How Devil’s Peak Really Got Its Name
According to most Cape Town residents, Devil’s Peak got its name from the popular legend of the Dutch pirate Van Hunks and his smoking duel with the Devil. That’s partly true – but what you probably don’t know is that the legend is a recent invention. You see, the Ballad of Jan Van Hunks was only published in 1909, but the residents of Cape Town have been accusing the Devil’s Peak of escorting the Cape Southeaster for a lot longer.
Devils Peak was actually first called Windberg by the early Dutch settlers. But it was also known as Duiwepiek, Duiwekop or Duiwenberg and early maps like the one below refer to it by both these names.
The name Windberg is self-explanatory to anyone who has ever experienced Cape Town’s Southeaster, and the dove reference may be as prosaic – the mountain was home to thousands of doves according to Lawrence Green’s book on the Cape Peninsula, I Heard the Old Men Say. ”You have only to stroll over the slopes to see the bush doves,” he wrote.
It could be the case that Duiwel was simply a malapropism for Duiwe, or a mistranslation by the English when they took over the Cape in 1795, but it’s an unlikely explanation. After all, Jan van Riebeeck’s son Abraham referred to the peak as Devil’s Hill as early as 1676 when he visited Cape Town. Peter Kolbe, who worked at the Cape between 1705 and 1713 as South Africa’s first official astronomer also describes it as De Windberg or Duivels Berg and in 1769 Rear-Admiral John Splinter Stavorinus referred to Devils Mountain on his visit to the Cape.
What is certainly true is that it was the British journalist Ian Colvin, who first connected the popular story of Van Hunks and the Devil to Cape Town. In a chapter of his very popular book South Africa: Romance of Empire, he claimed the legend of Van Hunks was based on an old slave tale heard while “gossiping with one of the old Hajis or Moulvis who know so much that we do not understand”, but it’s more likely that he appropriated the story from a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, published a few months earlier in the English Review.
In Colvin’s version, Van Hunks was a Dutch pirate who had retired to Cape Town and escaped his wife’s sharp tongue by spending his days smoking his pipe at his favourite spot on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain.
One day Van Hunks was startled to see a tall stranger sitting exactly where he normally sat. The mysterious stranger asked the retired pirate if he could spare him a little tobacco and Van Hunks started to boast about the fact that he was the only man who was able to smoke as large a quantity of it as he did. The stranger replied that he could easily smoke as much, if not more, than the old pirate. Angrily, an indignant Van Hunks challenged the man to a smoking contest.
It was not too long before huge plumes of smoke enveloped them and started creeping up the mountain. All day long the contest continued – some folks say that it actually went on for days. Eventually the whole mountain was covered as clouds of smoke poured over the mountain.
Van Hunks became tired, hot and frustrated but he noticed that his strange competitor was not looking too happy himself. Suddenly, unable to continue, the stranger leaned forward and his black hat was dislodged and Van Hunks discovered that his challenger was the devil himself. The devil was furious at having been beaten by a mortal and in a bright flash of lightning Van Hunks and the lean stranger vanished into the smoke leaving behind a scorched patch of ground.
In Colvin’s legend, the cloud of tobacco smoke they left behind became Cape Town’s famous tablecloth – and every year, Van Hunks is forced to repeat his duel.
It’s certainly a great tale, and its well worth reading Colvin’s telling of How Table Mountain Got its Cloud, but the original story of Van Hunks had nothing to do with the Cape and certainly wasn’t a legend that went very far back in time.
Only a few months before Colvin’s book was published, the pre-Raphaelite poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Ballad of Jan van Hunks was published in the English Review, and although Colvin claimed that his story was written several months before Rossetti’s, literary critics are unanimous that How Table Mountain Got its Cloud is “a skilfully contrived literary product owing more to Kipling and Rossetti than to the folk imagination of the Cape Malays.”
In fact, although Rossetti’s tale of Van Hunks was only published in 1909, he started writing it in 1846 after enjoying the story of Henkerwyssel’s Challenge by John Rutter Chorley in Tales of Chivalry as a teenager.
Henkerwyssels Challenge was actually first published in 1829, and in the original tale, Van Hunks was in fact Hans Henkerwyssel, a retired pirate who lived in Dordt, Netherlands. Unlike in Colvin’s version, Henkerwyssel lost his duel with the Devil, and had his dead body found by the local vicar.
Rossetti’s Ballad of Jan van Hunks doesn’t mention Cape Town or a mountain either. His version is also set in the Netherlands where the streets are paved with ice and the sky is frosty.
In it Van Hunks and the Devil do indeed have a smoke-off but at the end of two days of smoking, Van Hunks is found dead by the local pastor and his mutilated body is used as a pipe by the Devil.
The poem ends somewhat grotesquely:
They have sliced the very crown from his head,
Worse tonsure than a monk’s—
Lopped arms and legs, stuck a red-hot tube
In his wretchedest of trunks;
And when the Devil wants his pipe
They bring him Jan Van Hunks.
There is a chance that the story came directly to Cape Town from the Netherlands. Dordt, where Henkerwyssel’s Challenge is set, was one of the five Dutch cities represented in the Dutch East India Company that first settled the Cape, but it’s more likely that it landed in Cape Town via Rossetti.
What is certainly clear is that the Cape Town legend of Jan van Hunks had nothing to do with the actual naming of Devils Peak, but became accepted as the reason because of the popularity of Colvin’s book on South Africa.
So how did Devils Peak get its name?
The answer may lie in the very earliest references to the Cape. What we know today as the Cape of Good Hope, was only so named when Barthomelew Diaz returned to Portugal after his failure to find a route to the east in 1487.
Forty years before Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape in 1497, the Venetian cartographer Fra Mauro created a map of the world for King Alfonso V of Portugal, based on knowledge drawn from the Arabians. On this map, which became the definitive view of the world for the early Portuguese explorers, he named the southernmost tip of Africa, Capo di Diab – the Devil’s Cape.
It’s very likely the association with the Devil simply migrated from the Cape to the mountain that flanks it. After all, sailors are a superstitious lot and Devils Peak remains the path through which the Cape Southeaster howls, churning up the waves in the Cape of Storms.
Viewed from the sea, Table Mountain may indeed have represented the Last Supper to religious seafarers, biblically bookended on the one side by Lion’s Head (representing Lion of Judah) and the Twelve Apostles – and the Devil’s Mountain on the other.