Want to make creations as awesome as this one?


From its hunter-gatherer roots, Cape Town has grown to become one of Africa’s essential, most culturally-rich destinations – but not without controversy and discontent. Uncover the fascinating history of South Africa’s colourful coastal city in our interactive timeline.




The Origins of Civilisation

Tribal hunter-gatherers are believed to have lived in the Cape Town region for thousands of years, living off the land and fishing in the Atlantic Ocean. The San were the largest tribal faction in the region, until around 2,000 years ago.


Close to the turn of the new millennium, the Khoikhoi journeyed to Cape Town – a pastoralist race with a vast herd of cattle and sheep. For centuries, the Khoikhoi lived a nomadic existence, crossing the plains of South Africa all the way to the Cape of Good Hope. This changed with the arrival of Europeans in the mid-14th century.

The Rise of the Khoikhoi


Settlers from the North

Portuguese navigators first discovered the Cape in the late 15th century, with a series of expeditions whose objectives were to find a viable sea passage to India. In 1503, Antonio de Saldanha became the first European to scale Table Mountain, naming the rock Toboa do Cabo – Table Cape – for its distinctive topography.


Dutch navigator and colonial administrator, Jan Van Riebeeck, arrived at the Cape in 1652, tasked with establishing a European trading post in the region where ships could replenish supplies on their way to the Indian Ocean. His efforts led to the creation of the Dutch Cape Colony.

Jan Van Riebeeck Arrives at the Cape


After a century of trial and tribulation, in which most expeditions to the Cape were interrupted by indigenous uprisings, a permanent settlement was established at the foot of Table Mountain. This early version of Cape Town was established and controlled by the Dutch, who gained a significant foothold and immediately began expanding slave trading operations into South Africa.

The Early City


Cape Town and the Slave Trade

From 1653 to 1808, more than 63,000 people were brought as slaves through Cape Town. They heralded from West Africa, Madagascar and other countries in the Indian Ocean, including India and Indonesia. Though a travesty, Cape Town’s slavery heritage is cited as one of the main reasons for the city’s present-day multiculturalism and ethnic diversity.


Dutch settlers recognised the potential of Robben Island as a penal colony, and began using it as such in 1671. Over the subsequent decades, the island was used as a prison, a whaling station, and an asylum, before returning to use as a prison in 1961. It was here that Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, along with many other political prisoners during the apartheid regime.

Robben Island and the Penal Legacy


During the infamous Apartheid political system, in which South Africa was ruled in line with a racially discriminatory ideology, Cape Town was the centre of significant social and political unrest. Cape Town was segregated for much of the mid to late 20th century, with the ‘non-white’ population forced to live in makeshift townships on the outskirts of the city. The imprisonment of Nelson Mandela on Robben Island brought Cape Town under international scrutiny, and it became one of the first cities to shun the Apartheid movement in the early 1990s.

Cape Town and Apartheid


Cape Town today

Today, Cape Town is among the foremost cities in South Africa, with a multi-ethnic population and tangible cosmopolitan feel. With its wineries, eateries and dramatic natural beauty, it’s considered an essential stop-off point on any tour of South Africa.