South Africa - Ian D. Colvin

The House Of Van Der Stel—Continued

Simon van der Stel's wife, Johanna Jacoba Six, for some reason or other did not accompany her husband to the Cape. Perhaps she was too great a lady, perhaps she was timid and feared the formidable sea journey. Whatever the reason van der Stel never saw her again, though he remained devoted to her and frequently sent her money. But he had the comfort that every one of his four sons was at one time or another with him in South Africa. Adrian, his second, became governor of Amboina, and so passes out of our story; the third, Cornelis, was shipwrecked in the Ridderschaap, on the coast of Madagascar, it is said, and was either drowned or killed by the savages or pirates; Franz became a farmer at the Cape; and Willem Adriaan, after being magistrate of Amsterdam, succeeded his father as Governor of the Cape.

Now Willem Adriaan has been much abused, especially by Peter Kolbe and Dr. Theal, though fortunately he has had a staunch friend in Mr. Leibbrandt. His period of rule ended in disaster; he was recalled from the Cape in something like disgrace by the Directors; his name, like that of Lord Charles Somerset, is popularly associated with harshness and tyranny. Yet if the records prove anything they prove that he was as good a man as his father, that he ruled wisely and kindly, and that his fall was due to a wicked conspiracy bolstered up by charges which were, one and all of them, entirely and absolutely false.

When the young man arrived at the Cape, he was warned by his father of the dangers that beset him. The old man drew up a memorandum in which, as he says, he sets down the fruits of his nineteen years' experience, and it is one of the wisest little essays in colonial government ever penned. It is also very beautiful in its modesty and precision, its simple clearness, and the noble prayer with which it ends, "that his son should be granted equity and prudence," "an upright, pure, and steadfast mind," and "that your work may tend to magnify God's Holy Name, satisfy our masters, and preserve and augment your own honour and reputation." It concerns the development of agriculture and especially of wheat growing, which is apt to be neglected in favour of the vine. The settlement of old servants of the Company should be encouraged with the aim of having a respectable class of two thousand burghers capable of carrying arms, "sufficient to meet all attacks of European princes." Then the document plunges into the vexed question of the illicit cattle-trade and the vagabonds, "willing tools of the evil-disposed," who carry it on. The evil should be cured by firm measures, the freemen should be settled together as closely as possible, and care should be taken to plant settlers who are Protestants and Dutchmen, or "members of such Germanic nations as are not engaged in the sea traffic, lest you expose your Government to the danger of a revolution. Should," he goes on, "the colony be populated by other nationalities, each individual would hold fast to his own, and all our defensive arrangements and precautions become futile accordingly. In this respect, those of the French nation, although settled here and well received, are the least to be trusted."

Then the old man, with a delightful enthusiasm, goes on to preach the great gospel of tree-planting, and speaks with joy of the forest of sixteen thousand oak trees which he had planted twelve years before on the slopes of Table Mountain. Though some four thousand had been destroyed by the baboons, the remainder of them were flourishing and were already thirty-six feet high, so that within a few years they would produce timber sufficient for all purposes. The burghers should be urged to plant, and the forest should be carefully tended.

Then he advises the cutting of three great roads over the mountains, and tells his son how the Company's cattle should be looked after. He passes on to the native question. The Hottentots, he says, "should be protected and governed with great gentleness, and already we have accustomed them not to make war on each other before giving us timely notice and obtaining our consent. Hitherto they have likewise never refused to appear before us to be reconciled to each other, and settle their differences amicably; submitting their disputes readily to our decision. We earnestly recommend you to continue this course."

There follows a humane passage on the hospital, not yet complete, and the treatment of the patients, "those helpless sufferers." Then comes a dissertation on the meat question, with enlightened instructions as to dealing with the virulent disease of scab, and the inspection of slaughter cattle before killing.

And later comes a passage which one might recommend to the statesmen of South Africa at the present day.

"It should also be considered whether those freemen who arrive here poor, are no agriculturists, and simply support themselves by swindling and usury, and sucking the marrow out of the bones of the farmers, with no other object than to become rapidly rich, and, having succeeded, to return with their booty to the fatherland as soon as their time has expired, should not, before their departure, and in addition to their passage money, pay a certain exit tax to be calculated according to the fortunes made by them here."

The son did his best to follow in the footsteps of the father. He had brought a great collection of plants and young trees with him from Holland; he went about among the farmers urging them to plant trees and improve their methods, he attended to the sick, he appointed examiners of meat, he endeavoured to capture criminals, put down cattle-stealing, and smuggling; on his farm of Vergelegen, he collected wooled sheep in order to start the wool industry, which long years afterwards was to become the staple trade of the country. But in all these reforms he trod upon many toes: the farmers liked smuggling, they liked to get their cattle for nothing from the natives, they objected to quarantining diseased animals, they objected to planting trees, they objected to growing corn. The outlaws also objected to being hanged. All these discontents joined forces, and the colony simmered with sedition. Then came one or two events which brought matters to a head.

