as published in the 2018 Version
TREASURES OF SWELLENDAM
San (Bushman) hunter-gatherers and Khoekhoen livestock herders inhabited the Western Cape for thousands of years before Europeans arrived in southern Africa. The Khoekhoen had acquired cattle from Bantu-speaking people in the interior of southern Africa about 2 000 years before. They also had unique ridgebacked dogs. The Khoekhoen around Swellendam were part of the Hessequa chiefdom.
The Dutch East India Company (VOC) established a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 solely to supply fresh food to its ships on the Eastern trade route. However, the Company’s vegetable garden failed repeatedly and trade with the Khoekhoen for cattle and sheep became increasingly difficult. Within five years it released some of its servants to farm independently – albeit with the VOC as sole purchaser.
By 1700, ‘free burghers’ were farming the areas around Stellenbosch (established in 1679), Franschhoek and Tulbagh. Armed battles pushed the protesting Khoekhoen out of their traditional grazing lands, and a smallpox epidemic in 1713 decimated their population. European stock farmers (trekboers) had already pushed beyond the settled area into the Overberg – beyond the mountains.
Attempting to maintain control, the VOC in 1714 began to issue grazing licences for the trekboers: the basis of the “loan farm” system. For a small annual fee a farmer could claim the use of 6 000 acres around his home camp. The boundaries of these ancient “round farms” can still be traced in the Overberg district.
The VOC administered rural areas by means of a collegie consisting of a landdrost, who was a government official similar to a magistrate, and heemraden comprising prominent burghers. The Overberg initially fell under the Stellenbosch Drostdy but, as the trekboers pushed ever eastward, the sparsely populated frontier area became too vast and distant to control. Non-payment of fees, lack of justice and conflict between the trekboers and the Khoekhoen over land and livestock were an increasing headache for the Company.
In 1743, therefore, the VOC decided to introduce a collegie of landdrost and heemraden for the frontier district, which was named Swellendam after Governor Hendrik Swellengrebel and his wife Helena ten Damme. The point where the old wagon road to the frontier crossed the Koornlands River was chosen as the site of the Drostdy building, which was erected in 1746/7. Houses for other VOC officials were later built across the road (now the Old Gaol complex) and on the other side of the river along what is now Van Oudtshoorn Street (see Nos. 1, 3, 4, 14, 35, 36) of this publication.
The Drostdy was the administrative centre of a huge district. It also became an important stopping point on the road to the frontier, which provided opportunities for wagonmakers, blacksmiths, traders and food suppliers. A small, unplanned settlement gradually developed along the wagon road on the other side of the river. By 1798 there were about 20 scattered houses, but still no church.
The VOC so notoriously neglected the interests of Swellendam’s inhabitants that they declared a short-lived Rebel National Assembly in 1795, and it was only after the VOC’s bankruptcy and the takeover of the Cape by the British that the village began to develop. A church was eventually built in 1802 during the first British Occupation (1795–1803).
The first half of the 19th century was a period of growth and prosperity. Carts and wagons made by Swellendam’s craftsmen were in great demand. Agricultural production – particularly wool from Merino sheep – flourished in the surrounding district. The family firm Barry & Nephews introduced maritime transport from Port Beaufort and Malagas on the Breede River, which provided easy access to markets and goods, and revolutionised the economy. While the operations of Barry & Nephews remained centred in Swellendam (see Nos. 26, 27, 29), their trading and mercantile empire expanded across the entire Overberg.
From the 1830s to the 1860s, Swellendam was the capital of a booming district economy, invigorating social, religious, educational and cultural activity. Most of the finest old buildings in the town, with their interesting architectural layering, date from this period. Traditional Cape Dutch elements such as letter-of-the-alphabet plans, thatched roofs, gables and decorative plasterwork abound – much of these the work of slaves (prior to their emancipation in 1834–38) and of a community of skilled Muslim artisans who lived in Lemmetjiesdorp near The Glen (see Nos. 60, 109). These elements were often combined with features introduced by the English, such as large-paned Georgian sash windows, double doors with delicate fanlights, the entrance passage replacing the voorkamer (front room), hipped roofs and dormer gables.
In the 1860s a severe drought caused a slump in agricultural production and put farmers under financial strain; the resultant economic depression badly affected businesses and industries in Swellendam. Barry & Nephews was already struggling and when its trading steamer, the Kadie, ran aground in the mouth of the Breede River at Cape Infanta (see Nos. 114, 115) in November 1865, it was a fatal blow. The firm was declared bankrupt in 1866.
The final disaster was the Great Fire which broke out in May 1865, completely destroying a large portion of the town centre: many houses and businesses, a hotel, the Wesleyan Chapel, the bank and the printing press (which had published the local newspaper) burnt down. Despite relief efforts, Swellendam never recovered its former status and prosperity. The economy stagnated and the population declined. Mossel Bay took over from Port Beaufort as the main port of the Overberg. The vast district previously serviced by the Drostdy was subdivided, and the services that Swellendam had previously provided became available in towns such as Caledon, Riversdale, Heidelberg and Bredasdorp.
For the next hundred years, Swellendam developed slowly, by subdivision of existing properties and modest town extensions. Buitekant Street, above the main road, was as its name (outer edge) suggests, the upper limit of the town. Along it many fine examples may be found of Victorian- and Edwardian-styled houses that were built in country districts until the 1930s. (See Route 2 Buitekant / Andrew Whyte / Baker Street Route). In the mid-19th century, the ‘Nuwedorp’ (New Town) extension – Berg Street and Faure Street – was laid out to the north of the Drostdy. It remained largely rural until the last few decades, and several late 19th to early 20th century vernacular cottages may still be seen in this area, albeit modernised.
Swellendam became a typically quiet, slow and peaceful rural town.
Modernism and conservation
A century after the disasters of the 1860s, Swellendam suffered further blows. In 1965 Voortrek Street – which was then still part of the main road to the Southern Cape and beyond – was widened and upgraded to modern provincial engineering standards. Nearly all the old trees that had previously shaded the road were felled; several notable old buildings were demolished entirely and others – including the Town Hall (see No. 67) – lost portions of their frontages and new levels left buildings on the river side of the road sitting in a gulley several steps below the street. Ironically, not long thereafter, the N2 was built to carry through-traffic past Swellendam. But the damage had been done.
Swellengrebel Street and the Drostdy complex were saved from such destruction by the indomitable efforts of historian Dr Mary Cooke, the director of the Drostdy Museum at the time. She managed to have the oaks lining the street declared a national monument (now a provincial heritage resource) in 1955, effectively preventing road-widening.
The infamous Group Areas Act of the Apartheid government was equally destructive on a social level. In the 1970s all ‘non-White’ inhabitants of Swellendam were forcibly removed across the N2 to Railton, where a tiny vernacular settlement already existed. The golf course, regarded as “White” was moved in the opposite direction and reconstructed in its present position. As elsewhere, the town is still struggling to overcome the effects of spatial segregation.
All over the world, as modernist development destroyed old buildings and neighbourhoods, heritage conservation became increasingly popular. In early 1980 a group of concerned Swellendam residents met to form the Swellendam Trust, the forerunner of the present Swellendam Heritage Association. It is one of the oldest local conservation organisations in South Africa, and its tireless efforts over many decades have contributed to the survival of many of the buildings listed here,
HISTORY of SWELLENDAM