Portrait of Simon van der Stel

The period 1679 to 1713 at the Cape of Good Hope was a time when the Colony was poised to develop in a number of possible directions large due to the efforts of two men who in today’s language would have been said to be “Coloured”. The first two Governors of the Cape Simon van der Stel and his son Willem Adrian van der Stel were remarkable men who made an indelible contribution to development at the Cape, laying the foundations for possibly a very different future to the trajectory on which the Cape and indeed South Africa would develop.

Simon van der Stel was born on a ship in Mauritius where his father, Adrian, had been posted by the United Dutch East India Company as Commander. Simon’s mother was Maria Levens, the daughter of a slave by the name of Monica van Goa also known as Monica van der Kus. It was commonplace at the time for the Dutch men working in South East Asia to take non-European wives. Simon van der Stel became the first person not born in Europe and born of mixed parentage to be appointed Governor of the Cape. Indeed there had also been only Commanders at the Cape previously who reported to the Governor in Batavia.

Simon's first seven years were spent in Mauritius. Thereafter he accompanied his parents to Saloor (Sri Lanka) where his father was killed and where his mother also died. In his teens he moved to Batavia (Jakarta). Only after he turned 20 years old did he find his way to Europe where in the United Dutch Provinces he was married and had his children. Then in 1679 Simon was first appointed Commander of the VOC refreshment Station at the Cape and later in 1691 the first Governor of the Cape colony. Simon came to the Cape without his wife from whom he was estranged and would never see her again, but all of his sons were with him at one time or the other at the Cape.

Simon died in 1712 but his son Willem Adrian had succeeded him as Governor in 1699. Under these first two “Coloured” Governors the Cape Colony prospered and underwent major changes. For one the conflictual manner in which van Riebeeck and his successors engaged with indigenes was turned around. The van der Stels felt that settlers should be otherwise focussed in farming diverse crops and raising sheep and aim to produce wool rather than compete with indigenes over keeping cattle herds. They recognised that the Khoena were excellent as cattle farmers and believed that they should be engaged with fairly in trade for cattle under conditions of good neighbourliness. This stand would ultimately lead to the downfall of the van der Stels at the Cape at the hands of those settlers who opposed this approach.

During this period a class of Free Burghers emerged who were referenced by historians as the Free Blacks. These were people of colour who had either been freed from slavery, or who were born from marriages and relationships between slaves, indigenes and Europeans, or who had come from elsewhere as free black travellers. Like other Free Burghers they contributed economically to the development of the colony as craftsmen, farmers, and drivers of commerce. Some of the most successful of the early inhabitants of the Cape Colony, such as Swarte Maria Evert, were Free Blacks. History has not accredited them for their pioneering roles. Under Simon van der Stel the infrastructure of Stellenbosch, Fraschhoek and the Drakenstein developed and his pioneers in this development long before the arrival of the French Huguenots were the Free Blacks.

The pioneer component in the Drakenstein were the Free Black farmers and artisans. By the time of Simon van der Stel’s death there were 17 Free Blacks in the Stellenbosch district of which Franschhoek was a part. Amongst these were artisan craftsmen such as Isaac van Terenate, Rangton of Bali, Anthonie van Saloor, Jafta van der Caab and Johannes Adriaanse. Free Black farmers included Jan van Saloor, Marquart van Saloor, Anthonie van Angola, Manuel van Angola and his wife Elizabeth van der Caab, and Louis van Bengalen. Other Free Black and mixed families settled along the Eerste River. Some of the oldest and most prestigious wine farms in the district were established by Free Blacks.

Amongst the Huguenot families there also were people of colour. The first owners of the farm Rust en Vrede were the French family Jacques and Marie-Madeleine De Savoyes. Their eldest daughter Margo married Christoffel Snyman the son of the Free Black burgers Anthonie from Bengal and Catharina of Palicatte. The Free Black farmer Christoffel Snyman and his French wife Margo, as Marie then called herself, became the second owners of the farm Zandvliet, today known as Solms-Delta. The first owner Silverbach had also been married to a Free Black woman.

The story does not end here. One of the sons of leading French Hugenots Francois and Cornelia Villion (Viljoen), Henning Viljoen, married Margo Snyman, after Christoffel Snyman the Free Black died. Christoffel and Margo had a "Coloured" daughter Catharina who in one of those twists of circumstances, married her step-father`s brother, Johannes Viljoen. Other Huguenot settlers like the Cordiers in my family tree had two of their sons marry free slave sisters. The early days at the Cape did not have entrenched segregation. All of these people were amongst the founders of the Coloured and African communities of today. They are also the black ancestors of many white families. After van der Stel died , Anna de Koningh a free slave and her husband took ownership of Groot Constantia.

