Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão reached Cape Cross, north of the bay, in 1485. There followed Bartolomeu Dias, who anchored his flagship São Cristóvão in what is now Walvis Bay on 8 December 1487, on his expedition to discover a sea route to the East via the Cape of Good Hope. He named the bay “O Golfo de Santa Maria da Conceição”. However, the Portuguese did not formally stake a claim to Walvis Bay.
Little commercial development occurred on the site until the late 19th century. During the Scramble for Africa, the British occupied Walvis Bay with a small area surrounding the territory. They permitted the Cape Colony to complete the annexation of the territory in 1884, together with the Penguin Islands, following initial steps which had been taken in 1878.
In 1910, Walvis Bay, as part of the Cape Colony, became part of the newly formed Union of South Africa. Subsequently, a dispute arose with Germany over the exclave’s boundaries, which was eventually settled in 1911, with Walvis Bay being allocated an area of 1,124 square kilometres.
The exclave was overrun by the Germans during the South West Africa Campaign early in the First World War, but the Union Defence Force (UDF) of South Africa eventually ousted the Germans in 1915.
Subsequently, Walvis Bay was quickly integrated into the new martial law regime in South West Africa.
South Africa was later awarded control (a Class “C” mandate) over South West Africa by the League of Nations to administer the territory. Civilian rule was restored in South West Africa in 1921 and administration of Walvis Bay was transferred to South West Africa under the South West Africa Affairs Act of 1922.
Despite the territory never having been part of German South West Africa, the Act stated that: “the port and settlement of Walvis Bay, which forms part of the Cape of Good Hope, shall for judicial and administrative purposes be regarded as if it were part of the mandated territory of South West Africa”. However, South Africa had also sought to annex South West Africa itself, and had presented such a proposal to the League of Nations. Consequently, in 1949, the Act was amended to give representation in the Parliament of South Africa to whites in South West Africa.
In 1977, following increasing international pressure to relinquish its control over South West Africa, South Africa repealed the Act, but transferred control of Walvis Bay back to the Cape Province, thereby making it an exclave. From 1980, it was represented in both the Provincial Council and the House of Assembly as part of the Green Point constituency in Cape Town, before becoming a separate constituency in 1982.
In response, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 432 (1978), which declared that “the territorial integrity and unity of Namibia must be assured through the reintegration of Walvis Bay within its territory”.
In 1990, South West Africa gained independence as Namibia, but Walvis Bay remained under South African sovereignty, with South Africa increasing the number of troops. However, in 1992, the two countries agreed to establish a transitional Joint Administrative Authority for Walvis Bay and the Offshore Islands. The Authority was headed by two Chief Executive Officers, Nangolo Mbumba, then Secretary to the Namibian Cabinet, and Carl von Hirschberg, former South African Ambassador to the United Nations.
In August 1993, prior to the end of apartheid, the Multiparty Negotiating Forum in South Africa passed a resolution calling for “the incorporation-reintegration of Walvis Bay and the Off-Shore Islands into Namibia.” The Transfer of Walvis Bay to Namibia Act was passed by the Parliament of South Africa that year. Following the signing of a treaty between the two countries, South Africa formally transferred sovereignty of Walvis Bay and the Penguin Islands to Namibia on 1 March 1994.