A New Territory

Separated from Stellenbosch

In 1743, Governor-general Baron Gustav Wilhelm van Imhoff decreed that a new sub-drostdy should be established far east of Stellenbosch, to control the Trekboers who were moving further and further eastward to search for grazing lands and escape the tyrannical rule of the Dutch East India Company (VOC).

©Jacques Marais
Farmlands and distant Langeberg Mountains.

In 1745, the territory was declared separate from the Stellenbosch district of which it had been part, and Johannes Rhenius was made landdrost of the region. The new territory was named Swellendam, after Governor Hendrick Swellengrebel and his wife, Helena ten Damme, and permission was given for the building of a drostdy at the foot of the Langeberg mountains. A small village soon sprung up around the drostdy, and began to flourish.

Rebellion Against the VOC

As the town grew, so too did the dissatisfaction of its citizens with the mismanagement of the VOC. In June 1795, This dissatisfaction resulted in the people of Swellendam rebelling against the Company. They dismissed the magistrate, declared an independent republic and elected Hermanus Steyn as the 'national landdrost'.

In August 1795, however, the British attacked the Cape. Swellendam sent a detachment of burghers to assist in the defence of the colony, but by mid-September the Dutch were defeated, and Swellendam's four-and-a-half-month moment of glory as a capital came to an end.

The Great Fire

The town nevertheless continued to grow - a village management board was set up in 1862 - but in 1865 much of it was destroyed in the 'great fire'. This fire started near George and swept across the southern Cape, destroying farmlands and fynbos, and - perhaps the greatest loss - decimating the temperate evergreen forests of the area. Some of the largest surviving patches of indigenous forest in the Western Cape are to be found in sheltered gorges of the Langeberg Mountains. Few of these, however, are accessible to the average hiker.

By David Bristow

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