The Governor discovered that bands of forty or fifty armed freemen, fitted out by other colonists who shared in the gain, went off on long expeditions into the interior and, after robbing and slaying the Hottentots, returned with large herds of native cattle, which they sold, spending the money in debauch. When the Company's officers went out to get cattle in the ordinary way, they found that the natives had been robbed by the white men and either had no cattle left, or had fled beyond reach. The Governor's efforts to arrest offenders brought all the malcontents about his head like a swarm of angry bees. There were signs of mutiny everywhere. At the annual parade day of the Stellenbosch and Drakenstein burghers, a farmer drew his cutlass on one of the officers and threatened to "lay his head before his feet." He was severely dealt with; but the mutiny went on. Some of the officers joined in it, and actually, without the knowledge of the Governor, degraded to the rank of private the one of their number to whom the rebel had objected. Things had got so bad in this burgher force, that van der Stel and his council decided to have the future parades in front of the castle, so that the burghers might be kept in awe.

The Landdrost, or magistrate, of Stellenbosch, a good man and a faithful friend of van der Stel's, reported that there was so much mutiny up country that many people had thrown aside "all obedience, duty, and respect." But the conspirators had not confined themselves to threats. They had secretly prepared a memorial which narrated a portentous list of imaginary crimes and tyrannies of the Governor, the van der Stel family, the second in command, Samuel Elsevier; the minister, Petrus Calden, and the Landdrost, Johannes Starrenburgh. This is the document which Dr. Theal elevates into a sort of South African Magna Charta.

What it contained we shall see presently; let us first see how it was prepared, and how van der Stel dealt with its authors. The chief of the ringleaders was Henning Huysing, who had made a large fortune out of the meat contract, and it is easy to understand how he should resent the stopping of the illicit cattle traffic. Then there were Jacobus van der Heiden and Adam Tas, who were known to be behind the cattle robberies, as was made manifest to the Directors many years afterwards. These, and a few others, laid their heads together and drew up the document, and then went about the country obtaining signatures. Their methods of obtaining these signatures were very clearly set forth in the sworn evidence annexed to van der Stel's report. Adam Tas himself admitted that none of them had laid their grievances before the Governor, admits also that there was no truth in the petition, and says that he wrote it in a "fit of mad passion," for which he was sorry from the bottom of his heart. The next witness says that he did not know the purport of what he had signed; the third witness, that he was not aware of the contents of the petition; the fourth, that there was not a word of truth in the memorial; the fifth, that he had signed the petition because the wine-lease had been given to one man, so that he could not sell his wines; the sixth, because he was afraid to refuse to sign; the seventh signed it "from simplicity and fear, because he had been compelled"; the eighth said he signed it from simple-mindedness, and because he was in debt to Huysing; the ninth said he signed it from stupidity, and because, having seen the number of signatures, he thought there could be no harm in it; the tenth, because he had lost the wine-lease; the eleventh, because he thought it was a petition to be allowed free trade in wine; the twelfth, because the conspirators had threatened to break his neck if he did not; the thirteenth signed in ignorance; and the fourteenth, because he had been knocked down, kicked, and stabbed, a pen had been forced into his hand, and a conspirator had stood over him with a cutlass, threatening him with death if he did not sign it. Not one of these witnesses could bring an atom of proof in support of any of the charges in the petition.

Why does Dr. Theal say nothing about this?

Surely after such evidence I need hardly trouble you with the contents of this document. They are refuted, completely and in detail, by William Adriaan van der Stel himself, in one of the most convincing and transparently truthful documents ever penned. He writes without heat, calmly and judicially, taking the charges one by one, and answering them with facts and proof of the facts. Among other things the petitioners had charged him with building a palace at Vergelegen "as large as a whole town." Van der Stel answers that Huysing had a "much larger, higher and grander house," notwithstanding that he "had arrived at the Cape as a most insignificant personage, and had for some years been there as a poor shepherd." He also points out that his land was freely granted to him by the Company's High Commissioner, and was much smaller than the portion given to Huysing by Simon van der Stel and himself. The number of his stock and his vines had been vastly exaggerated by his accusers (and Dr. Theal improves even on the accusers' figures), but if he had all that they said he had, he was within his rights and was benefiting the country. In the same way he shows by reference to the Company's books that he had never used the Company's slaves for his own private service in the manner alleged, but had paid for them according to the custom at the Cape. I have said that his defence is judicial; but sometimes he is roused to a righteous indignation, as when "the subscribers dared to charge, not only his brother, but also his old father, with such sordidness.

"The latter, having been during the pleasure of the Hon. Directors, and for so many years, and with so much love from every one, their Governor.

