Simon’s Town Museum is housed in "The Residency" which was built in 1777 as the winter residence for the Dutch East India Company Governor at the Cape. Simon’s Town Museum was established in 1977 by the Simon's Town Historical Society. The Museum was originally housed in the old Simon’s Town Municipality complex, but moved to "The Residency" in 1982. The building has a long history, having been used as a hospital, post office, school, customs house, police station, gaol and magistrate’s court. The Museum collects and exhibits the cultural history of the people of Simon’s Town and their connections with the Dutch East India Company and the Royal Navy.
The Simon's Town Museum records and preserves all aspects of the history of the Simon's Town community and portrays the vibrant past of this small, maritime port, whose position on The Cape Sea Route, resulted in a history which is intertwined with that of many nations around the world.
The greatest tragedy to befall the people of Simon's Town, was the Forced Removals under the Group Areas Act by the Apartheid government in 1967. It led to the devastation of the Simon's Town community. One of the Simon's Town Museum's most important undertakings has been Project Phoenix. It was launched in 1996 to record and preserve the history of the former residents of Simon's Town and added much new material to the Museum's collection. Former residents, museum staff and volunteers meet regularly and work together to ensure that the Museum's collections become more representative of the Simon's Town community.
Simon’s Town was a town of many nations and cultures from its inception. Simon’s Bay was named by Simon van der Stel, when he was carrying out his survey of False Bay in 1687. He recommended Simon’s Bay as the new winter anchorage for the "Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie" fleet (in English, the " United East India Company" and nowadays more generally called the "Dutch East India Company") or simply the "VOC". After much dithering, the VOC finally acted on his recommendation in 1743, when Baron von Imhoff ordered the building of the Storehouses in what is now the West Dockyard. At first the settlement remained tiny, most of its inhabitants being resident only in the winter. The population of Simon’s Town were mainly VOC officials, soldiers and slaves that had been bought to the Cape from China, Indonesia, India, Madagascar, Mozambique, Zanzibar, Angola and other parts of West Africa and the indigenous Khoisan people. Small numbers of Scandinavians, Germans and Frenchmen joined the community as sailors, whalermen, mercenaries, farmers, teachers, traders and so on. The little village remained small though as a result of its seasonal trade with the Dutch East India Company fleet and other passing shipping.
The British took control of the Cape in 1795 and handed it back to the Dutch in 1803, only to seize it once more in 1806. From 1814 the Royal Navy established a permanent naval base at Simon’s Bay and the town began to flourish. People were drawn from all over by the possibility of employment. The large Royal Naval fleet had to be provisioned and this created business opportunities for a relatively large number of persons. Many people from Britain began to settle in Simon’s Town. The Kroomen from West Africa originated in places like Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast and Ghana. They joined the Royal Navy on three year contracts, but many married Simon’s Town women and stayed on in the town after their contracts had expired. Muslim sailors from Zanzibar joined the Royal Navy too. They were known as "Seedies". Most returned home at the end of their contracts, though a few settled in the town, marrying local women.
The Catholic Church of Saints Simon and Jude owes its existence to two Spanish brothers, the Delcarmes, reportedly from South America, who married Irish and German wives respectively and whose descendants were so numerous that they formed the basis of the resultant Catholic congregation and were able to build a church in 1850. During the middle and late 1800’s islanders came from St Helena to settle in Simon’s Town. In the early 1900’s another group of islanders arrived from Tristan da Cunha to settle in the town. Amongst other trades, these people were skilled fishermen and whalermen. Also arriving in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s were the Indian people, who began businesses in the town. Their descendants still own businesses in Simon’s Town today.
Another group to arrive in the late 1880’s were the Xhosa people from the Eastern Cape. They built the railway into Simon’s Town from Kalk Bay, which was opened in 1890. At first they lived alongside the railway track and then on completion of the work, they moved to a kloof close to the town, where they built their homes on terraces on the mountainside. They assisted with the building of the East Dockyard (1901-1910) and later found employment with the Simon’s Town Municipality and in the day to day activities of the expanding Dockyard. Other nationalities who worked on the building of the East Dockyard were the Italians, the Chinese, Indians from the Punjab and again a large number of men from the United Kingdom.
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, a large number of Jewish people, mainly Lithuanians, settled and opened businesses in Simon’s Town, becoming prominent members of the community. In addition, there were small numbers of Philippinos who settled in Simon’s Town in the 1800’s. They were mostly sailors or fishermen. Centuries of intermarriage and social interaction in Simon’s Town created a very culturally diverse community, whose history and heritage must be UNIQUE in South Africa, if not the world!
Simon’s Town was declared a White Group Area on 1 September 1967 and the subsequent Forced Removal of the people of colour irrevocably destroyed the multi-cultural fabric of Simon Town society. Families were literally split as some were removed and some were able to stay in the town - all based on the colour of their skins. In order to preserve the heritage of the Simon’s Town community, the Simon’s Town Museum initiated Project Phoenix in 1996. A committee representative of those forcibly removed from the town was formed to assist the Museum to gather and record the history of Simon’s Town’s dispossessed people. Phase One of Project Phoenix was completed in September 1997 when a permanent exhibition of photographs and documents showing the town, its people and the results of the Forced Removals was opened. Phase Two is underway and the Museum and the Project Phoenix Committee is collecting material for displays on the Artists, Poets, Writers, Dancers, Societies, Sports, Entertainers and Achievers of Simon’s Town. Any assistance for Project Phoenix in the form of family histories, photographs, documents, artefacts and funding of course, would be most gratefully received. The Simon’s Town Museum has had to fund Project Phoenix itself, on a very limited budget and the scope of the research and display work we can undertake is therefore very restricted.
The myth of the Phoenix bird symbolizes immortality, resurrection and life after death. In ancient Greek and Egyptian mythology, it is associated with the sun god. According to the Greeks, the bird lives in Arabia, near a cool well. Every morning at dawn, the sun god would stop his chariot to listen to the bird sing a beautiful song while it bathed in the well. Only one phoenix exists at a time. When the bird felt its death was near, every 500 to 1 461 years, it would build a nest of aromatic wood and set it on fire. The bird then was consumed by the flames. A new phoenix sprang forth from the pyre. It embalmed the ashes of its predecessor in an egg of myrrh and flew with it to Heliopolis, "city of the sun", where the egg was deposited on the altar of the sun god. In Egypt, it was usually depicted as a heron, but in the classic literature as a peacock or an eagle.