A rich history preserved at Simon’s Town Museum

This 1777 drawing of False Bay by Colonel Robert Jacob Gordon shows The Residency, with its three front-facing gables, just above the beach and below the VOC hospital. Picture: Simon’s Town Museum

In the heart of Simon’s Town lies a building that has witnessed the unfolding chapters of the town’s rich history.

The Residency, one of the earliest VOC buildings in Simon’s Town, now stands as a museum, holding within its walls the memories and stories of generations past.

Over the years, it has undergone significant transformations, adapting to the changing needs of the community and playing a pivotal role in shaping the town’s identity.

According to the Simon’s Town Museum, Simon’s Bay, home to the indigenous Khoisan, was named by VOC governor Simon van der Stel, in 1687, during his survey of False Bay. In 1743, Baron Gustaaf Willem van Imhoff declared Simon’s Bay the official winter anchorage of the VOC fleet.

As the town grew, The Residency, built in 1777, served as the winter residence for Baron Joachim Ammena van Plettenberg, the VOC governor of the Cape of Good Hope, as well as his successor, the engineer-officer and VOC governor, Cornelis Jacob van de Graaff.

The museum’s records show that as Simon’s Town evolved, so did the purpose of The Residency.

During the first British occupation, in 1797, it was used as a naval hospital, later passing into private ownership several times before it was purchased by deputy fiscal JH Brand in 1810. The turning point came in 1813 when Simon’s Town was designated as a royal naval base for the South Atlantic Squadron. The Residency was repurposed to meet the administrative and military needs of the town.

Within the walls of The Residency, a customs house, port captain’s office, post office, school, prison, and magistrate’s court found their home. It became a central hub of operations, overseeing the town’s administrative affairs after the second British occupation, which lasted from 1806 to 1957.

Simon’s Town served as the southern Atlantic base of the Royal Navy until its transfer to the South African Navy in 1957.

In 1983, the Simon’s Town Museum relocated to The Residency.

Today, The Residency stands as a testament to Simon’s Town’s resilience and adaptability, housing a meticulous collection of artefacts, documents, and photographs that offer insights into the town’s history.

But it is more than just a museum. It embodies the collective memory of the town and serves as a poignant reminder of the challenges faced by its inhabitants. It holds within its walls the echoes of forced removals that deeply impacted the Simon’s Town community under the Group Areas Act in 1967.

According to museum manager Cathrynne Salter, this legislation, which would have been executed from within The Residency itself, tore at the multicultural fabric of the town, forever altering lives and relationships.

The museum’s exhibits shed light on this tragic period, preserving the memory of those affected and fostering a deeper understanding of the past.

In 1996, the Simon’s Town Museum launched Project Phoenix, a committee representing the forcibly removed. And through their collaborative efforts, the history of those who were dispossessed under apartheid is recorded and shared. Their stories and experiences are given a voice, ensuring that the lessons learned from this dark chapter are not forgotten.

The museum’s exhibits also tell the stories of remarkable individuals who have made a lasting impact. One such individual is Gladys Thomas, a writer and activist who died in April last year at the age of 87.

Recognised as one of the pioneering South African women of colour in the field of poetry, she was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver 16 years ago for exposing the injustices and human suffering of apartheid through her writing.

Thomas co-authored Cry Rage!, a collection of poems, with anti-apartheid activist and poet James Matthews. Published in 1972, it was banned under apartheid.

She received multiple prestigious awards, including the State President’s Award and the South African Literary Awards’ Lifetime Achievement Award. Her contributions to literature, activism, and theatre, including her establishment of the Getwize Players group with her husband, Albert Thomas, continue to be celebrated.

As The Residency continues to stand as a symbol of Simon’s Town’s past, it reminds us of the importance of preserving history and learning from it. The building’s transformations over time reflect the town’s ability to adapt and embrace change, while its role as a museum keeps the memories of generations alive.