"And moreover, having done so much kindness to all the burghers, especially to Henning Huysing, whom" (and this is a delightful thrust) "he had delivered from the extremest poverty, and given one of his maid-servants in marriage."

Again there is delicious irony in his reply to their attack on his excise policy: "Every one can see from their sweet, gentle and instructive marginal notes how heavy this matter had lain on their stomachs, though it had no other object than to prevent smuggling."

But the defence rises to higher heights in answer to the charge which is the centre of the whole case, the audacious charge, that he, the Governor, had profited by illegal barter with the Hottentots. He points out that there were men in the colony "who by their deeds had revived the Spanish and Portuguese conduct, at the time of the first discoveries of the Indies." He points to the judicial evidence that forty-five burghers, taking with them forty-five Hottentots, had gone secretly and fully armed into the interior, had robbed and murdered the natives, and had returned with an enormous amount of booty to the colony. He had prosecuted them, he had obtained full confessions, he had sent the evidence to the Directors; but they in their wisdom had reopened free barter and let the atrocious outrage fall to the ground.

But all this is to anticipate matters, for van der Stel had no opportunity to make his defence until after he was recalled to Holland. Let us see what happened before his downfall.

Starrenburgh and other trusty servants kept him informed of the growing mutiny and of the seditious petition. Let us remember that at this time Holland was fighting France in the Indian Ocean. Let us remember also that some of the chief conspirators were officers of the Burgher Militia, and that this Militia was largely composed of Frenchmen who were suspected of sympathy with the enemy. What was van der Stel to do? If he had proceeded against them in the ordinary way, they might have defied him, and either taken refuge in the mountains with the other outlaws, or raised the standard of rebellion. It was a situation demanding nerve and courage, and van der Stel proved himself wanting in neither. He surrounded Adam Tas's house, arrested him, and found in his desk an unsigned draft of the petition, as well as documents that incriminated others. He called a broad council, making it as authoritative as possible by calling in officers from the ships, took evidence and obtained authorisation to issue a decree against conspiracy and to arrest the ringleaders. This was done. Two were committed to prison, one was sent to Batavia, and three or four, Huysing among them, to Amsterdam for trial. If van der Stel had been a harsh man he might have shot them and ended the whole business at once; but he preferred the mildest possible course, and the one nearest to legality consistent with safety. Indeed, I do not think that he exceeded his legal powers, though hostile historians regard his action as high-handed tyranny. He requested the colonists to sign a declaration testifying to his good rule. Two hundred and forty names were attached to it, against the sixty-three signatures to the original memorial. Dr. Theal would have us believe that these signatures were obtained by force; but of this I have found no proof, though the document is, of course, avowedly, and on the face of it, official. But there is no trace of any such violence or deceit as was employed on the other side. Van der Stel went on with the arrests he thought necessary; but the wily Huysing went home with the petition to start an effective career of intrigue in Holland. How dangerous were matters in the colonies may be judged from the reports of Starrenburgh of Stellenbosch. One morning, he says, he was awakened by the news that a strong body of armed men were approaching from Drakenstein. They had a drummer with them, who was beating furiously on his instrument, and two scolding women, the wives of two of the prisoners, were threatening all manner of mischief. Starrenburgh, however, treated them boldly and tactfully, and they excused themselves on the ground that they had come for the parade, though they had received no orders. A few days afterwards he writes for some soldiers, as he cannot trust his own, saying that some of the burghers are getting quite out of hand, the outlaws are active, the well-disposed are being intimidated, there is even correspondence going on between the prisoners in the fort and the disaffected, and unless prompt measures are taken to capture the outlaws, who are keeping the pot boiling, anything may happen. In reply van der Stel devised a plan for the capture of the outlaws by a surprise party at night. Soldiers from the fort were ordered to meet Starrenburgh's men, and they were to surround the houses where the outlaws were supposed to be in hiding. Unfortunately, some of Starrenburgh's men were false to their trust. Several of them skulked, one of them gave warning to the enemy. Near one suspected house the loyal guards caught a slave who was spying upon them. They put a rope round his neck and led him along beside the horses; but he bit through the rope, ran away, and gave warning, while the guards lost their way hopelessly in the darkness. Thus, like many well-planned night attacks, it ended in total failure. "Just think, honoured sir," exclaimed Starrenburgh, "how miserable I felt, tossed about and worried by my own men. Only the high respect which I cherish for your Honour, and your Honour's service—a glory which I highly prize—can reconcile me to the leading of this kind of life."