Amongst the French Hugenots was also one, Jacob Etienne Gauch the son of French parents, but born in Switzerland in 1684 (Celigny). He came to the Cape in 1691 and settled in Franschhoek under the name Steven Gous. In 1718 he married a 13 year old freed slave girl, Catharina Bok. They had 7 children. When the widow Catharina died in 1767 she was able to bequeath her youngest son the farms "Berg en Dal" and "Klipheuwel", plus 12,000 guilders in cash. In the traditional white narratives of Franschhoek the threads of black history under Apartheid was carefully removed from the complex tapestry that should have reflected the diverse heritage of the area.

But in this area and among these people with mixed Indigene, European and diverse Slave roots, a cancer had taken root amongst a small minority within the over 500 Free Burghers. All the venom of this small group of 14 lead personalities and 49 supporters, was aimed at the van der Stels – Governor Willem Adrian in particular. Adam Tas and Huising were relatively new in the Colony and so were most of the supporters. They were not, in the main, the older rooted community that had developed since 1652.

To get a flavour of the mentality of Adam Tas the chief architect of the demise of the van der Stels I quote directly from editor Leo Foche who published the diary of Adam Tas in 1914, wherein he re-enacts in his introduction, all that venomous racism of Tas, Huising and the other co-conspirators in the “Brotherhood” of that time who sought to get rid of the van der Stel legacy.

He uses expressions like “he (Willem Adrian) had betrayed the cloven hoof” and goes on to say........

“a strangely complex character (Willem Adrian), a character which still remains a mystery to many who have forgotten his mixed descent. His grandmother on his father’s side had been a coloured woman, Monica da Costa known among the Dutch as Maai Monica of the Coast……. But as is frequently the case with persons of mixed blood, the throw-back badness occurred in the third generation. The impression that Willem Adrian leaves upon us is that of the half Oriental. His character was not without its more admirable features, but he lacked balance and self-control, and the moral sense seems to have been entirely wanting….. His Oriental ostentation displayed itself…….His nature was at once weak and domineering……. Van der Stel reveals a character without a trace of honour or shame. His private life was no less reminiscent of his extraction…..(he) displayed all the characteristics of the “Eastern Potentate”.

Leo Fouche’s diatribe on the qualities of Willem Adrian van der Stel, leaves an impression that he knew the man personally but this was 200 years later. Clearly too, this is how Fouche viewed “Coloured” people of his day.

Adam Tas was a Dutch adventurer and fortune seeker who came out to the Cape from the Dutch United Provinces in 1697 at the age of 29 to join his aunt and her German husband Henning Huising who was quite a powerful farmer at the Cape of Good Hope. Henning Huising based at his home Meerlust in Stellenbosch was also a cattle rustler who preyed upon the cattle of the free Khoena in defiance of orders from the Governor that forbade stock theft from indigenes. Under van der Stel the official policy towards the Khoena was that they be shown respect and that their cattle and settlements not be touched.

Tas struck lucky when he married a rich widow, Elizabeth von Brakel in 1703 who had a number of farms. He was set for life enjoying a life of leisure, drinking, smoking his pipe and writing. Accounts have it that he was a hard taskmaster who made his workers labour every day even when others gave their labourers days off work. Only having been in the settlement for five years he became a central figure, Secretary of the "Brotherhood", a movement among some settlers which were antagonistic to the United Dutch East India Company (VOC) which they felt dominated their lives with despotic rules and the officials regulated trade to their own advantage. More specifically the “Brotherhood” were antagonistic to the van der Stel family and to the extended Free Black community which they referred to as “the black brood among us”, as well as to the Governors protection of the Khoena interests. The "Brotherhood" was probably the earliest manifestation of what in the 20th century became the powerful "Broederbond" secret society among Afrikaner Nationalists.

On retiring van der Stel senior had put pen to paper to give Willem Adrian van der Stel guidance in continuing the transformation policies that he had began at the Cape. These highlighted a mixed policy that focussed on the inter reliance of a number of progressive policies related to sustaining the environment such as mass tree-planting, building a strong mixed agricultural economy that expanded into different types of agricultural product especially wool farming, wheat and maize farming, improving relations with indigenes by putting an end to cattle-stealing and terror attacks by Europeans on indigene communities, and care for the indigent.

Willem Adrian found that when they went on trading expeditions to Khoena kraals to formally purchase cattle the Khoena would have no stocks for sale and would complain that bands of Europeans of up to fifty heavily armed men went deep into the interior and robbed and killed Khoena and amaXhosa. These would return to the outskirts of Stellenbosch with large herds of the indigene cattle, which they sold. This cattle would also never be recorded on asset returns that had to be made to the Governor.

Tas, Huising and Jacob van der Heiden were the leading organisers of these killing and thieving expeditions. Faced by the resolute Governor Willem Adrian van der Stel intent on stopping the cattle rustling and murder of indigenes Adam Tas, Huising and the “Brotherhood” agitated among some of the farmers to find a way to get rid of the Governor and to restrict the powers of the VOC officials over them.

