From ‘The Cape Revisited’
In A Cask of Jerepigo
by Herman Charles Bosman
The circumstances surrounding the historical trouble between Governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel and Adam Tas seemed so intricately threaded through the early days of the Dutch and Huguenot settlement at the Cape. So many legends were still current about it. So many relics of it remained, scattered over the Western Province, as though flung there by the violence of the administrative explosion that resulted in a governor being sacked, and a large number of colonists going to prison. There were so many remembrances of the affair extant – in the form of documents, and pieces of furniture, and the outside walls of houses, and in the shape of oaks and pines and camphorwood trees – that I felt the need to consult a school history book about it.
I can still remember as a child – in standard two, I think it was – at about the fifth lesson in South African history, when the teacher got to Willem Adriaan van der Stel.
No doubt the story made an equally painful impression on the minds of other scholars, because everything at the Cape had been going so smoothly until then – the landing of Jan van Riebeeck and the founding of the Colony for the purpose of provisioning ships sailing between Europe and the East. Everything was so respectable. Idealistic, even. Jan van Riebeeck was a good man. And then Simon van der Stel, who founded Stellenbosch. A good man, too. He planted oak trees and completed the Castle started by Jan van Riebeeck to keep out the Hottentots. A good man and a fine governor. And then it was announced that the next governor was Willem Adriaan van der Stel. The child’s mind, eager to learn even nobler things about him than his predecessors, suffered the disillusionment that the next governor at the Cape was a crook.
It was on a pleasant morning in the late summer that we set off on a four-mile stroll through leafy avenues in quest of the farm Vergelegen, where Willem Adriaan van der Stel had built his mansion, and had set a thousand slaves to till the soil two and a half centuries before.
Ambling through the lanes of this valley in the Hottentot’s Holland, cool with the shade of old pines and oaks, we had no difficulty finding our way to Vergelegen.
About four miles from the village of Somerset West, on a tree by the side of the road, was a board bearing the name Vergelegen. We passed through a gate, and within a few minutes found ourselves on a path thickly shaded by oaks of immense girth: old trunks, gnarled and twisted and hollowed, and contemporaneous in appearance, almost, with the oaks that had grown, until a few years before, in the Cape Town Gardens, whose planting was ascribed to the time of Simon van der Stel. I could readily believe that the oaks forming the avenue to the Vergelegen homestead had been planted by Simon van der Stel’s son, Willem Adriaan.
Some distance down the avenue, where the foliage seemed especially dense, we sat down by the roadside and lunched off sandwiches and beer. I cast about and discovered, without much difficulty, a hollow oak to sit down in. The day was silent; the thick leafage sheltered us from the heat of high noon; no wind stirred the dappled pattern of shadow and light spread at our feet; our minds were at peace; in our thinking was the calmness of the moss on the oak tree’s hollow bole.
For a while we rested there, watching the smoke from our cigarettes rising in slow spirals through the placid air, interested only in the smoke-wreaths that were like frail ghosts haunting and getting lost in the green ceiling that the oaks had erected above us. And such was the feeling of time long passed that was borne in upon us in the avenue laid out by Willem Adriaan van der Stel, that it seemed to me that the three of us, seated at the foot of that ancient oak, were phantoms also, ‘palely loitering’ by the side of the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries.
Vergelegen was the first of the old Cape houses that we were to visit. And as we sojourned by the roadside, it was almost as though we sensed that it was meet that we should tarry there awhile, waiting without the portals, because when we crossed the threshold, it would not be that of Vergelegen only – our feet would carry us over a wider doorstep. We would be entering a region that was separated from Johannesburg not merely by a thousand miles, but by a quarter of a millennium. We would be passing through a lintel in which, like in the dust of the road beside which we were seated, there was imprisoned the sunshine and the shadow and the fragrance of two and a half centuries.
The homestead at Vergelegen is surrounded by an old wall that I liked. In front of the house are a number of magnificent camphorwood trees. I believe implicitly that they were planted in 1666. They are grand, stately things. If somebody were to tell me that Vasco da Gama, through some whim, went and planted those camphorwood trees in the Hottentot’s Holland valley two hundred years before Willem Adriaan van der Stel got there, I would believe that, also. It is difficult, without going into unseemly raptures, to convey something of the impression that those trees make on the visitor’s mind. Perhaps the Dutch East India Company didn’t notice those camphorwood trees growing on the other side of the wall. Obviously, they neglected to give instructions for the trees to be chopped down.
If the house that is now standing on Vergelegen had been inspected by the Dutch East India Company, they would not have bothered to tear it down.
But there is an old wine cellar immediately behind the main building. That long wine cellar, with its low, whitewashed walls and its enormous black door, is unforgettable. I would not mind going many miles out of my way to revisit it.
I was told that in the early years of the twentieth century, when a number of alterations were being made to the place, the workmen at Vergelegen unearthed a lot of foundations. I should imagine that those foundations date back to the original building erected by Willem Adriaan van der Stel. There is also a very old decaying wall some little distance removed from the site of the present farmhouse. It is a thick wall constructed of very small bricks that you can’t prise out of the mortar, even today. I know, because I tried.
I stood before that battered relic, that venerable and discoloured ruin, and I felt that the shapeless pile of masonry, about twelve feet high and perhaps twenty yards long and over three feet in thickness, was all that remained of the palatial mansion that Willem Adriaan van der Stel had built in the palmy days of the Dutch East India Company. That weather-beaten structure, green with age, a piece of wall that, standing alone, seemed a formless decapitation, had nevertheless survived the hands of the Dutch East India Company’s demolition gang, and the wind and rain of two and a half centuries. So my feelings, when I stood by that wall, were feelings of awe.
That weed-garmented reminder of the past evoked in me a reverence which I feel I would not have known in the roomy halls of the old Vergelegen long ago, when Willem Adriaan van der Stel’s star was still in the ascendant, and before Adam Tas got to work on him.