The Company’s Garden

I’m writing this post in Cape Town the home of the oldest European garden in Africa.  Known as The Company’s Garden it  lies near the heart of the modern city just four hundred metres south of where Jan van Riebeeck and his party from the Dutch East India Company  landed on Table Bay in 1652 with plans to establish the first European  foothold at the Cape. Apart from a fort for defence and shelter, laying out the garden was their first priority. But, of course, that was for food not flowers.

Transformed from purely a utilitarian  garden to a much more horticulturally interesting one in the 18thc  it became one of the most significant gardens in the world, before sinking into decline under British rule in the 19thc when much of the original ground was appropriated for grand institutional buildings.

What survives today, although listed as a national monument, is a much smaller modern  public park but it still contains many historic trees  and the re-imagining of a small fraction of the original Dutch kitchen garden. And as we’ll see in another post soon it has been the inspiration behind one of grandest new gardens in the world.

The photos are mine unless otherwise acknowledged

Khoekhoe traders

Europeans probably first arrived at the site of what is now Cape Town in 1488 when Bartolomeu Dias was searching for a sea route to India but it wasn’t until  the late 16th century that European ships regularly stopped over in Table Bay and traded with the local Khoekhoe people to obtain fresh provisions.

In  1647 a Dutch East India Company ship, the Haarlem, was wrecked in Table Bay. The survivors returned to Holland to report that the place was fertile and suitable for agriculture while the natives were not cannibals as reported, but friendly and, if kindly treated, could be converted to Christianity and used as servants.  The Company, who had trading posts in the East Indies, Japan, Indo-China and Ceylon, decided that they should now establish a small but permanent base to service their ships and provide a proper respite from the long and dangerous voyage between east and west.

The Dutch East India Company emblem

You might be surprised that a commercial company could decide to  do that off its own back but the Dutch East India Company  [or Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC for short], was no ordinary merchant company. Under its charter the Dutch authorities gave it quasi-governmental powers, monopoly trading rights, and even the right to wage war and establish colonies. It is often considered the first multinational corporation . [If you really want to know more a good place to start is with the Netherlands State Archives guide [in English] to the company’s records]

Jan van Riebeeck who had already worked for the VOC in Asia was amongst the strongest proponents of the idea and was appointed  to lead the new mission.  His instructions stated : “As soon as you are in a proper state of defence you shall search for the best place for gardens, the best and fattest ground in which everything planted or sown will thrive well.” However his instructions also said there was to be no settlement outside the fort.

His ships arrived in Table Bay on the 6th April 1652. He landed  with 82 men and 8 women and immediately set about  building the timber and mud  Fort of Good Hope.  Equally important to defence though was the need to provide food for the settlement and within weeks of their arrival land had been set aside for a very large kitchen garden.

The land they chose for the garden, and indeed the entire settlement was occupied regularly by hunter-gatherers (the San ) and  pastoralists (the Khoekhoen), who had migrated seasonally for hundreds of years. After initially fairly amicable encounters and exchanges  it was not long before  the land-grab caused disputes and violence which ended with the eventual  dispossession of these indigenous people.  The establishment of Cape Town  as a “stopover” between east and west was the foundation stone of the Western colonisation of all of southern Africa.   For more on this see  Alette Fleischer’s’s 0n-line article about the Company Garden and its impact

The 350 yr old pear tree

A lot is known about the earliest days of the new outpost because Van Riebeeck, in line with VOC policy,  kept a diary during his 10 years of his time at the Cape.

He recorded that  the mission’s master gardener, the appropriately named Hendrik Boom [Henry Tree], had brought vegetable and herb seeds from Holland,  and began  sowing on 29 April 1652.  Boom  also laid out a physic garden.

Amazingly there is even a survival from the earliest plantings – a pear tree which, although the trunk rotted away, managed to root several of its branches  which still, over 350 years later, produce fruit.

A section of the recreation of the original garden

The garden was laid out in the valley on the flattest most fertile terrain, with its central avenue  lined with oak trees. Brick-lined canals bought water from the streams running down from Table Mountain and as the town grew  so the canals were extended to provide water for buildings and houses  built along their banks  which explains the city centre’s grid pattern of streets even today.

Over the next ten years Company Garden slowly grew in size  until it reached over 18 ha [c44 acres]  There were  many setbacks. Not only are the seasons reversed but Cape Town’s climate is not as temperate as one might think. That’s partly because the city faces north rather than the south you might imagine and  from September to March there are a lot of very strong  winds which  severely damaged crops.   However trial and error led them to set up  other, much more sheltered gardens for fruit trees further away from the settlement.

Van Riebeeck’s diary  also shows that Boom’s garden quickly  became a global centre of experimentation and exchange. He received and planted seeds not just from Europe and Batavia but from other parts of the globe through the VOC’s extensive commercial network. In January 1653, for example, a ship from Pernambuco in Brazil brought “some Brazil pumpkin, melon and watermelon seeds [which were] already sprouting beautifully.” From the Americas and Indies he grew – or tried to grow – pineapples, sweet potatoes, calabash, cucumbers, Indian radish, banana, peanuts, “and all other imaginable seeds…”  From the Far East came guavas and bananas, tea and camphor.

