Huda Tayob

Spectral footsteps

New Year’s Day – Thanksgiving service.
January 4, 1699 (Sunday) -  Fine rains for the grapes and gardens.
January 8, 1699 – A female slave found murdered near hospital.
January 8 1699- Those on Robben Island deceived by the mist, mistook the coaster for a frigate. Hence the Firing.1

The Precis of the Archives of the Cape of Good Hope covering the period 1699 – 1732 begins with the items listed above. In the first few days of 1669, there was a new year’s service, fine rains for the abundant gardens, a murder, and deceptive mists. This initial list is followed with longer descriptions of battles and trade, of convicts brought to the cape, of rumours and intrigue. These carefully recorded daily events are drawn from longer archives and site Cape Town somewhere between Europe, the Caribbean and Asia. They draw lines between the small settlement known as the Cape of Good Hope, and Colombo, India, Madagascar, Mauritius, the Netherlands, and Britain. 2

I came across these archival records through a search for stories about some of the old cape houses, and their histories.3 They are cited as important accounts by two of the earliest architectural histories of the Cape, by Dorothea Fairbridge and Alys Trotter.4
was searching for traces of a slave ghosts, mentioned briefly in these architectural histories, around a series of houses: Waterhof, Welgelegen, Nooitgedacht, and Rhenish Mission. I found very little about any of the houses or their ghostly presences. I read instead about stories of a troubled land, of mutiny among soldiers and slaves, of desertions and murders. And of fine rains and abundant gardens, and deceptive mists.

Waterhof, or Water Manor is named for the large freshwater spring located on the site in Table Valley. It is described in a few paragraphs in relation to its more stately neighbour, Leewenhof as follows:

“Equally blessed in soil and situation, it had a glorious garden not long ago - a garden in which steps of Batavian bricks led you from one terrace to another, in which you lost yourself in the luxuriant tangle of honeysuckle, myrtle, jasmine and scarlet passion-flower.” 5

This garden described as both “blessed in soil and situation” is situated at the foot of Table Mountain. The sheltered natural amphitheater is surrounded by Lion’s Head and Devil’s peak, with spring water and fertile soil. The fresh water system feeding the spring was known as Camissa, a creolised term derived from the Khoi language, denoting the forty tributaries which run through the valley, or ‘sweet water of the people’.6 Yet beyond the description of the abundant natural beauty, Waterhof is home to a legend “which hangs about so many Cape houses.” 7 This is a story of a slave mutiny of all the household slaves, with the supposed intention of murdering every member of the family. According to the legend, one child survived at the mercy of a young girl:

“ but a young slave girl who had charge of the sleeping baby of the house slipped outside with the child and slid him into the brick-baking oven in the yard .”8

As the story goes, the child slept through the noise and chaos that ensued and survived to “hand the story down to his children’s children.” This passage is followed by another:

“ Waterhof is a place wherein to see visions and dream dreams. Legend says that you may hear the pattering footsteps of the mutinous slaves whenever you care to listen for them.” 9

After this note on visions, dreams and footsteps, the passage moves on to describe the houses of Welgemeend (Well-intentioned), its gable and general splendour. Did only the infant child survive? And what happened to the slaves? Did they escape to the surrounding mountains? Were they caught? And who else has “cared to listen” to this pattering sound? This brief interlude of a slave revolt retold among the beauty of the garden with its Batavian bricks, is followed by the heavy hand of time on these early Cape houses, before moving on to a lineage of ownership of similar houses nearby. Yet, the ubiquitous nature of these stories and the narrative force of these off-hand tales repeated frequently asks to be read again. Amongst whom are these stories told? Who shared these tales? What happened to the “young slave girl” and who was the child she saved? These are stories that exceed the architecture yet are embedded within the “brick-backing oven”, and “Batavian bricks”; deeply entrenched in the tangle of “honeysuckle, myrtle, jasmine and scarlet passion-flower” all of which recall routes of empire and slaving. The stories travel across time and space, marking the presence and absence of slave lives in these houses and land.

Waterhof is first named on a land registry diagram dating form 28 March 1698, one year before the Precis record begins. The site was initially farmed as a productive market garden. The valuable spring situated on the land meant the garden was an important site of food production and a key water resource in the city. It is not clear exactly when the house itself was built, but the date may have fallen outside of the archival precis mentioned above. The site was described as having a “tuin en gebouw"(garden and building) in a 1794 transfer. Land registry details and the deeds office records are incomplete, yet speak of various owners, a series of expansions and deductions to the land, sales to children, bankruptcies, and recuperations.10 An 1800 tax and property census (opgaafrol) records that the owner had: 13, 000 vines, 2 sons, 5 daughters, 7 animals (3 oxen, 4 horses) and 16 slaves (8 men, 5 boys, 2 women, 1 girl).11  There are no names for slaves in these census documents, and they did not include any Khoi inhabitants who might have been bonded, making the lives of those deemed property difficult to trace in the archives. In addition, as Nigel Worden has noted, the general accuracy pf the opgaafrol’s were highly questionable.12 Yet the sound of footsteps resonates across time, heard by various occupants of the building until at least the early 1920s.13

