November 6th, 2009
I’m sure I’m not the only Capetonian who’s driven past the Prestwich Memorial on the corner of Buitengracht and Somerset Road in Green Point many times without having the foggiest idea of what the low-slung red brick building is all about.
In a city that’s studded with numerous well-known attractions, it tends to get overlooked. It’s almost as though it’s hidden in plain view; seen every day but seldom investigated.
Hidden in plain sight: Cape Town's Prestwich Memorial
In the case of the Prestwich Memorial, that turns out to be particularly ironic, as the site commemorates an aspect of the city that has been ignored and literally paved over for much of its turbulent history: its legacy of slavery and colonialism. So when I was in the area a little while ago, I finally decided to take a closer look.
You’ve heard about District Six and more recently about District 9, but how about District One? This was the part of old Cape Town that now forms much of Green Point and the Waterfront. During the 1700s and 1800s much of District One was used as an extensive burial ground that stretched from the Bo-Kaap to the edge of Table Bay.
People who were denied access to the formal church cemeteries were commonly buried here in unmarked graves outside of the walls of the official graveyards. Most of them belonged to what some historians have called a colonial underclass that included slaves, servants, sailors, indigenous Khoikhoi, African labourers, Muslims and free blacks.
Skeletons in the city’s closet
During the construction of a multi-million rand building in nearby Prestwich Street in 2003, excavations revealed thousands of centuries-old skeletons and after some heated public debate it was decided to build a dedicated memorial in which these human remains could be housed with dignity.
The memorial is set in a pretty garden next to a small square
Today, the Prestwich Street Memorial consists of ossuaries - the final resting place of the skeletal remains - which are not normally open to the public and an engaging information centre that explains aspects of Cape Town’s colonial history and slave legacy, as well as the development of early public hospitals and the harbour.
Inside the Prestwich Memorial
The monument is set in a pretty garden alongside a small public square and is open from 8am to 5pm on weekdays and from 8am to 1pm on Saturdays and Sundays. Entrance is free.
A short history lesson
● Some of our human ancestors lived in this area some 70 000 years ago in the Middle Stone Age.
● Indigenous Khoekhoen people inhabited it from about 1500 years before the arrival of the first Europeans.
● Slavery officially existed in the Cape from the 1650s until the 1830s.
● St Andrew’s Church, which adjoins the Prestwich Memorial, was the first Church to open its doors to newly freed slaves in 1838.
St Andrew's Church, next to the Prestwich Memorial
● The Prestwich Memorial now houses the remains of about 2500 dead who were exhumed from the surrounding area.
Well worth a visit
At a time when Green Point is becoming increasingly gentrified through the construction of upmarket residential projects and trendy shopping malls, Prestwich Memorial represents an important and very necessary reminder of a troubled past that still lies beneath our feet.
Capetonians owe it to themselves to pay a visit to the memorial. Visitors from further afield, especially those with a historical inclination, will most definitely come away with a deeper understanding of our beautiful city. Highly recommended!