The colony was, in fact, simmering with rebellion, and van der Stel's night watches must have been anxious indeed. The peninsula, was loyal, he could trust his soldiers in the fort, but Stellenbosch and the Drakenstein, with its Huguenots and outlaws, were in a very dangerous state. And then, like a thunderbolt, came a staggering despatch from the Seventeen. Huysing and his fellow-conspirators had won. The exiles were to return to the Cape; the prisoners were to be released; the Governor, William Adriaan van der Stel, the Secunde Samuel Elsevier, the Minister Petrus Calden, and the Landdrost Johannes Starrenburgh, were to leave by the first return ships for Holland, "with the retention of their pay and rank, but without retaining any authority or command." The land granted to the Governor was to be taken from him; his farm buildings might be taken over at a valuation,—or if that failed he could do what he liked with them, but the dwelling-house was to be broken down by him, "as such buildings which are for ostentation and more for pomp than use, have been built by the Company's servants at the Cape and elsewhere in India greatly to our annoyance, and in a very prominent fashion." Any-one who had lost by van der Stel was to put in a claim. The Company's officials were no longer to hold land; Simon van der Stel's title-deeds were to be inquired into; Francis van der Stel was to be exiled; and Henning Huysing was to be given the half of the meat contract.

Now I have heard it said that the reason for this most unrighteous judgment was the jealousy felt towards the influence of the van der Stels and their relations, the Six family, and others in Holland, and in the affairs of the Company; but I am not sufficiently acquainted with the Dutch history of the time to be able to say if this is so. Perhaps Huysing's wealth may have had its influence. More likely the Company felt that van der Stel was putting the interests of the Hottentots before their own in the matter of the meat supply, as this was an old cause of quarrel between them. Then the Company were very very jealous of their servants, whom they paid badly and always suspected—often justly—of corruption. As a matter of fact, no Company's official could live on his pay in the East. Private trading was winked at, even allowed, and the holding of land had been authorised. The grant of Vergelegen was strictly regular, and the Company's seal was attached to it by the Company's Commissioner, who had, however, or so it was alleged, omitted to notify them of the grant. At that time there was land enough and to spare for every one, so that no one suffered by the arrangement. As for the right and wrong of the quarrel, the Directors hardly go into the matter at all. It has, they say, wasted "a large quantity of paper"; it has been "greatly to the hindrance of our business"; it has "caused us no end of trouble." In the future such "distasteful subjects are not to be placed before us," but "every one is to remain quiet and in peace." In short, we are frankly bored by all this hubbub, we are shopkeepers, not imperialists, and a man who tries to administer a country righteously instead of devoting himself to the meat supply of our ships is a confounded nuisance.

Thus the Seventeen argued and thus the conspirators won. Van der Stel begged to be allowed to remain in the Cape "if only for a year, as a forgotten burgher," but he was curtly told to get out; Huysing threatened him with a preposterous lawsuit; the lives of the remaining officials were made a burden by the mean triumph of the disaffected; without land they were helpless to provide even their own eatables and were robbed unmercifully; Huysing got the whole of the meat contract; the wool industry started by van der Stel disappeared, and the poor Hottentots were murdered and robbed and enslaved until there were none left but a few miserable landless and cattleless serfs on the farms of the burghers. The cause of iniquity triumphed, and, as in revenge, the days of the Dutch East India Company were numbered.

The reign of the van der Stels is the golden period of the Cape—the period of expansion, of discovery, of industry, of house-building, of land settlement. Stellenbosch, the Drakenstein, and Frenchhoek and the glorious Land of Waveren—all these valleys of orchard and cornland and vine were settled by the personal labours of these two great governors—and for their reward they were robbed, insulted, and abused by the very men whom they had benefited. In this respect they are not alone in the history of South Africa, as we shall see hereafter.

Huguenots building homes


Yet I will make bold to say that their names will remain, when those of their detractors past and present are forgotten. South Africa of the future will read its history aright, and will look back on the van der Stels as the two great statesmen who laid down the lines of the true policy—honesty, justice, humanity, firmness and fairness towards the natives—progress in agriculture, scientific farming, development of mineral wealth, organised defence, settlement on the land, tree-planting, road-making, harbour-making—for the van der Stels discovered Simon's Town and other harbours along the coast—a broad enlightened policy that the best of our South Africans have followed ever since, consciously or unconsciously. Their shades still walk under the oaks of Stellenbosch, in the mountain-valleys of the Drakenstein, on the stoep (whereon the star of their house is figured in broad mosaic) of their stately Constantia. Their courtliness, their justice, their humanity, are fragrant memories. Their stately figures give a dignity to our history. They loved the land, they loved the settlers, and to see, in the father's own words, "their cellars well filled with wine, their lofts with corn, and their chimneys and barrels with flesh and fish." "He never thought," says the son, "that in such a sweet and pleasant climate, such heavy and dark clouds and tempests would overwhelm and sweep him away." But the cloud of detraction is passing; indeed, thanks to Mr. Leibbrandt, it may be said to have already passed, and the star of the van der Stels shines out in our sky, as clear and effulgent as the Southern Cross.