes, torn and partly devoured by preying vultures. Had a lighthouse been near, this incident would probably not have happened, as the Arniston went ashore in the night ..."
His words and those of others must have done some good, as funds were approved for the building of lighthouse that was finally completed and first lit in March of 1849.
Through the years, lightkeepers and their families also had their own hardships to cope with. Besides the fact that life in isolation made it difficult to get supplies, illness also often took their toll, as the grave of baby Daisy Rowe who died of diphtheria - which is preserved in the parking area of the lighthouse - is a silent witness of.
After authorities replaced the lighthouse with a modern optic in 1968, the lighthouse, like many others around the world, fell into disrepair even though it was declared a National Landmark in 1973.
Then the Board of Trustees of the Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum came along and took on the responsibility of ensuring that the entire complex was restored to its former glory. With the dedication of the Lighthouse Service of Portnet the optic and lantern-room, which had been out of service for 19 years was also restored.
Today the site is the only lighthouse museum in South Africa. Its walls house numerous maritime items of interest including a photographic display of South African and other nations lighthouses plus a graphic display of the known 120 shipwrecks that lie buried in the nearby waters.
We salute the government of South Africa for its dedication to preserving important part of the world's lighthouse history and heritage.
This story appeared in the
May 1999 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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