The spectral footsteps speak to fear and anxiety, projection and panic of conquest. The haunting also offers a temporal refusal of displacement and erasure, and positions the archive as emotive and contested. The slave woman’s footsteps are a point of recall and return. No matter how faint her pattering feet might be, she disrupts history and architecture, insisting on the circularity of time for those who “care to listen”. As Avery Gordon notes, the spectral is a seething presence: not simply a dead or missing person, but a social figure.14 Caring to hear the footsteps of these ghostly female presences, leads us back into the density of the archive, where social life is made and disrupted. Gordon writes, “The present wavers. Something will happen.”15 The disembodied pattering, heard but not seen, draw architecture into relation with property, personhood and space.16

The story is however not unique to Waterhof. Alys Trotter recounts a similar story yet attributes it to the house at Welgelegen, or ‘Well- positioned’, where only one baby survived, and was similarly saved by his nurse in a brick oven.17 The house of Nooitgedacht holds a similar tale:

“ Nooitgedacht owns a legend similar to that of Waterhof, a tale of mutinous slaves and of the master and mistress returning from a rout at government house – she in brocade and diamonds, he in powder and satin- to be murdered on their arrival .” 18

Here too, in the house named ‘Unexpected’, a baby was saved by its nurse, who in this story hid in a dark cupboard from her fellow slaves. A third notable account of a similar slave-ghost is written about Rhenish, which later became a private girl’s school in Stellenbosch. At the time of Fairbridge’s writing, the only remains of the original construction here was the rear garden, yet “in this garden, rumour says, a slave was murdered by her master, and once a year, when the moon gleams on the white, waxen flowers of the myrtle, she wanders beneath the vine-covered pergola.19 This is a garden which remains filled with “myrtle hedges, mulberry trees, and a tall palm20 where the wandering spectral figure returns every year. Amidst the midsummer myrtle bloom, is there something unexpected in this violence? As Fairbridge has mentioned, this is a tale which “hangs about so many Cape houses.” The sound of her footsteps write a silence; a silence full of voices.21 The ghost is anxiety and a refusal to be forgotten.

Architectural history of the Cape is almost always described in relation to the beauty of views, the abundant gardens, and the immense natural surroundings. The power of the landscape overlaps with the often-unspoken history of slavery and conquest that remain written into the homes and houses of these mountain slopes. The Cape of Good Hope was a slave-owning society from at least 1658 – 1834. This end point is widely contested, as manumission was replaced by a system of indentured labour. The lime-washed houses of the early cape mirror the white-washed history, where traces of the violent past have largely been removed or painted over, relegated to the peripheries. Unspeakable and largely unspoken. As Gabeba Baderoon notes, “The colonial city represented in picturesque paintings was founded on slave labour, but these views of Cape Town also rendered that labour invisible.”22 Yet these footsteps remain to be heard, and the honeysuckle, myrtle and jasmine are still, widely found on these slopes. How might we write ghost stories of the deep hauntings of these slave owning homes and slopes? Of the embodied violence they continue to hold? How and where do we follow the submerged traces of footsteps?

The archival Precis of 1669 begins with a story of a new year’s service, fine rains for the gardens, a female slave found murdered and deceptive mists on Robben Island. Saidiya Hartman reminds us, “history pledges to be faithful to the limits of fact, evidence, and archive, even as those dead certainties are produced by terror.”23 Did this female slave who was murdered near the (Somerset) hospital leave behind footsteps too? Does she return every year, in summer, when the myrtle flowers bloom in those abundant gardens watered by the fine January rains and rolling mists, or sweet Camissa water? Is her pattering a dance among the luxuriant tangle of “jasmine and scarlet passion-flower”24 , or the “mulberry trees and a tall palm.” The aromatic emerald-green leaves of myrtle flower in the full summer heat, fills the silence too.   

