Simon van der Stel, governor of the Cape of Good Hope, was the eldest son of Adriaen van der Stel, governor of Mauritius, and his wife Maria Lievens. He was a nephew of Jan E. Huydecoper van Maarseveen, burgomaster of Amsterdam, who was a director of the Dutch East India Company. With his parents Simon travelled to Batavia (now Jakarta) in 1645 and on to Ceylon, where his father was killed in 1646. Simon appears to have stayed at Batavia until 1659, when he left for the Netherlands, touching at the Cape along the way. In the Netherlands he bought land and planted vines to produce wine and brandy. On 23 October 1663 he married Johanna J. Six, with whom he had one daughter and five sons, including Willem Adriaan van der Stel* who succeeded him as governor. From 1672 to 1675 he served in the war against France and England with the rank of captain.
On 18 March 1679 the Dutch East India Company, influenced by Huydecoper van Maarseveen, appointed Van der Stel commander (and from June 1691 governor) of the Cape of Good Hope, despite his lack of administrative experience. His uncle requested him to send bulbs and seeds from the Cape, as well as birds and flowers from Madagascar and Mauritius, to the Netherlands. He arrived at the Cape with his children, but without his wife, on 12 October 1679. It therefore seems that his marriage was not a happy one. He was short-tempered, had little time for matters outside his personal interests, and his relations with his staff were not good.
The month after his arrival Van der Stel named the site of Stellenbosch and announced that small farms would be granted to all who wished to settle there, in an effort to make the colony self-sufficient with regard to food production. Stellenbosch developed into the first village outside Cape Town. It remained one of the governor's main interests and he visited it regularly to organise its development. In October 1687 he set out the first farms along the Berg River and named the settlement Drakenstein, in honour of commissioner H.A. van Reede tot Drakenstein* who visited the Cape in 1685. Following that visit van der Stel had thousands of oak trees and hundreds of fruit trees planted on his farm Constantia (which he received in 1685), while oak trees were also planted on various government farms and distributed free of charge for street and roadside planting. He also instructed the free burghers in improved methods of viticulture and himself produced wines of good quality. He was a hard worker and gave particular attention to the improvement of the colony's agriculture and horticulture.
One of Van der Stel's important contributions to the development of the settlement was his improvement of the Company Garden. He arranged the appointment of skilled gardeners such as H.B. Oldenland* and Jan Hartog*, who transformed it into a fine botanical garden that was greatly admired by visitors. Van der Stel's plan of the garden provided for plots for growing fruit trees, the production of vegetables, nurseries for European timber trees, experiments with exotic trees and shrubs, and the cultivation of indigenous plants. In 1681 and 1682 he sent chests with bulbs, Cape geese and some plant drawings to the Netherlands. After the Amsterdam Municipal Garden (the Hortus Medicus) was established in 1682 he sent plants for it in 1683. Many later consignments of bulbs and seeds were sent to leading Dutch citizens, for which the governor, and later his son, were given credit.
During a visit to the Cape in 1682 Commissioner Ryckloff van Goens (senior) advised Van der Stel on the organisation and composition of expeditions into the interior, including the necessity for surveying and mapping the regions traversed, and accurately describing the geography, plants, animals and people. This advice had a marked effect on the amount of scientific information obtained from subsequent expeditions. In 1683 Van der Stel included H.H. Claudius* in an unsuccessful expedition to search for the copper deposits of Namaqualand, led by Olof Bergh, with instructions to describe and draw the people, flora and fauna they encountered.
From 25 August 1685 to 26 January 1686 Van der Stel personally led an expedition into Namaqualand in search of its copper deposits. Though rich ore was found near present Springbok, transport problems made its exploitation uneconomical at the time. As a result of the expedition much geographical information was acquired and many erroneous geographical ideas were corrected. Claudius accompanied the expedition to record the fauna and flora. Several of his drawings were published in Voyage de Siam (1686) by Father Guy Tachard*. The fact that Claudius had freely shared information about the country with Tachard, and was acknowledged in the latter's book, earned him the disapproval of the governor, who banished him to an unknown destination. In his official report on the expedition Van der Stel included 72 of the drawings, depicting a variety of plants and animals. The report disappeared from the company's archives some years later, but was rediscovered in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, by G. Waterhouse in 1922. He published a translation of the text, with its drawings, in 1932. A slightly more complete version of the report was included in F. Valentijn's* book, Oud en Nieuw Oost-Indi?n... (1724-1726).
Van der Stel also actively collected information about the coastal regions of southern Africa and its inhabitants from the survivors of shipwrecks. In 1687 he spent three weeks on the shore of False Bay, assisting the crew of the Noord in sounding and charting the bay and mapping its environs. On the resulting chart Simons Bay was named after him. During his later years in office he spent more and more time developing his own farm. He was relieved of his position in February 1699 and was succeeded by his eldest son, Willem Adriaan. From that time he gave all his attention to agriculture, viticulture, fruit-farming and cattle rearing on Constantia, selling his products in Cape Town and to passing ships through agents. His wine was regarded to be the best produced in the colony. As late as June 1711 he and Johannes Pfijfer furthermore entered into a contract with the council of policy to supply dried and salted fish and obtained a monopoly of fishing and seal hunting at Saldanha Bay.