People lived in the region of Arniston/Waenhuiskrans more than 2000 years ago. Shell middens containing stone implements and the bones of fish, seals, birds, tortoises and small animals are evidence of their most likely nomadic stays in the region. From a later period, sheep’s bones indicate visits from people with a more resident lifestyle. Other artefacts suggest that, from the sixteenth century onwards, there may have been some contact between the Khoisan nomads and survivors of shipwrecks. Records from the seventeenth century indicate that Khoekhoe tribes sometimes lingered with their cattle in the “strandveld” near the coast for short periods of time.
In the seventeenth century, European settlers started to explore the Overberg and let their cattle graze in the region. By 1708, cattle farmers had already procured grazing rights at Langefontein, the farm on which Bredasdorp was developed 140 years later. In 1815, when the Arniston stranded, there were a number of loan farms in the vicinity of what is Arniston/Waenhuiskrans today. By then, the nomadic tribes had disappeared from this part of the coast. The six survivors of the Arniston walked up the coast to the Breede River and back before they were discovered by Jan Swart, the son of the farmer of Elandsvallij. They were then taken to Cape Town by ox-wagon.
In 1838, Arniston Downs, the loan farm on which Waenhuiskrans/Arniston was later established, was granted to the partnership Reitz, van Breda and Joubert as a private property. Dirk Uys bought it in 1880. In 1894, the brothers Francis, Julian and John Pratt became the owners. By then Arniston/Waenhuiskrans was already being used as a vacation spot. The first evidence of this is from an entry in the diary of H.W. van Breda of Zeekoegat in 1860. He wrote in his diary that he had rented out his house at the seaside to Thomas Uys for a month for the price of two shillings and sixpence, so that Uys could fish at “Wagenhuiskrantz”.
In about 1850, the first members of the present fishing community of Arniston/Waenhuiskrans settled in the region. By 1870, the five original families had grown into a larger group of at least thirty families. The first documented reference to this fishing community appears in 1868, when H.W. van Breda wrote in his diary that he had received oyster shells from James Murtz at “Wagenhuiskrantz” in exchange for food. Documents from a Cape High Court case from 1905 indicate that five families settled here some time after 1850. Oral history sources have it that the five original families in the settlement came from Swellendam. Allegedly, the earliest members of the fishing community were descendants of the Hessequa and of freed slaves.
In 1905, the Pratt brothers planned to develop a holiday village on their land and to move the fishing community. The fishing community resisted. With the assistance of a resident from Bredasdorp, one Roos, they obtained the services of a lawyer in Caledon and petitioned the Cape Governor General. A judge in the Cape High Court ordered the parties to consider a settlement. This resulted in an agreement, with the fishing community buying the land of the present-day historic fishing village for a nominal price of one shilling. The five families who had first settled in the area each received a stand in the new town development as it was accepted that, in 1905, Jan Hopie, Piet Maritz, George Murtz, Hendrik Newman and Michiel Dyers had all been living in the area for more than fifty years.
Before 1905, the fishermen went to sea from the present Roman Beach, which was known as Oubaai. They lived mostly in houses spread out in what is now known as the Ou Dorp. After the 1905 settlement, they gradually moved to the present fishing village. They started using the beach where the harbour is now situated, going out to sea in small sailing vessels. They always fished within sight of the shoreline. Once the first sail was hoisted after a day’s fishing, there was usually a race back to the harbour area. The longer you fished, the greater the catch, but the first boat in had the best chance of selling its entire catch. The first motorised vessels appeared in the late 1920s. The harbour slipway was built in 1936.
In 1922, Arniston/Waenhuiskrans was declared a town. Substantial increases in the size of the town occurred in 1936, 1967, 1974 and 1989. The two names used for the town, Arniston and Waenhuiskrans, became the official town names in 1981. This is the only town in South Africa with two names. Arniston/Waenhuiskrans became part of the Cape Agulhas Municipality in 1996.
The Fisherman’s Union was formed in 1932 to manage the Kassiesbaai fishing village. Walter Jeppe was instrumental in establishing the Union. He was also the first secretary and in charge of the building of the Fisherman’s Union Hall.
By 1970, the historic fishing village was suffering from severe decay. The local government planned to move the village. The ostensible reason was decay and a long backlog in the payment of property taxes. Conservationists raised money to pay the outstanding taxes and to restore the village. It was declared a national heritage site in 1984. The Waenhuiskrans Cultural Landscape was classified as a Grade 1 National Heritage Landscape in 2003.
Waenhuiskrans/Arniston is surrounded by stretches of land which are gradually being consolidated to become part of a conservation area that will stretch from Cape Agulhas to Cape Infanta. This will include the almost 36 000 hectares of De Hoop, where Armscor established a missile test range in 1984. A marine reserve stretching twelve kilometres into the sea was declared in 1986.
The southernmost point in Africa has been known as Cape Agulhas since 1502. This area is the part of the Southern African coastline with the highest number of shipwrecks. Many places in the area are named after shipwrecks, such as Zoetendalsvlei (named after the wreck of the Zoetendal in 1673), Arniston (named after the Arniston, stranded in 1815), Ryspunt (named after the Wegtenshire, which sank in 1885 carrying a freight of rice), Skipskop (named after the Maid of Thames), Martha Point, Schoonberg Bay, St Mungo Bay, Olter Bay, Celt Bay and the Miles Barton reef.
To read a history of the ship wreck of the Arniston, CLICK HERE.
Documents from the South African Archives in Cape Town, as well as documents from the archives of the Cape Agulhas Municipality, the Overberg District Municipality and the Magistrates Court in Bredasdorp.
Documents and photographs in the possession of, as well as further information by, Ferdi Spamer; D. Sleigh – Die Buiteposte (Protea Boekhuis, 2004); J. Parkington – Shorelines, Strandlopers and Shell Middens (Publication @ Krakadouw Trust, 2006).