The sound of forgetfulness

The ghostly sound cuts through space. It hollows out light, and travels across time. The low and deep, light pattering is always distant, and barely heard. It is absence and presence at the same time. These are footsteps which lead nowhere. They are the sound of forgetfulness. Mahmoud Darwish asks in his prose Memory for Forgetfulness (1982), “where will meaning find words again?”25 Forgetting is that shadowy underside of memory, the space where silence speaks.  Against the structural amnesia of archives, laws and the force of order, the sound and smell of forgetfulness confront us with a relentless reminder.26 Her ghostly footsteps trespass time itself.27 Perhaps tending to these stories of silence, is not an archaeology of dismembered figures and bodies, and rather practice of archival care?28  i

“How many ways can you splice a history? Price a country? Dice a people? Slice a heart? Entice what’s been erased back into story?” Shailja Patel asks.29 Waves of forgetfulness cast populations out of records, onto shores and into mountains. Buried bodies, return only as footsteps, or in the broken shadows of forgetting. In the first few days of 1669, there was a new year’s service, fine rains for the abundant gardens, a female slave murdered, and deceptive mists. Where the right and ability to move as a black women continues to be deeply circumscribed in South Africa, the pattering footsteps at Waterhof, Welgelegen, Nooitgedacht, and Rhenish hold a space for those who “care to listen”. Her footsteps are a fragile and obscure reminder of an irretrievably subaltern past.30 Through her footsteps, she returns as specter to unsettle history and architecture. She recasts the site, centers the brick oven and cupboard. She pauses the movement of time, returning every year. There are no clear binaries here. She walks a fine line between revolt, resistance and care; this is architecture as trope and event. Her disembodied footsteps speak not as sign but as presence, offering an embodied grammar of encounter.
She is trace of what was, but she is also flesh, bone and spirit.31 
Of a strange intimacy that endures.
And the sound of forgetfulness.


Rampies are lemon leaves cut finely and scented with rose, sewed into a piece of cotton or muslin. The scented parcels are offered at grave sites, or kramats, around the Cape Peninsula, which form a sacred circle of holy shrines in the mountain slopes around the city. This circuit starts at Signal Hill, overlooking the Table Valley and the old market gardens. How do you meet a grave? In 1934, the Cape Natural History Club visited the kramats and notes of the two graves that run along the ridge of Signal hill, overlooking the city: “No one seems able to say for certain who is buried there” but notes that they are visited frequently, and cared for, the headstones soaked in a “sweet-smelling balsam.”32 ii Marie Kathleen Jeffreys an archivist at the National Archives writing for the Cape Naturalist noted from a visit in 1934,:

“ The two graves that lie beside the path that runs along the ridge of Signal Hill are very simple, and give the impression of great age […] The rough headstones bear no inscription. Each grave is a platform of earth about a foot high (kept in position by a coping-wall of stones the same height) and on each there grow some of the low and small plants characteristic of that part of Signal Hill. A stone wall surrounds the grave leaving several feet of space between grave and wall. ”33

The adornments of these graves with Rampies, flowers and colourful cloths, betrays their seeming forgetfulness. They are visited and tended, and hold stories of political exiles from Batavia, learned scholars from Baghdad and Yemen via Mombasa, Sumatran prisoners and fugitive slaves. They carry legends of healing, of speaking to lions, of walking on water.34 They offer sites of refuge and signify the mountain as spaces of life and escape. Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues that “history reveals itself only through the production of specific narratives. What matters most are the process and conditions of production of such narratives.”35 Paying attention to the material production of these stories enables us to track power, beyond the assumed chronological tales we have been told. Do these stories perhaps offer a counterpoint to the ghostly footsteps of what lies below? A means to claim a space without owning it? Of belonging, rather than possession. 
Themes: Counter-Scopic Regimes, Spatial Claims

Methods: Archive, Fragments


[1] Leibbrandt, Hendrik Carel vos., 1896. Precis of the Archive of the Cape of Good Hope: Journal 1699- 1732 by HCV Leibbrandt (Keeper of the Archive) Cape Town: W.A Richard and Sons Government Printers, 1.

[2] This archival precis is accompanied by The Rambles through the Archive (1688- 1700) which covers an overlapping period of the early years of the Cape Colony under Dutch rule.

[3] I have written elsewhere about archival fictions, and fictional archives: https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/survivance/386349/unconfessed-architectures/

[4] Fairbridge, Dorothea. 1922. Historic Houses of South Africa. Cape Town: Maskew Miller;  Trotter, Alys, F. 1903. Old Cape Colony: A Chronicle of her Men and Houses from 1652 – 1806. Westminster: Archibald Constable & co.  are widely considered the two first architectural histories of the cape.

[5] Fairbridge, Historic Houses of South Africa, p. 59.

[6] See: https://camissamuseum.co.za/index.php/orientation/meaning-of-camissa

[7] Fairbridge, Historic Houses of South Africa, p.60.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Waterhof can be seen on a land registry (regrant) diagram first dated 28 March 1698, when the larger Leewenhof next door was subdivided. It is noted as initially owned by J Belsius and then Johan Christiaan

[11] Harris, Stewart. 2007. Table Valley Market Gardens: 1800, 1805, 1807. Cape Town: Vernacular Architecture Society of South Africa.

