History of Arniston / Waenhuiskrans
Once only known as the most southern tip of Africa, this rugged coastline with its untouched natural landscapes and rich history has put the area now known as Cape Agulhas on the map. One of the quaint towns making up the region holds South Africa’s most infamous shipwrecks and it thus comes as no surprise that it gave birth to its name. This historical fishing hamlet with its double-barrel name is none other than Arniston / Waenhuiskrans.
The history of Arniston can be traced back to almost 2000 years ago thanks to the stone implements and bones of fish, seals and various mammals left behind by the nomadic hunter-gatherers that passed through the region. Sheep bones found from a later period suggests that longer periods would be spent in the area until the seasons changed and greener pastures had to be found.
Having a closer look at the mixed artefacts found, it would seem that there were contact between the Khoisan nomads that stayed here and the survivors of the various shipwrecks from the 16th century onwards. Delving into the records of the 17th century, it becomes clear that Khoekhoe tribes had started to linger here with herds of cattle. The 17th century also saw the exploration of the Overberg by European settlers trying to find that perfect spot to establish farms and start breeding with their cattle. And they must have found something they liked, as by 1708 a small group of cattle farmers had already gained grazing rights at Langefontein. Langefontein would coincidently later become the farm on which Bredasdorp would be established some 140 years later.
In 1815, this once peaceful village saw the tragic event that would live in infamy, the shipwreck of the HMS Arniston. Few farms still existed in the area at this time and it must have been fortune smiling upon the 6 survivors after their terrible ordeal to be found by a farm boy who happened to be out hunting. The young boy, Jan Swart, now forever remembered as the boy who found the Arniston survivors was the son of the farmer of Elandsvallij. A monument was erected in 1817 in honour of the lives lost in the tragedy by Mrs Giels and is a must-see when visiting Arniston. The monument now overlooks the ocean once more and is quite the unique spot to spend a reflective moment.
As it tends to do, time passed and eventually the loan farm Arniston Downs was allocated as a private property to the partnership Reitz, van Breda and Joubert in 1938. Shortly after this the first members of the current fishing community, believed to be descendants of the Hessequa and freed slaves, settled here around 1850. The small community that started off with 5 families grew quickly and by 1870 there were approximately 30 families making up the fishing community. During this time, Dirk Uys bought Arniston Downs from the partnership and it seemed that peaceful living had returned to the area.
But unfortunately, besides fighting the forces of nature, the residents of Arniston have also had their fair share of fighting for their land. In 1894, Arniston Downs was bought by the brothers Francis, Julian and John Pratt. The Pratt brothers, however, didn’t deem the coloured fishermen worthy of owning a large part of the town they now established as Arniston. And in 1905 after the establishment of Kassiesbaai, the Pratt brothers had plans to develop the town into a holiday village. Their development plans included the relocation of the local fishing community, but the community would not stand for this. The Kassiesbaai community members, with the help of a lawyer from Caledon, drew up a petition against the Pratt brothers to fight for their rights as landowners and to protect their fishing rights as residents of the area. After being taken to the Supreme Court in Cape Town, the Court ruled that “five plots to be set aside for the fishermen, as they seemed to have prescriptive right, and a further ten morgen be set aside as a reserve for the rest”.
This ruling was greatly influenced by the fact that 5 of the local fishing families had lived here for over 50 years already. The heads of the 5 families, namely Jan Hopie, George Murtz, Michiel Dyers, Piet Maritz and Hendrick Newman, were all granted a stand in the development of the town. It was also included in the ruling that the residents would have free thoroughfare to sections of the beach to uphold their fishing rights. This servitude still holds today and in 1937 the Pratt Family formally transferred a portion of their farm to the Fishermen’s Union of Waenhuiskrans.
Just before this in 1922, Arniston / Waenhuiskrans was finally established as a town and in 1932 the Fishermen’s Union was founded to manage the fishing village of Kassiesbaai with Walter Jeppe at the lead. The now established community prospered and continued their humble lifestyle in the traditional ways of their forefathers.
As before, time passed without notice and the people of Arniston continued life that their land and livelihood was protected. Seasons changed and the ocean continued its silent weathering of the coast, so much so that by the 1970s the village was in severe decay. Not to mention in serious debt due to property taxes that were in arrears. Once again the fishing community was threatened by relocation, this time by the local government. Not known to go down without a fight, the small community and some conservationists jumped in and raised enough money to pay the outstanding taxes and restore the village to its former glory. All their hard work paid off as the beautifully renovated Kassiesbaai was officially declared a National Heritage Site in 1986. The 1980s held quite a few noticeable milestones for the small town of Waenhuiskrans. In 1981, both Arniston and Waenhuiskrans were recognized as official names of the town, the Heritage Site was declared in 1986 and the same year a Marine Reserve was declared that stretched 12km into the ocean.
The history of Arniston / Waenhuiskrans is as unforgiving as the coast along which it has established itself. But the wonder of Arniston’s history does not only lie in its many tribulations but in the perseverance of its people and their inability to surrender to their circumstances. Through standing together in the face of relentless storms, legal trials and the decay of time, these hardy people have overcome all obstacles in their way. Their strong family bonds/ties and simple traditional ways have prevailed the ages, and will undoubtedly continue to do so. This extraordinary little town with its humble community serves as an inspiration for us all.