Friday, December 18, 2015

The Last of the South African Lighthouse Keepers: Unexpected Guests 1


A series by Suzanne-Jo Leff Patterson

Cape Recife Lighthouse (1851)

The squabble

Latitude - 34° 01' 44’’ S       Longitude - 25° 42' 04 '' E

As essential as the stars which glide across the night skies are guiding beacons to the mariner, so too are the sweeping beams from lighthouses as they guide mariners safely along their coastal paths to their ports of destination. Many a captain, on sighting a lighthouse after hours of darkness, wild weather and high seas, would have felt a profound sense of relief in knowing that the lighthouse was manned by a vigilant Lighthouse Keeper.

Christmas-time was no different, as mariners went about their business and Lightkeepers maintained their routines of performing their duties. 

Japie Greeff spent a number of Christmas seasons stationed at Cape Recife Lighthouse on the southern tip of Algoa Bay in the Eastern CapeThe Head Lightkeeper on Christmas Day would often allow Keepers to lunch with their families and sometimes spend the rest of their shift at their cottages, but they knew they would always have to remain watchful to shipping movements.

Prior to the establishment of the manned light and often bathed in swirling mists and ghostly atmosphere, Cape Recife has claimed many victims on the deadly spine of rocks of Thunderbolt Reef, named after the steam-driven man o’ war, HMS Thunderbolt, which ran onto the reef in 1847.

During its lifetime, Cape Recife Light appears to have been an ill-fated Lighthouse and after Lighthouse Keeper G Feather resigned in 1855, a strange pattern emerged.  Subsequent to his departure, Lighthouse Keepers up until 1870 were appointed  . . .  then dismissed. Lighthouse Keeper A. Thompson resigned in 1871 and the Lightkeeper in 1872 absconded.  A number of Light Keepers between 1949 and 1972 died at the Lighthouse.  Added to this intrigue, although the date is unclear, but thought to be in the 1900s, three Lighthouse Keepers had a squabble whilst working on hoisted scaffolding and two of them fell to their deaths from the balcony of the tower.

Japie Greeff tells us of his own personal experiences whilst stationed at Cape Recife Lighthouse from 1986 – 1990. 

‘During my nightshift and after my hourly inspection had been completed around the buildings, I went back to my office and sat down in my chair to relax when I was startled by a loud bang.  I got up to investigate the origin of the noise and noticed the galvanised dustbin lid lying right across the other side of the building.  The dustbin itself was dancing from side-to-side, as if someone was trying to tip it over. I stood there in absolute disbelief. There was no explanation to account for this strange occurrence.  Suddenly, I was struck by the thought of those two Lighthouse Keepers who had died at Cape Recife, having fallen from a scaffold.  Could this be the two Keepers still squabbling?  I called their names out loud and said, ‘Leave me alone!  I am here to do my job as Lighthouse Keeper and I have no part in your difference of opinion.  If you wish to continue to be quarrelsome, go elsewhere!’  All was quiet for the rest of the shift!

The next day I told my colleague about the night’s disturbances and he just smiled and said that he would often go out and tell them to shut up!

I soon became familiar with this ‘ghost business’ as these two could not settle down to each other.’

Will we ever know what caused the dissatisfaction?  Why were these two still in a state of quarrelsome disagreement?

Just perhaps, this Christmas, it may come to pass that these two Lighthouse Keepers will put their history behind them and find harmony and agreement, or perhaps, they are already well on their way to resolving their discord by amicably agreeing to disagree in the mistiness of Cape Recife Lighthouse.

1 comment:


Inspired writing - beautiful and entertaining!