For nearly four centuries the Giant of Table Mountain watched over the only Cape Sea Route connecting the Mediterranean Sea, past Cape Town, South Africa, with the Indian Ocean.
Table Mountain and the Legend of the Querulous Giant Adamastor
Ancient Greece was not only a time where culture and philosophy flourished but a time of great tales too. Such were the Greek Myths, stories about gods, goddesses, and their daily rituals. According to the ancient Greeks, Uranus, meaning sky or heaven, was their greatest god, and his wife was Gaea, or Gaia, meaning land, or earth. Uranus and Gaia had many children, some being the twelve Titans who ruled the earth. One of the Titans was Cronus, who later fathered Zeus…
Zeus, eventually, with the aid of two of his brothers, Poseidon and Hades, won the war against the Titans – which were rather tyrannical uncles – and banished them to three places around the world. One such place was the dark and gloomy underworld of Tartarus. The second place was a British Island in the far west, probably the Outer Hebrides, or the Island of Strangers, or even Western Isles, in Scotland. The third place, where poor, old Adamastor was imprisoned, was situated at the southern end of the world, at Table Mountain.
Although… Adamastor appears to be a mythological character created much later, and by the Portuguese poet Luís Vaz de Camões who lived in the 16th century and is, to this day, considered the Portuguese language’s greatest poet. Still, let’s hear his account as it explains superbly how the Cape of Storms, or Cape of Good Hope, near the southern tip of the Cape Peninsula (located in today’s Western Cape province of South Africa), received its name.
So, back to Adamastor, restricted under Table Mountain…
After a few hundred years of being locked away Adamastor was feelings rather bored. There he was, a strong giant once leading a busy life, now confined to a small stony place covered with shrubs and fynbos… not even mighty trees! So Adamastor, to give some purpose to his days, decided to take action and do something good: protect! Yet guard not only the area where he’s been locked up but the entire continent of Africa.
This was around the time when the Portuguese navigators first sailed along the west coast of Africa all the way down… and Adamastor saw them arriving, out of the corner of his eye. He grunted but said nothing, did nothing, just kept an eye on them as one would with naughty children. Waiting for the navigators to do something wrong, and knowing well that they will. The Portuguese sailed on; busy on their route that took them for the first time through these foreign seas, further south they floated, approaching the southernmost tip of Africa. Adamastor said nothing, again, but grunted, rumbled and crossed his arms, I am watching you, and a strong wind swelled the Atlantic Ocean. Still, the navigators kept sailing on, their sails swelling with the gale, their ships angled. When they eventually attempted to approach the land, for fresh water, fresh fruits and maybe some eggs too, Adamastor had had it. He coughed and he puffed so much, that the waters of the Atlantic AND the Indian Ocean swelled, especially along the line where they meet, by the southernmost tip of Africa.
So Bartolomeu Dias, the first Portuguese sailor to attempt sailing down the west coast of Africa, around its tip and up its east coast, towards India – to buy the precious spices (ginger, black pepper, nutmeg, clover – the great Bartolomeu Dias dared not sail further, but turned back his ships and set his compass to home.
It was but a few years later when another Portuguese navigator, Vasco da Gama, showed no fear. He had seen the storm approaching, so he thought, really hard, what he can do next. He weighed his options. Run for cover, or head out to open water for some sea room? If he ran for cover, the preferred choice, the danger lied in being caught in the storm closer to shore, with no room to maneuver or runoff. Smashed against the rocky shored he could end. But if he sailed away, towards the open ocean, he could very well sail towards the middle of the storm.
So when Adamastor raised the winds, Vasco da Gama lowered his sails. When Adamastor swelled the waves, da Gama kept speeding on, aiming for flat spots of sea between the giant breakers, all the time making sure he kept the land to his left, staying on his initial course of rounding the Cape.
Da Gama did a great battle with Adamastor. Storm after storm Adamastor threw at the Portuguese ships, terrifying the sailors who were already scared for they had reached the dreaded Cape of Storms and were nearing the place where Dias had given up. And although his sailors were ready to cut a deal bargain with Adamastor, Da Gama wanted to prove that he was not Dias, and he was not superstitious either.
But Da Gama was clever, not only brave and stubborn. He promised Adamastor a better name for his southernmost rocky spot, one that will bring more visitors over, thus increasing Adamastor’s kingdom. He shall name it the Cape of Good Hope.
Finally, a deal was struck and Da Gama sailed past and reached India, thus establishing the first sailing route there from Europe, the Cape Sea Route. And Adamastor got his large kingdom, to protect.
The Cape Sea Route below Table Mountain after the Suez Canal opened
The Cape Sea Route was in high demand until 1869 when the opening of the Suez Canal provided a much shorter route from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean, thus rendering the long trip around Africa inefficient… Until the Ever Given cargo ship, a 400 meters long Megaship, got stuck in the Suez Canal due to strong winds (perhaps it was Adamastor?) and a sandstorm and blocked the Suez Canal in Egypt, when it ran aground diagonally on March 23rd 2021.
Etymology: The name Adamastor is an adaptation in Portuguese of the Greek word for “Untamed” or “Untameable” (Adamastos) (which the Portuguese did tame eventually).
Fynbos, a small belt of natural shrub-land or heath-land vegetation located in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape provinces of South Africa.
I hope you enjoyed my tale about Table Mountain and the Legend of the Querulous Giant who Blasted the Cape Sea Route Free.
Discover more legends and read about Cape Town and about a beloved Great Dane, the first dog to be enlisted in the Royal Navy during World War Two, in my book Joyful Trouble (available as an eBook, paperback, large print and hardcover).