South African Ghost Stories – Cape Town Castle

It has been a sombre week. I killed a dog who ran into the road while I was driving. I wasn’t speeding. She hit my back tyre, so I didn’t have to choose to break or swerve or to keep going to avoid a more serious accident. I stopped on the verge, wrapped her up in my daughter’s pink towelling dressing gown with piggy ears on the hood, and held her as she died without even a whimper. Perhaps T.S. Eliot was wrong after all.

“This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a whimper.” ~  T.S. Eliot

My first thought was to phone my dad, but he has been dead for almost 5 years. When I tried to quit smoking in the past, I remember reading that it takes 3 weeks to break a habit (or is it 40 days?). Strange then that after 5 years I still haven’t broken the habit of calling my dad when I’m in trouble and need help.

That got me thinking about memory and ghosts; what we take with us when we die and what we leave behind. I pulled Eric Rosenthal’s wonderful They Walk in the Night off my bookshelf and began re-reading it. It is a collection of South Africa’s most famous ghost stories. They are wonderful and remind me of slumber parties; giggling girls eating condensed milk out of the tin and scaring ourselves half to death.

There have been people living in South Africa for over 100 000 years, so that’s plenty of time to have a veritable rush hour of spectres crossing the landscape. I’ll start though with the haunting of South Africa’s oldest colonial building, the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. It was built by the Dutch between 1666 and 1679.

Kasteel de Goede Hoop about 1680

Several ghosts have been reported over the years including the “Grey Lady” (just like J.K. Rowling’s Ravenclaw ghost!) who haunted both the Castle and Government House. She was said to travel along a collapsed tunnel between the two buildings. After a female skeleton was dug up in the grounds of the Castle in the 1940s, the Grey Lady was seen no more.

The wicked Governor Van Noodt supposedly haunts the castle too. He died suddenly in his chair almost at the same moment that 7 prisoners whom he had sentenced to death for their objection to his cruelty were hanged in the yard. While the Grey Lady seems only to have floated around the castle, Governor Van Noodt is said to speak and dislodge plaster from the ceiling. No doubt tut-tutting about the sad condition of his office hundreds of years after he vacated it.

Inner view of the main entrance. Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

My favourite ghost story from the Castle though was reported in 1947 by members of the Union Defence Force who were occupying the fort at the time. In a week of few smiles, it makes me laugh out loud.

Over the course of 3 nights at 3 day intervals in July, there were sightings of an 8 foot, semi-transparent apparition. It was first spotted on the ramparts, where after being approached by the guards on duty, “in a pincer movement” no less, it jumped off the battlements and disappeared into thin air above the old moat. 3 Nights later it was seen again. Before reporting the incident to the commander, however, the resourceful Corporal Boonzaair decided first to eliminate the possibility of the ghost being a soldier playing a practical joke.

To do this, he recruited the help of Private Sneygans. Private Sneygans was ordered to “haunt” the battlements while covered in a sheet. Not the sort of derring-do that inspired young men to join the army! Unsurprisingly, the soldiers who had gathered to be haunted were not convinced and with much raucous laughter, dispelled the idea of a joker in a sheet being the culprit.

The last night the ghost appeared, he not only hovered but also rang the bells in the guard-room. The troops were now no longer laughing; they were in a cold sweat of fear. Corporal Boonzaair was ready to present his report to the Commander of the Castle. And although the commander asked the Military Police to keep an eye open for practical jokers (didn’t he read that Boonzaair had conducted his own investigation into the validity of this idea?), “finding no instructions in the Military Code how to deal with ghosts, went on with his work.”

6 thoughts on “South African Ghost Stories – Cape Town Castle

  1. Last time I was at the British Library they had an exhibition on Dickens and his interest in the supernatural. People seem to think this is strange, as such belief is no longer taken seriously. But in the age before electric light, when everywhere had dark corners for strange creatures to lurk in, before scientific explanations, and decline in religious practice, intelligent people were looking for answers, so it makes perfect sense that intelligent people believed in all sorts of stuff – it was an attempt to explain strange events. The explanations may not have been the best, but they were explanations. They sufficed until the modern world caught up with them. For some people, they still do. And as with you missing your father, I don’t think it matters if his ghost is still about. If believing that makes you feel better, and maybe miss him less, then it works. We all believe in all sorts of strange things that we may not really believe in, but we will always need things to hang onto. There will never be answers for everything, and that is what `I find really interesting.

    • I think that sometimes a little magic in our lives goes a long way towards easing some of the harder parts of them. I often consciously choose to go with magic over logic. I think ladybirds bring good luck and I throw spilt salt over my left shoulder. I also know this is complete bunkum but it makes me happy.

      I didn’t know Dickens was into the supernatural. Wasn’t Newton also more man of mystery than man of science as far as he was concerned? I seem to remember something about him trying to calculate the exact dimensions of Solomon’s Temple.

      Happy weekend to you.

      And thank you for always have something interesting to say.

    • Hi Valerie,

      Thanks for stopping by.

      I had plans to keep adding ghost stories for a little while; “They Walk in the Night” is such a cool book. But now I have been distracted by epically bad historical fashion. *sigh* I’m so easily tempted from focus! It’s why I had to call my blog tracy loves history – keep it broad, you know.

  2. Sounds like a rough week. It’s funny how our minds work. One thing reminds us of another. . . and then another. . . The information about the castle and ghost stories in fascinating.

    • The rough week was followed by one working in Durban: vervet monkeys in coastal forest, views over the Indian Ocean, eagle owls in the canopy and fields of strappy sugar-cane.

      Also, amazingly, fabulously, wondefully, I got lost on the Berea; stopped to reset my satnav; and realised that I was parked outside my great great grandmother’s house that I had only the week before looked up on Google Maps!

      I loved your paper cows, by the way. My husband also thought I had lost it when I started making pegmen and posing them in the garden for photos!

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