S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Van der Stel, Governor Willem Adriaan (horticulture, plant collection)

Born: 24 August 1664, Haarlem, Netherlands.
Died: 6 November 1733, Lisse, Netherlands.

Willem Adriaan (or Wilhem Adriaen) van der Stel, governor of the Cape of Good Hope, was the eldest son of Simon van der Stel* and his wife Johanna J. Six. He came to the Cape of Good Hope with his father in October 1679, when the latter was appointed commander of the colony. From 1681 he was employed in various positions in the administration of the Dutch East India Company at the Cape, among others as a cashier. In 1684 he returned to the Netherlands and that same year married Maria de Haese, with whom he had several children. They lived in Amsterdam and were well off. Van der Stel also had an estate where he grew plants, including trees and plants from the Cape which were then rare. He was a cultured person and a respected member of the community, but rather autocratic. In September 1697 he was appointed to succeed his father as governor of the Cape. He arrived on 23 January 1699 and took up his post on 12 February, at the age of 34.

One of his first activities was to plant thousands of oak trees that he had brought with him, at Rondebosch. He also gave instructions that 20 000 oak trees should be ordered and planted at Stellenbosch and Drakenstein. In November he set out on a tour of inspection of the settlement, accompanied by the gardener Jan Hartog,* during which they collected plants and seeds that were sent to Europe in 1700. A part of this collection, consisting mainly of Ericaceae and including the type specimens of several species, is in F. Kiggelaaer's herbarium in the Natural History Museum, London. At this time Van der Stel also sent several species of Aloe, which were described in C. Commelin's Horti Medici Amstelodamensis in 1701. Other consignments of plants and seeds, presumably collected by the gardeners Oldenland* and Hartog, were sent to various botanical gardens in the Netherlands, for which van der Stel received the credit. Among the specimens sent during 1701 and 1702 were several more species of Aloe, which Commelin illustrated and described in his Preludia Botanica (1703). Van der Stel's correspondence indicates that he sent seeds to Delft in March 1699 and that bulbs and seeds were received from him at Delft in December 1702, December 1705 and December 1707.

Despite his recent arrival, Van der Stel in about 1700 compiled an almanac for gardeners and farmers in which he described the climate of the Cape for each month of the year, with appropriate gardening and agricultural activities. More than a century later his "Zuid-Afrikaansche tuiniers en landbouwers almanak/ South African gardeners' and agriculturists' calendar" was reprinted in the African court calendar from 1815 to 1829, whereafter it was revised by James Bowie* and continued under the latter's name.

In about 1700 Van der Stel also established a new plantation and garden at Newlands, based on his own design and lay-out. Started on about 32 hectares, the site was later expanded to about 50 hectares and soon became a public attraction. Among others oaks, cluster pines, stone pines, and ornamental species were planted. It has been described as "the initiation of systematic afforestation in South Africa - probably in the Southern Hemisphere" (Keet, c. 1972, p. 165).

Van der Stel established a small collecion of live wild animals at the upper end of the company garden, thus creating the first zoo in southern Africa. The collection was maintained until the eighteen-twenties, when it was discontinued. He also transferred a museum collection, consisting mainly of skeletons and stuffed animals, from the fort to the guest house in the company garden. The garden, tended by Oldenland and Hartog, was much admired by visitors at this time. One visitor who described it in glowing terms, Adiel Mill, described Van der Stel as "a great lover of gardening and (as it is reported) one of the best botanists in Holland" (Vigne, 1999, p. 65). Mill also mentioned that the governor brought with him from Holland over thirty varieties of vines and numerous European plants and seeds.

In 1699 Van der Stel gave cattle farmers permission to establish cattle posts beyond Riebeeck Kasteel, leading to expanded settlement of the Berg River Valley. The next year he made farms available for settlement in the Tulbach Valley. These expansions displaced the resident Khoi and led to conflict with the San during subsequent years. In 1700 a commissioner of the Dutch East India Company granted Van de Stel a farm near present Somerset West, which he named Vergelegen. There he planted over 200 000 vines, produced wheat and raised cattle, proving himself a successful farmer. As early as 1700 he sent a bale of wool to Amsterdam, thus becoming one of the pioneers of the local wool industry. He regularly ordered books from overseas and his interest in scientific matters is shown by his acquisition of a telescope, barometers, and a book on physics.

Van der Stel's use of company slaves and materials to develop his farm caused much resentment among the free burghers. He also spent more and more time on his farm, rather than attending to his official duties, leading among others to the neglect of the company garden. The free burghers also resented the active role that other high officials were playing in supplying food for the company's needs and 63 of them sent a petition to the Netherlands. Van der Stel had the ringleaders arrested, but in October 1706 the directors of the company releaved him of his post and ordered him to return to Holland. The order was received at the Cape in April the next year. Despite his efforts to remain at the Cape he had to leave in April 1708. He settled in Lisse, where he remained for the rest of his life. In an effort to save his reputation he wrote his Korte deductie van Willem Adriaen van der Stel... (Amsterdam, 1708?) in which he tried to refute some of the accusations made against him. The free burghers answered with a comprehensive publication of their own, published in Amsterdam in 1712, in which their complaints were thoroughly set out and substantiated.

List of sources:
African court calendar and directory, 1815, 1829. Reprinted by the South African Library, Cape Town, 1982.

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 2, 1972.

Gunn, M. & Codd, L.E. Botanical exploration of southern Africa. Cape Town: Balkema, 1981.

Hutchinson, J. A botanist in southern Africa. London: Gawthorn, 1946.

Keet, J.D.M. Historical review of the development of forestry in South Africa, c. 1972. Electronic copy received from Forestry Scientific/Technical Services, Knysna, January 2011.

MacOwan, P. Personalia of botanical collectors at the Cape. Transactions of the South African Philosophical Society, 1886, Vol. 4, pp. xxx-liii.

Nieuw Nederlands biografisch woordenboek. Leyden: Sijthoff, 1911-1937.

Pole-Evans, I.B. Our aloes: Their history, distribution and cultivation. Journal of the Botanical Society of South Africa, 1919, Vol. 5, pp. 11-16.

Reynolds, G.W. The aloes of South Africa. Cape Town: Balkema, 1969.

Rudner, I. The earliest natural history museums and collectors in South Africa. South African Journal of Science, 1982, Vol. 78, pp. 434-437.

Schoeman, K. Kinders van die Kompanjie: Kaapse lewens uit die sewentiende eeu. Pretoria: Protea Boekhuis, 2006.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979.

Standard encyclopaedia of southern Africa (SESA). Cape Town: NASOU, 1970-1976.

Theal, G.McC. Willem Adriaan van der Stel and other historical sketches. Cape Town: Maskew Miller, 1913.

Venter, R.J. Bibliography of regional meteorological literature. Vol. 1. Southern Africa, 1486-1948. Pretoria: Weather Bureau, 1949.

Vigne, R. The Company's Garden under the Van der Stels: A contemporary English account. Quarterly Bulletin of the South African Library, 1999, Vol. 53(3), pp. 62-69.

Compiled by: C. Plug