Thursday, February 9, 2017

A rare tradition - 1200 BANG

Traditions in a young country like South Africa are generally relative few and far between, except for ones that have been imported, such as having traditional Christmas meals, despite the heat, surrounded by little fir trees appropriately decorated and sprayed with artificial snow.  And we don't have groundhogs.

However, there is a tradition in Cape Town that has been going for over 200 years.

The tradition is the firing of a cannon on Signal Hill at precisely noon every day except Sundays and public holidays.

The noon cannon fires.
Prior to the take-over of the Cape by the British in 1806 after possibly the shortest war in history (see my blog Short battle – Long Impact), the firing of cannons in Cape Town signaled the arrival of ships requiring provisioning.  This allowed farmers living relatively far from and out of sight of Table Bay to know when to bring their produce to the docks.

As other means of communication evolved, this form disappeared.  The provisioning cannons fired their last blasts in early 1900s.

Cannons were also used from 1806 to allow ships’ captains to determine the time accurately – an important component of being able to determine longitude.  The cannons used were originally Dutch 18-pounder, smooth-bore muzzle-loaders protecting the Castle in Cape Town.  When the British took over, they replaced the Dutch cannons with more modern British one, and relegated them to being signal cannons.

Every day a cannon would be fired at exactly noon.  Because the speed of sound is relatively slow, captains measured the time, not by the when they heard the cannon (several seconds later), but by when they saw the puff of smoke.  Originally the cannons were near the centre of Cape Town, but were eventually moved to the top of a nearby hill because it was easier to see the smoke.  The hill to which they were moved is now called Signal Hill.

The navy is responsible for preparing the cannon for firing.

The red flag BRAVO being raised to warn of impending gunfire
Since 1864, the Noon Gun has been fired from the master clock of the oldest timekeeper in South Africa, the South African Astronomical Observatory.  As far as I can find out, there have only been two times when the cannons misbehaved.  One day in June 1895, the gun fired at 1030 rather than 1200 when a spider interfered with the relay used to remotely fire the gun.  The cannon was refired at noon.

And on Friday January 7, 2005, both the main gun and backup gun failed to fire, owing to a technical difficulty.  This was the first time in 200 years that the noon cannon failed to fire.

The main and back-up cannons.
Despite tens of thousands of firings, there have been very few mishaps.  The one I like the best happened during the time of horse-drawn traffic, over a hundred years ago.  When the cannon was being loaded, the rammer used to tamp the charge into the muzzle was accidently left in the barrel.  When the cannon was fired, the rammer sailed into the downtown area of Cape Town killing a horse.

I play golf just below Signal Hill.  It is always a pleasure to hear the bang at noon.

However the best way of enjoying the Noon Gun is to go to the Lions Battery on Signal Hill, half an hour before noon.  You can enjoy the magnificent views of Cape Town and Table Bay and listen to a brief history of the tradition given by a naval personnel.

View from Lion's Battery on Signal Hill
Talking of bangs, if you follow Signal Hill’s twitter account (@Signal_Hill_Gun), your twitter account will get a BANG every day at noon, Cape Town time!


  1. Edinburgh's Mons Meg fires at 1 pm everyday. It's fun to watch the tourists jump. She's been doing that since 1457.

    1. There used to be a time ball on top of Carlton Hill, but the sailors could never see it so the cannon was fired simultaneously...and the cannon tradition survived. She (Meg) has been taken away, repaired, bits replaced but it is the same gun. She must be terrible at her job to be fired so often......( sorry..)

    2. They replaced the BANG with a time-ball in Cape Town too because of the time difference between the smoke and the BANG - enough difference to make sailors mistake Glasgow for Edinburgh! Originally the sailor also allowed 1 second for the difference between the real time and the time when the ball went down - the moment had to be phoned through from the Observatory.

  2. I got a BANG just reading your post, Stan.

  3. Followed! :-) One of my best memories of Cape Town (apart from wine farms) was climbing to the top of Lions Head. The difficult route. Now I'm imagining an unexpected bang as I'm holding on to chains on the sheer rock face, inches away from certain death.

  4. Replies
    1. In March! I'll let you know the exact dates one confirmed.

  5. Now all we have to do is figure out how to get a certain president to be where that horse was was on his way to parliament...

  6. It appears that the current US administration is in agreement at blasting cannons every day, though in its case they're canons of ethics.