As part of our series on historic hotels, Paul Ash checks into a prison-turned-boutique destination
Not all hotels are born great. If you had been foolish enough, perhaps, to ask Hendrik Jaasman what he thought of the beds, or maybe the food at the Breakwater, you'd have had a solid chance of a beating for your insouciance.
Jaasman, a guest at her majesty's pleasure in the old Breakwater Prison, is on record for being sentenced to six hours on the treadmill for "striking a fellow convict". The punishment book does not say what provoked him, nor what brought him to the Breakwater Prison in the first place. Anyway, since convicts were sent to the treadmill for misdemeanours such as "fighting on the works" and "insolence', there was likely a steady stream of convicts awaiting their turn on the wheel.
The treadmill is still there, at the end of a block of punishment cells. It is a spectacularly cruel device: a revolving staircase with narrow planks for stairs. The prisoners were suspended from a roof beam until their feet rested on the planks, which they then trod at a steady pace. One misstep and the rotating planks would lacerate the prisoner's shins.
The Breakwater Prison opened in 1859, built to house the male convicts who were sent to do hard labour building the breakwater for the Table Bay harbour. The men lived in large dormitories - 60 to a room - and conditions were, by all accounts, pretty grim.
In 1885, the convicts downed tools. The strikers - black and white - began holding meetings in the yards. The authorities appear to have been less worried about the few hundred men lazing about than they were about the intolerable sight of black and white prisoners happily associating with each other. The solution was the sort of farce one expects from any government spending other people's money: build another prison.
It took a while for the new prison to come to fruition - there were two expensive wars against the Boers to prosecute first - but in 1902, the walls of the second prison rose from the hill above the Victoria and Albert dock. The new building looked like a Foreign Legion outpost - a white, high-walled rectangle with a turret on each corner, Beau Geste on the slopes of Signal Hill. The story goes that the the design was inspired by the turrets of the Pentonville and Millbank prisons back in old England.
The white convicts were put in the new building while the black prisoners remained in the old jail until 1905, when they were transferred to the De Beers convict -station, where they would ease the shortages in the labour force.
By 1910, the Breakwater Prison was full - 352 convicts languished there, passing their time doing hard labour and when not working, carving spectacular graffiti into the cold stone, biding their time in solitary confinement, or doing penance on the treadmill.
By 1911, the prison had become a lock-up for juvenile offenders. In 1926, the errant youths were transferred elsewhere and the old jail was turned into a hostel for black dock workers, who called the Breakwater's cells home until the University of Cape Town came knocking in 1991. The university leased the prison for its Graduate School of Business on condition that the internal and external structures were retained - the cells are the same size and there are still bars on the windows.
Perhaps an an old jail is a perfect place for a business school. The cold stone walls may serve as a cautionary tale for future corporate raiders, and trudging past the treadmill every day on the way to lectures must help concentrate the mind.
In 2001, Protea took over the management of the accommodation portion of the property and developed this into a hotel, retaining the original structure . In delicious irony, Protea calls the prison part of the hotel "Block B".
The rooms have recently had a R50-million upgrade, which brings the hotel firmly into the boutique era, but its rates offer welcome competition in a part of the city where rooms do not come cheap.
The moving graffiti has been preserved. One hopes that the artist who carved the intricate Union Jack-and-cannon artwork eventually made it to England, or wherever his heart lay. Excerpts of the punishment book are also displayed outside the dining room.
On the way to breakfast, I pass a group of students smoking outside in the yard. In 1900, they, like prisoner Nolana Ngenga, would have done two days' solitary confinement for "having tobacco". Given the current rage for banning smoking in public, maybe those days are coming again. - Ash was a guest of Protea Hotels
If you go...
The Protea Hotel Breakwater Lodge has 191 rooms ranging from studio to deluxe units. A room-only offer of R799 runs until September.
Contact: Phone 0214061911, e-mail email@example.com or visit www.proteahotels.com.