In 1679, a new and energetic governor arrived at the Cape in the form of Simon van der Stel. He was an ambitious and determined man, who quickly set about expanding and entrenching his little realm at the Cape.
Van der Stel’s first territorial initiative was to break away from the Company previous policy of keeping the Free Burghers within a day’s ride of the Castle. Unfettered from this constraint, van der Stel rode out from Cape Town, scouting around for suitable new farmlands. He found them along the banks of a river, which he appropriately named the Eersterivier (First River), and subsequently granted land to farmers interested in settling there.
He eponymously called the place ‘Stellenbosch’ (van der Stel’s forest). The fertile land around the Eerste River quickly drew many farmers to the remote area. In 1682, it officially became a village and, in 1685, it became the country’s second magistracy, with an arbitrary authority that extended over 25 000 square kilometres of largely unknown interior. Stellenbosch is therefore the second oldest European town in South Africa.
Thanks to the ready supply of fresh water, the village of Stellenbosch flourished and abundant crops began to spurt out of the rich soil. The streets were lined with young oak trees, which grew stately, along with the aspirations of the town’s inhabitants.
Solid Cape Dutch houses, with graceful gables, were built all over the valley, and irrigation furrows provided the town’s folk with water for their ambitious gardens. Educational institutions were set up as early as 1683, and Stellenbosch is now home to one of the Cape’s most important universities.
Despite several debilitating fires, Stellenbosch continued to thrive over the centuries and, today, it is one of the best preserved 18th century towns in South Africa.
It is thanks to several French Huguenots that settled in Stellenbosch in 1690 and planted grapes that Stellenbosch became the centre of South Africa’s wine industry. Stellenbosch became a key education hub from 1859, when the Dutch Reformed Church opened a seminary.
The establishment of University of Stellenbosch in 1918 represented the culmination of Stellenbosch’s reputation as an educational centre. During the second South African War of 1899 to 1902, Stellenbosch served as a British military base. The expression “to be Stellenbosched” came into being for officers who had not distinguished themselves on the field.