[12] Worden, Nigel. 2014 “Cape Slaves in the Paper Empire of the VOC” Kronos No.40, p.23 – 44.

[13] In the research done by Stewart Harris for the Waterhof restoration, the owner of Waterhof from 188__ to 1907 was noted as “hearing ghostly footsteps at Waterhof”: Harris and Thorold, 1998. The Waterhof Land Albums: Layering Waterhof, p.36.

[14] Gordon, Avery. 2011. “Some Thoughts on Haunting and Futurity.” Borderlands 10:2, p.1-21.

[15] Gordon, “Some Thoughts on Haunting and Futurity” p.3.

[16] Asha Best and Margaret Ramirez raise the question on the relationship of haunting to property, personhood and the urban through the work of Black women artists in the US: Best, Asha. And Ramirez, Margaret M.  2021. “Urban Specters” in Society and Space D, p. 1 – 14.

[17] Alys Trotter writes that “A slave atrocity or revenge is recorded on the coat of arms of the suburb of Mowbray near Cape Town, once called Trikop. There at the old house of Welgelegen, now rebuilt, a whole family was murdered. One baby only, whose descendants are still alive, was saved by his nurse, who hid him in the large brick bread oven.” Alys Trotter, Old Cape Colony (London: A. Constable & Company, 1903), 285.

[18] Fairbridge, Historic Houses of South Africa, p. 62.

[19] Fairbridge, Historic Houses of South Africa, p.112

[20] Ibid.

[21] In relation to writing silence: Darwish, Mahmoud. 1987. Memory for Forgetfulness (August, Beirut, 1982). Berkeley: University of California Press, p.34.

[22]  Baderoon, Gabeba. 2009. “The African Oceans- Tracing the Sea as Memory of Slavery in South African Literature and Culture” African Literatures, Vol.40, No.4, p. 90

[23] Hartman, Saidiya. 2008. “Venus in Two Acts” Small Axe, 26, p.9.

[24] Fairbridge, Historic Houses of South Africa, p. 59

[25] Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness, p.5

[26] Gordon has written, “To my mind, the whole essence, if you can use that word, of a ghost is that it has a real presence and demands its due, demands your attention”: Gordon, “Haunting and Futurity”, p.2

[27] Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues that “people are not always subjects constantly confronting history as some academics would wish, but the capacity upon which they act to become subjects is always part of their condition. This subjective capacity ensures confusion because it makes human beings doubly historical, or more properly fully historical. It engages them simultaneously in the sociohistorical process and in narrative constructions about that process.” Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1995. Silencing the Past. Boston: Beacon Press, p.24

[28] Moloi, Nkgopoleng, 2021. “Gestures of Gratitude”, Archive of Forgetfulness:  https://archiveofforgetfulness.com/Nkgopoleng-Moloi

[29] Patel, Shailja. 2010. Migritude. New York: Kaya Press, p.7

[30] In a different context Parama Roy suggests that rumour and the spectral often belong to an obscure and “irretrievably subaltern past”: Roy, Parama. Alimentary Tracts, Durham: Duke University Press, p.36

[31] Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness, p.43

[32] On Friday 3 December 2021, ten kramats in Cape Town were officially declared National Heritage Sites after a prolonged campaign: https://www.news24.com/news24/southafrica/local/peoples-post/kramats-obtain-national-heritage-status-20211206

[33] This is the first of a series of articles written between 1934 and 1938 about the kramats of the Cape by Cape archivist based at the Cape Town branch of the National Archives: p.17, Jeffreys, Kathleen Marie. 1934. “The Malay Tombs of the Holy Circle: The Tombs of Signal Hill Ridge” The Cape Naturalist vol.1, No.1 (Nov. 1934), p. 15 – 17.

[34] Some of these stories have been collected in a publication titled ‘Guide to the Kramats of the Western Cape’, published by the Cape Mazaar (Kramat) Society, First published 1996, with particular mention of the contribution of Achmat Davids.

[35] Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1995. Silencing the Past. Boston: Beacon Press, p.24

[i] Read a piece that describes how Black women wrote themselves into the archive: AGAINST THE COLONIAL CARCERAL DIASPORA by SM Rodriguez

[ii] For another exploration of the botanical, see SEEDS OF RESISTANCE by Ella den Elzen

Huda Tayob is a lecturer at the University of Cape Town. She is an architect and architectural historian. Her research focuses on migrant, minor and subaltern architectures, southern epistemologies and archival silences. She received an RIBA President Award for Research Commendation for her PhD, was the 2019 recipient of the SAH Scott Opler award for Emerging Scholars and is currently a Canadian Centre for Architecture Mellon Fellow on the project Centring Africa. She is co-curator of the open access curriculum Racespacearchitecture.org and the digital podcast series and exhibition Archive of Forgetfulness (Archiveofforgetfulness.com).

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