Built on the core foundational value of monopoly, what limited trade the company allowed locally was on its terms. The company’s first commander, Jan van Riebeeck, had allocated parcels of land to a small number of its people to become free burghers. By the time Simon van der Stel was commander and later governor, 1679 to 1699, the free farmers had spread across what is now the winelands. The governor was all powerful, lording over this domain and answering only to the Heeren XVII, the VoC directors in distant Amsterdam.
Leo Fouché, in his Diary of Adam Tas (1914), a 400-page treatise written in both Dutch and English, examined what happened next. Van der Stel’s son, Willem Adriaan van der Stel, governor from 1699, set about using his position to feather his personal nest, laying out and developing a gilded estate at Vergelegen, three-days’ wagon journey from Cape Town. The governor and his friends, on Fouché’s telling, became so big they could supply the entire market themselves. Willem Adriaan duly fixed the key markets for his circle, thus controlling the meat, wine, timber and fish trade. The free farmers felt the lifeblood draining away. Enter Adam Tas. Born in 1668 in Amsterdam, Tas had arrived in the Cape in 1697 as a free burgher. His uncle was Henning Husing, the richest farmer in the Cape and the main supplier of beef to the VoC. Tas began in low-level clerical positions in the VoC, but elevated himself dramatically through his marriage in 1703 to a wealthy widow, Elizabeth van Brakel, and he was now lording over a handsome spread of land in Stellenbosch.
By the spring of 1705, the free farmers, facing ruin, petitioned the Heeren XVII. With Tas, the ‘elegant writer’ as
author, they composed The Memorial. The 63 signatories consisted of both French and Dutch farmer colonists in near equal numbers, and The Memorial was smuggled to Amsterdam to the XVII. Fouché says of the complaint: ‘It appears the governor had in his service over 60 white servants of the company, 20 of them upon his 18 cattle stations
across the mountains. Upon those outside stations he had 18,000 sheep and 1,000 head of cattle, besides the stock carried at Vergelegen and elsewhere in Hottentots Holland, as well as Robben Island, Visser’s Hok, Zoutvliet, etc.’ Fouché writes that when Willem Adriaan heard of the complaint in February 1706, he arrested Tasand confiscated his papers, including a draft copy of The Memorial. Tas and other ringleaders were imprisoned at the Castle. ‘There, two soldiers, with drawn swords, kept guard over him day and night; the chimney of his cell was walled up, his meat and drink were examined, as well as any comforts sent to him,’ writes Fouché. In all Tas was incarcerated for 13 months and 17 days. So dire were the conditions in the Castle gaol that the company’s doctor warned the arrested men could die. Willem Adriaan mounted a spirited defence, refuting all the charges in the Kortie Deductie (counter defence), a 1,098-point refutation of The Memorial. He also went on a charm offensive.
According to Fouché: ‘Van der Stel summoned the citizens of Cape Town to the Castle where to their amazement they were met with the most courteous of receptions. He regaled them all, blacks, and liberated slaves and convicts included, with wine, beer, coffee and tobacco.’He collected 240 signatories to a testimonial of good conduct, which declared him to be a person of honour and virtue. Fouché’s version – that Willem Adriaan was a basic scoundrel – was supported by others, including Abraham Bogaert, a visitor to the Cape who described these events in his Historical Journey of 1711 and historian/ curator George McCall Theal.
But an archivist at the Cape Archives, H.C.T. Liebbrandt, in 1888 published accounts using material from the
archive, principally the Kortie Deductie and confessions by Tas (made under duress, according to Fouché) and others retracting their earlier claims. In this version Willem Adriaan was cast as a wise ruler brought down by a wicked conspiracy by the colonist farmers (Liebbrandt, 1897). Unfortunately for Willem Adriaan though, the XVII, in their own inquiry,found against him. In April 1707, the decision of the XVII reached the Cape: he was dismissed as governor.
Fouché devoted his Diary of Adam Tas to interrogating whether Willem Adriaan was a saint or sinner, checking, for instance, claims and counterclaims regarding his assets: ‘The governor asserts that he owned 400 morgen; the Land Registers prove that he owned 613. He asserts that he had planted 200,000 vinestocks; the official measurements
prove that he must have had 500,000 at least. He admits having had over 250 work people in his employ; the burghers prove he had 350. He admits having had eight cattle stations, with some 20,000 sheep and 1000 cattle … When we consider the restricted character of the market at the Cape, the vast scale of his farming operation is sufficient itself to condemn Van der Stel.’
For Fouché, The Memorial was more than just a list of complaints against the governor, but a kind of Magna Carta for the boers. Tas and company ‘clearly formulated and so stoutly maintained the rights and privileges of the colonists, it may therefore be said with justice that they laid the foundations of our political consciousness’. Willem Adriaan, Fouché wrote, scorned his adversaries by calling them ‘boeren’ or Boers. This ‘denotes no caste or class; it designates a nation. The new-born people has received its name.’ But an archivist at the Cape Archives, H.C.T. Liebbrandt, in 1888 published accounts using material from the archive, principally the Kortie Deductie and confessions by Tas (made under duress, according to Fouché) and others retracting their earlier claims. In this version Willem Adriaan was cast as a wise ruler brought down by a wicked conspiracy by the colonist farmers (Liebbrandt, 1897). Unfortunately for Willem Adriaan though, the XVII, in their own inquiry,
found against him. In April 1707, the decision of the XVII reached the Cape: he was dismissed as governor.
