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The building of Bainskloof Pass (Part 1)

We revisit the early days of the Cape colony to understand how and why Bainskloof Pass came into existence.

picturesque panoramic view from atop Bainskloof

The Cape colony became subject to British authority in the early 1800's. As the occupation of the Cape was primarily a military strategic move, the Brits were not eager to invest monetarily in the Colony. As such the building and maintenance of the Cape's long term logistic infrastructure were not high on their priority list.

The system which they acquired from the Dutch meant that the magistrates and members of the court, assisted by field cornets, master road builders and slave labour was responsible for the building and maintenance of roads. Every area exercised its control according to its own set of local standards. The responsibility for the building and maintenance of roads were thus placed upon the shoulders of the inhabitants of the respective area. The struggling agricultural economy, which at the time provided the sole economic drive for the interior country, could not successfully uphold this plight.

The building of the Franschhoek Pass in 1825 and Sir Lowrys Pass in 1830 awakened the general public to the benefit of good roads. It may be assumed that the British authorities viewed these two passes from a military perspective as strategic assets as opposed to assisting trade amelioration.

The authorities have however not been totally unsympathetic towards road development. In 1828 major Charles Cornwallis Michell was appointed surveyor general, civil engineer en superintendent of public works in the Cape. He immediately escalated the priority of road maintenance in the Colony whose roads were in terrible condition and initiated the planning of several new roads and passes. The shortage of funding and proper labour for road construction was one of his most demanding obstacles. The situation was worsened when slaves where finally emancipated in 1838. Convicts systematically replaced the slaves and military work teams was also incorporated to contribute to the building of roads and passes.

The true advancement of the road transport system in the Cape colony actually only began with the arrival of John Montagu as government secretariat in 1843. His first duty was to improve the Colony's extremely disadvantaged economic position. He achieved this within the timespan of two and a half years. He also realized that good hinterland traffic roads would form an essential part of a sustainable economy in the Cape. Montagu was of the opinion that the singular efforts to establish proper roads were too fragmented and compartmentalized. Thus he strived for the establishment of a centralized governmental road agency. Himself together with Michell and William Porter then went and drafted the “Montagu Plan”. According to the plan, main roads would have to be controlled by a central road authority. This step was empowered through the 8th ordinance of 22 November 1843 when the Central Road Council was established.

According to this decree the Central Road Council had to accept the responsibility for main roads and the District Councils that of the less significant byroads. The District Councils were replaced in 1855 by Department Councils. The Central Road Council's establishment and the subsequent betterment of roads contributed significantly towards the economic prosperity of the Cape colony. Transport could occur easier, safer and faster, new towns were established alongside the roads, uncultivated land could be applied more productively and livestock farms expanded. Although it was only after the discovery of diamonds that the Cape colony experienced a fundamental economic shift, it could be stated that the road development during the nineteenth century played an important role in the economic progression of the Colony.

The ultimate honour for the betterment of roads in the Cape colony has to be granted to the Michell, Montagu and Bain team. As stated before, Michell was the first surveyor general and civil engineer who prepared the way for a proper road system. He however returned to Britain on 12 February 1848 due to poor health. Acting as government secretariat, Montagu did the administrative and financial preparation, while Bain was the Central Road Council's road inspector, accepting the position in 1845.

One of Bain's earliest tasks in his new role was to rebuild the pass at Mostertshoek in the Skurweberg area in close proximity to the current town of Ceres. This pass served as a precursor for Bainskloof Pass which would form part of a new main road from the Cape to the northern parts of the Colony.