The History of the Cape Agulhas Lighthouse

Forget Cape Point. The true southernmost Tip of Africa, the one that whispers tales of shipwrecks and stormy seas, is Cape Agulhas. Here, where the warm waters of the Indian Ocean meets the icy grip of the Atlantic Ocean, lies the meeting point two mighty currents (Agulhas and Benguela), as well as an epic history of maritime legends and human resilience.

Building a Lighthouse Where the Two Oceans Meet

These treacherous Agulhas waters, which were once a vital stop along the 15th and 16th century East India trade routes, were also a graveyard for countless ships. The “Cape of Storms” earned its name as a place where the roar of the ocean blended with the cries of lost sailors. But, amidst the need for a safe and secure supply point at the Tip of Africa, a beacon of hope emerged – the vision of Colonel C.C. Michell, a man determined to tame the storm with a guiding light.

Who Built the Cape Agulhas Lighthouse?

The construction of a lighthouse at Cape Agulhas was first requested in March 1837 by the Cape’s surveyor-general and civil engineer, Colonel C.C. Michell. However, it took years for the Cape Legislative Council to raise the money needed for its construction. Finally, building began on 1 April 1847. 

On 8 January 1848, after months of readying supplies at the tip of Africa, the foundation stone was laid under the watchful eye of the governor Sir Harry Smith, Colonel C.C. Michell, and the 90 workmen who had cut and laid over 18,000 cubic feet of masonry and limestone. By December 1848, the lighthouse was completed at a final cost of £15 871, and began operating on 1 March 1849.

Today, the Cape Agulhas lighthouse is the second oldest working lighthouse in South Africa, and has served as a national monument and notable Western Cape attraction since 1973.

“This lighthouse, sited on the most dangerous part of the South African coast, was completed in 1849 at the approximate cost of 12,000 British Pounds, and is the second oldest lighthouse in South Africa.”

National Monument Council.

Architectural Design of the Cape Agulhas Lighthouse

Influenced by Egyptian Revival architecture, the Cape Agulhas Lighthouse is a masterpiece of design. Its distinctive Egyptian Pharos style, with its tapering tower and central lantern room, was built in style of the Lighthouse of Alexandria (one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World).

Egyptian motifs grace the front windows, and a large winged sun-disc features alongside the pylon-towers. The lighthouse’s strong horizontal lines and three-tower design (one central tower with two smaller towers at either end) are reminiscent of the motifs and imagery made famous by Egyptian Revival architecture.

Standing tall at 27 meters, the Cape Agulhas lighthouse still makes for an imposing figure along the southernmost shoreline, having faithfully guided ships through the treacherous two oceans waters for over 170 years.