Cape of Storms and Superlatives

I come from Kimberley, a hot, dry town situated on a level plain in the centre of South Africa. But it has a few things going for it, including many elegant homes designed by the architect DW Greatbatch. 

Another thing is the magnificent McGregor Museum, which has a section on Kimberley Firsts, such as justifiable boasts that my hometown was the first place in the world to install electric street lights; the second in the world to have electric trams; that it had the country’s first Stock Exchange; it had the continent’s first flying school (and aeroplane accident); the first School of Mines and the country’s first Seventh Day Adventist Church. According to my copy of a 1983 Diamond Fields Advertiser holiday guide Kimberley has a list of at least 70 firsts, from South Africa’s first postal delivery service to a couple more world firsts: the state registration of nurses, and the first 12-year-old to hold a world record (Karen Muir for backstroke). But my favourite is the record stating that a Kimberley lass was the first woman ever to play at Wimbledon without stockings.

Kimberley also had the world’s richest diamond mine (three tons of diamonds came out of it), and the “biggest hole in the world” (this claim has since been downgraded to “biggest hand-dug hole in the world”). To this day a diamond is the hardest substance known to man.

If you click on you’ll see the TOP 10 SLOGANS OF THE CENTURY. Here are the top three:

  1. Diamonds are forever (DeBeers)
  2. Just do it (Nike)
  3. The pause that refreshes (Coca-Cola)

And I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that De Beers Company was founded in Kimberley. 

All this has made me keen to look out for firsts and superlatives in my job as a tour guide in and around Cape Town.

Table Mountain is a backdrop to the city, 7 Dec 08

Table Mountain is a backdrop to the city, 7 Dec 08

The first is Table Mountain that looms imposingly over the city. It is one of the world’s oldest mountains – far older than Everest or the Andes. And the 57km² of Table Mountain has some 1 470 plant species, only just fewer than the 1 492 found in Britain in an area of 308 000km², and more species than Sweden, which is a thousand times larger.

Near to it is Signal Hill, from which a cannon is fired at noon every day except Sunday and public holidays. This has been happening for 202 years – longer than in Nice, Rome, Hong Kong or any of the other places where noon guns occur. During the First World War, on 14 May 1918, the mayor of Cape Town instituted a two-minute midday pause. The first minute was a time of thanksgiving for those who had returned alive, and the second minute was to remember the fallen. Vehicles stopped, the city fell silent, and the people of Cape Town stood still while a bugler played the Last Post from the balcony of Cartwright’s building overlooking Adderley Street.

Devils Peak from Molteno Reservoir, 7 Dec 08

Devils Peak from Molteno Reservoir, 7 Dec 08

It is now accepted that the driving force behind making 11 November the appropriate date for an annual commemoration for the dead of the Great War came from a South African. Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, whose son, Major Nugent Fitzpatrick, was killed at Beaumetz in France on 14 December 1917, was a distinguished South African statesman and author. At the beginning of November 1919, he wrote to Lord Milner, asking that his memorandum be considered by the British War Cabinet, which was still in session one year after the end of the War. In his memorandum he called for an annual two-minute silence on Armistice Day, 11 November, saying: “In the hearts of the people there is a real desire to find some lasting expression of their feeling for those who gave their lives in the War . . .”

For once, Government red-tape and officialdom did not intervene. Sir Percy Fitzpatrick’s memorandum was received by Lord Milner on 4 November 1919, reviewed and accepted by the War Cabinet on 5 November, subject to the approval of King George V. His approval was immediate and, on 7 November 1919, the press printed a statement from the King, as a personal request, in all the daily newspapers. The King’s request read: “Tuesday next, 11 November, is the first anniversary of the Armistice, which stayed the worldwide carnage of the four preceding years and the victory of Right and Freedom. I believe that my people in every part of the Empire fervently wish to perpetuate the meaning of the Great Deliverance, and of those who laid down their lives to achieve it.

To afford an opportunity for the universal expression of their feeling, it is my desire and hope that at the hour when the Armistice comes into force, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, there may be for a brief space of two minutes, a complete suspension of all our normal activities.”

This marked the beginning of a tradition that spread around the world, and is observed in the USA as Veterans Day. Many countries observe it as Remembrance Day, on the Sunday closest to 11 November.

And in case there is any doubt as to who the main man was behind these worldwide silences here is the wording of a letter dated 30 January 1920, to our Percy signed by Lord Stamfordham, the King’s Private Secretary: “Dear Sir Percy, The King, who learns that you are shortly to leave for South Africa, desires me to assure you that he ever gratefully remembers that the idea of the Two Minute Pause on Armistice Day was due to your initiation, a suggestion which was readily adopted and carried out with heartfelt sympathy throughout the Empire.”

Sir Percy was born in King William’s Town, Cape Colony on 24 July 1862 and died at Amanzi (Uitenhage) on 24 January 1931. His most famous book, Jock of the Bushveld, based on Fitzpatrick’s transport riding days, was first published in 1907 upon persuasion by his friend Rudyard Kipling. The book has so far run through 91 editions and impressions.

I must apologise for going on at length about our noon gun and one of the stories it evokes. All I can say is that I got carried away in researching it, and that there is a lot more I can say about it, but won’t (at least not at this stage). Most of my info came from a Cape Town publication, The Cape Odyssey (numbers 38, 49 and 50), and a South African Military History website:

In the meantime here is an uplifting quotation:

– You could probably convert me because I’m a pushover. And if you make it appealing enough and you promise me some wonderful afterlife with a white robe and wings . . . I could go for it.

– I can’t promise you wings, but I can promise you a wonderful, exciting life.

– One wing?                                                                                                 Woody Allen and Billy Graham

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