Long before the arrival of the Dutch East India Company, Portuguese navigators had consecrated the land by erecting stone crosses and naming landmarks in honour of the Deity, the Blessed Virgin, and the Saints; but from the founding of the Cape Colony in 1652 no Divine Worship was permitted except according to the Dutch Reformed tradition. Soon after the first British seizure of the Cape in 1795, the Holy See’s first efforts to evangelise southern Africa were frustrated by the tumult caused by the French Revolution. In 1803, following the restoration of the colony to the Dutch, she negotiated aid from the Batavian government for two Dutch priests to serve as army chaplains. Accompanied by a third priest mandated by the Holy See to evangelise the “Ottentoti”, they arrived in October 1805 but four months later the newly victorious British repatriated all three along with the Dutch garrison.
On 7 June 1818, Pope Pius Vll erected the Vicariate “of the Cape of Good Hope with adjacent territories, and the island of Madagascar”, entrusting it to the English Benedictine Bede Slater to whom, the following year, the Mauritius Vicariate was also confided (March) as were the Australian colonies (April). On New Year’s Day 1820, breaking his voyage to Mauritius, Bishop Slater left Fr Scully at Cape Town to serve the resident Catholics (mostly Irish soldiers). Scully built a church and parsonage and was succeeded by a Dutch priest Rev. Wagener and an English Benedictine Rev. Rishton (whose ministries overlapped). Fray Moral, a Spanish Dominican priest, ministered during calendar 1836. Slater, meanwhile, had been recalled from Mauritius and replaced by another Benedictine, Bishop Morris. In 1834 Gregory XVI relieved Morris of Australia and three years later of the reduced Cape Vicariate (Madagascar had been detached in 1829).
The Irish Dominican Patrick Griffith was appointed the first resident bishop for southern Africa in 1837 (the Briefs are dated 6 June). He disembarked at Cape Town on Holy Saturday 1838 (14 April). In July 1847, at his request, Pope Pius IX divided the Cape of Good Hope Vicariate into two: the Western District and the Eastern District.
Following a request made by Bishop Grimley in 1870 while in Rome for the Vatican Council, an Apostolic Brief dated 11 August 1874 announced the division of the Western Vicariate by the deduction of the Central Prefecture extending from Mossel Bay in the south-east to Namaqualand in the north. In 1885 lack of personnel obliged the Society of African Missions to resign the Prefecture. The southern part (now the diocese of Oudtshoorn) temporarily reverted to the bishop in Cape Town, and the northern part (now the dioceses of Keimoes-Upington and Keetmanshoop) was entrusted to the Oblates of St Francis de Sales.
In 1922 the southern part of the Central Prefecture was entrusted to the German Pallottines. On 13 June 1939, the names of the Western and Eastern Vicariates were changed to Cape Town and Port Elizabeth respectively,
On 11 January 1951, Pope Pius Xll established the ecclesiastical hierarchy in southern Africa, elevating the vicariates to the rank of diocese organised as four ecclesiastical provinces each headed by an archdiocese. These incorporated all the ecclesiastical territories within the Republic of South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Botswana. Owen McCann (Vicar Apostolic since May 1950) was the first archbishop of Cape Town.
Further structural development has taken place since with the creation of new dioceses and the erection in 2007 of the province of Johannesburg and the reallocation of some suffragan sees.
The archdiocese is bounded on the north by the diocese of Keimoes-Upington, on the east by the diocese of Oudtshoorn, on the south by the Indian Ocean and on the west by the Atlantic Ocean. It comprises the City of Cape Town Metropolitan Municipality and these Local Municipalities: Swartland, Saldanha Bay, Bergrivier, Cederberg (West Coast District); Drakenstein, Stellenbosch (Cape Winelands District); Theewaterskloof, Overstrand and Cape Agulhas (Overberg District). The islands of St Helena, Tristan da Cunha and Ascension were part of the archdiocese of Cape Town until 18 August 1986 when they were erected as a mission sui juris entrusted to the Mill Hill Fathers.