Fouché devoted his Diary of Adam Tas to interrogating whether Willem Adriaan was a saint or sinner, checking, for instance, claims and counterclaims regarding his assets: ‘The governor asserts that he owned400 morgen; the Land Registers prove that he owned 613. He asserts that he had planted 200,000 vinestocks; the official measurements prove that he must have had 500,000 at least. He admits having had over 250 work people in his employ; the burghers prove he had 350. He admits having had eight cattle stations,with some 20,000 sheep and 1000 cattle … When we consider the restricted character of the market at the Cape, the vast scale of his farming operation is sufficient itself to condemn Van der Stel.’
In what may come as a surprise to anyone force-fed this history in heroic, white terms by apartheid education, the Van der Stels were actually of mixed race, Simon’s mother being, in Fouché’s words, a coloured woman, Monica da Costa. ‘Her son, Simon was a man of remarkable qualities,’ Fouché writes, but, echoing the racism of the time, continues: ‘As is frequently the case with persons of mixed blood, the throwback occurred in the third generation. The impression that Willem Adriaan leaves us is of the half Oriental. His character was not without its more admirable features, but he lacked balance and self-control, and the moral sense seems to have been found to be entirely wanting.’
Patric Tariq Mellet, who describes himself as a heritage activist, sees race to have been a key factor in the dispute, where Willem Adriaan, perhaps because of his mixed-race ancestry, was sympathetic to the cause of a group of emerging free farmers, both black and mixed-race. And they supported him, as indicated by the 240 signatures he received for his petition.
Tas, says Mellet, accused Willem Adriaan of advancing the interests of the free blacks who would ‘attack all Christians, good or bad without distinction, and swamp them.’ This quote continues: ‘Not much can be expected from our slaves; we can also not expect much better and even less from the Kaffirs, Mulattos, Mestocis, Casticos and all that black brood living among us, who have been bred from marriages and other forms of intermingling with European and African Christians.
For there is not trusting the blood of Ham, especially as the black people are constantly being favoured and
pushed forward.’ The white farmers, on this account, rose up to protect their narrow interests against those of
the wider community. The XVII, says Mellet, noted that the number of signatories to Willem Adriaan’s petition, 240, far exceeded the 63 who signed with Tas. He says the VoC found for the farmer colonists because so many of the signatories were French, the VoC being worried about exacerbating French-Dutch tensions.
One thing should be clear: Tas was no working-class hero. The story is that he returned to his estate, which he re-named Libertas. No great reforms flowed from this rebellion. The VoC remained in charge for another 100 years, slavery was only done away with after 140 years and democracy was a full 280 years distant.
• Fouche, Leo. 1914. The Diary of Adam Tas (1705–1706). London: Longmans, Green and Co.
• Leibbrandt, H.C.V. 1897. Precis of the Archives of the Cape of Good Hope: The Defence of Willem Adriaan
van der Stel. Cape Town: WA Richards and Sons, Government Printers.
• Mellet, Patric Tariq. 2016. The Story of The First Two ‘Coloured’ Governors at The Cape – Simon & Willem
Van der Stel. Available at: www.bruinou.com, accessed on 17 August 2018.
Adam Tas, 1705
HON GENTLEMEN, Pressed by high necessity, we humbly take the liberty to lay our just complaints before you, especially because we are not only very much oppressed here by an unjust and haughty domination of the present governor, Willem Adriaan van der Stel, but treated worse than slaves. Bearing in mind we are free burghers and subjects of the States-General, it can easily be conceived that this unheard of oppression must redouble our sorrows. What they are, we have decided in all truth to communicate as briefly as possible to your Honours as the unshakeable maintainers of right and fairness.
1. You are informed that the Governor has built, about twelve hours distant from the Cape, a country seat, large beyond measure, and of such broad dimensions, as if it were a whole town. Besides that, he possesses very many lands on whose area at least 50 farmers would be able to earn their living. He sows on that place annually an immense quantity of corn and has also planted a vineyard there of more than 400,000 vines.He possesses fully 800 head of cattle and 10,000 sheep. On that farm there are more than 60 Company’s servants, subalterns, sailors and soldiers. All these people draw their pay, salary and rations from the Company, but the Governor uses them for his own private purposes. He has besides, on the same place and in his private service, some of the best slaves of the Company – as much as 100. He also uses for his own service daily the Company’s smiths and wagon makers, and has for his wagons, ploughs, and what further belongs to agriculture, made from the Company’s iron, whilst the wood is cut for him in the Company’s forests.
2. Besides the country seat, the governor has, beyond the mountains of the Hottentots Holland, 15 cattle stations, where he pastures his flocks, which stations are taken care of by Company’s servants and slaves, who likewise mind the cattle.
3. They sent out a large number of men with powder and bullet; from some Hottentots they bartered cattle, from others they took cattle violently and in a detestable manner, extorting the animals from the natives. All these unmannerly ways of bartering are matters of very evil consequence, by which the Hottentots are not only made desperate, but may be tempted to wreak their vengeance for injustice done to them, on the innocent. Of this there are already examples.
4. Minister [Petrus Kaken, an ally of Willem Adriaan van der Stel, who participated in the cattle raids] is one of
the largest agriculturists here, and notwithstanding his other emoluments [he receives a monthly pay of f1201 from the Company], it is nevertheless true he makes no work whatever of religion, as he occupies himself much more with his lands than with his pulpit.