Tas and Hüising drafted a petition, accusing the Governor and his officials of abusing the company's trading monopoly and giving themselves privileges and excessive land so as to dominate Free Burghers. Willem Adrian was singled out and accused of building a palace for himself amongst numerous other exaggerations.

This was coming from men like Tas and Huising who had come to the Cape with nothing just a few years earlier and had amassed huge tracts of land and cattle far beyond what was possible within the bounds of VOC policies.

Fourteen agitators managed to convince only 63 of the 550 free citizens to sign the creative and scurrilous petition and it was secretly sent to the VOC in Amsterdam. When the petition came to light and was initially rejected after 240 of the Free Burghers in the colony drafted a counter petition pointing out the wild exaggerations and giving their support to van der Stel there was an initial sigh of relief that the criminally inspired attempted impeachment of the Governor had been halted.

Tas was arrested in 1706, charged and convicted. Two others were also imprisoned while another was banished to Batavia and others including Henning Huising were sent to Amsterdam for trial.

Faced with the counter petition by 240 of the Free Burghers, outlining how they had lied and exaggerated the situation at the Cape, Tas and Huising played the race card. They said that the signatories could not be taken seriously as it was the word of people tainted by blackness against true Europeans: They said the signatories were ......

“Kaffirs, Mulattoes, Mesticos, Casticos, and all that black brood living among us who have been bred from marriages and other forms of mingling with Europeans and African Christians. To our amazement they have so grown in power, numbers and arrogance…. That they now tell us that they could and would trample us…. For there is no trusting the blood of Ham. (Gham)”.

The outcome however was not what van der Stel and his supporters had expected and was devastating. Willem Adrian was removed from the Cape and his property and livestock auctioned off. Other officials were also removed and new restrictions place on successors. Henning Huising, Tas and others not only won the day but also enriched themselves in taking over the dismissed VOC officials contracts and properties.The merits of the case, the criminal facts about the “Brotherhood” and the counter petition of the 240 was not considered. Two factors overrode all others.

The argument made by Tas, Huising and the original petitioners that the words of 240 Free Burghers against the 63 who signed their petition should not be considered because these were considered to be inferior people - they were Free Citizens but “Of Colour” – notably “the black brood among us” as well as those soft on natives.

The second factor pointed out was that half of the 63 signatories were of French origin and that most of the 63 were prominent members of the militias at the Cape and their disenchantment with the VOC officials may put the Cape at risk because the petitioners could become a friendly force to the interests of France.

As a result Tas and the others were released and Huising and those sent to Amsterdam returned triumphant. Tas renamed his farm – Libertas, to note his victory.

A great injustice took place which successive white nationalist and colonial historians have painted in glowing colours as a freedom fight between the small settler farming community and a despotic, corrupt and greedy VOC government.

More sober historians would later point out that under the van der Stels the most prosperous and balanced developmental period existed at the Cape and that a new framework for sustainable and improved relations with indigenes was laid and that the Free Black population prospered.

These more enlightened historians also began to show the roguishness that had been at work and that the Adam Tas legacy had little to do with championing freedom of any sort. As a result of this victory the real agenda of that small band of European settlers soon emerged with the introduction of pass laws for indigenes, harsher conditions for slaves in terms of freedom of movement and together with the impacts of the smallpox epidemic the growing power of the Free Black community was halted in its tracks.

Indeed Adam Tas laid down the founding intellectual tenets of Apartheid and white overlordship. He was the first to call for codified ‘pass laws’ and controls on all people of colour – indigenes, slaves, Free Blacks and those in mixed marriages.

Notwithstanding that the Cape was a colony and the VOC was a powerful multinational company which had invaded and ran roughshod over the indigene population and imported slaves for the backbreaking work of establishing the Cape Colony, the period of the two “Coloured” Governors of the Cape was a period of greatest vision, imagination, innovation and prosperity for all, which could have resulted in a different historical trajectory.

The Tas episode together with the devastating 1713 smallpox epedemic halted the trajectory of the Cape Colony becoming a different kind of society where people of Colour may have become the dominant force. The smallpox epidemic impacted most negatively on the indigene population numbers and on the Free Blacks and reinforced the newfound dominance of a clique among the post 1685 settlers and their beliefs in racial domination.

The van der Stels had some amazing skills of a scientific, architectural, horticultural and agricultural nature that laid the basis for the development of the south Western Cape. Simon van der Stel also commission ground-breaking work in getting a better idea of the indigene people up both the east and west coasts and had record compiled and drawings made of people, natural habitat and plant life. Both Simon and Willem tried to re-engineer the Cape Settlement and to analyse where the European settlers had gone wrong particularly in relation to the land and its people. White supremacists emerged to stop them and the European authority, the VOC, took their side for reasons of expediency. This is a story of how racism took root at the Cape and where theory joined practice. You wont find this story in the history books.

This article originally posted on Facebook was re-published with permission from the author and Heritage Activist PatricTariq Mellet.