The diary also shows that some of Van Riebeeck and Boom’s  knowledge was  almost certainly gained from the indigenous peoples. They learned, for example,  how to prepare and eat local plants such as wild asparagus, sorrel, wild leek, and a type of mustard which all helped  avoid scurvy and starvation. Boom also adopted the local wild almond tree [Brabejum stellatifolium]  for hedging.  [If you are interested in knowing more about the relationship between the Indigenous people and the Dutch start with Alette Fleischer’s  article ]

In his ten years at the Cape Van Riebeeck oversaw systematic efforts to transform the landscape, largely by establishing western-style agriculture with an impressive range of European crops – cereals, potatoes, apples,  citrus  and grapevines – which would  transform the landscape and economy of the Cape for ever.

Now you might be imagining lots of Dutch gardeners working away in the Company Garden. But you’d be wrong. There were very few Europeans at the Cape. When van Riebeeck left in 1662 – still only about 200  – and most of the physical work on the garden was carried out by slaves who were bought here from from 1658 onwards the East Indies, Bengal, Madagascar and the Eastern African coast.

For more on this see Nigel Worden’s “Slavery in Dutch South Africa” (1985) and How Unique was Slavery at the Cape?

detail showing the extent of the boundary from an information board at Kirstenbosch

As the settlement  became more  self sustaining so  groups of  VOC  employees were given “free burgher” (free citizen) status and  grants of land further and further away from the fort to run as farms, again relying  on slave labour to do most of the work.

This led to more clashes with the indigenous people and led van Riebeeck to demarcate an enormous area around the perimeter of the settlement, encompassing an area of about 6 miles by two – with a wooden palisade with  watch towers, or thick thorny hedging of wild almond,  to keep them out. There is still a section of this growing at Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens today and for many this marks the beginning of the segregation of apartheid.

Surviving part of van Riebeeck’s hedge


Another of the seminal figures in the European story in the Cape region arrived in 1679. Simon van der Stel began serious exploration of the hinterland but also persuaded the VOC to allow French Huguenots fleeing persecution in Europe to emigrate to the Cape and settle further inland. About 200 took up the offer which increased the then European population by about a third, and  did wonders for the wine industry!

Together with his master gardener Hendrik Bernard Oldenland van der Stel  realised that the free burghers and the gardens away from the settlement now produced so much that the main garden in the town was no longer essential as an orchard and vegetable garden.  Instead they began to collect and plant indigenous and exotic ornamental species which Oldenland recorded in a 13 volume herbarium vivum illustrated with his own paintings. This was  later used by Linnaeus and the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam, although I cannot trace its present whereabouts.

Mimetes cucullatus attributed to Henrik Oldenland

This diversity is also described by a German doctor Johan Daniel Buttner in about 1716-1721: ” it contains all kinds of European trees and plants which the company had planted there; fir trees, pine trees, Keurboom, juniper, willows , medlar, various kinds of cherries, apples and pears, Just as in Europe. Of the Asiatic trees there are firstly oranges, lemons, citron, grapefruit, ‘bigarade’, pomegranate, banana, custard apple, laurel, camphor wood, chestnut, fig, apricot, peach, cinnamon, quince and almonds, Spanish pepper etc.” and so the list went on through vegetables, herbs and flowers.

It also meant that the garden began to be used for another largely utilitarian purpose: acclimatisation with the Company Garden  acting as a nursery and trial ground for plants being moved around the Dutch empire.  Of course the Cape’s own flora was so rich that it also served as a living nursery for Dutch plant collectors.

Model of the Slave Lodge built on part of the gardens

Van der Stel also felt able to commandeer a section of the garden to build a church, hospital and basic housing for the VOC’s slaves, reducing the size to about 16ha [c.4o acres].

He also had a small house built  in the garden where he entertained and accommodated foreign visitors  which in the 18thc was to be was enlarged to become the governor’s residence.

The Lionesses Gate, formerly the entrance to the menagerie

After Simon van de Stel retired his son William Adriaan took over as Governor and around 1700 added  a ‘menagerie’  to the gardens. Given Cape Town’s status as a stop-over between east and west to the European route to the Indies and the Far East, it included not only African beasts but also some brought from Asia. A visitor in 1714 noted  it had a pair of ‘rheen’ or ‘rheebokken’ (probably kudu), a black rhinoceros, an eland, a ‘rossen bok’ (possibly a hartebeest), a hippopotamus, two lions, and a zebra. In the 1770s, the Swedish botanist Anders Sparrman noted the presence of many springbok, a warthog, some ostriches, and even a Papuan cassowary.   After many vicissitudes the menagerie finally closed in 1838. There are more descriptions and information about it at The Lion’s Gate.


An ancient Yellow-wood tree, Podocarpus falcatus probably planted by Auge


The Gardens botanical heyday was probably under Jan Andries Auge who arrived in the Cape in 1747 as assistant gardener before becoming  Superintendent in 1751. By the time he retired in 1783 he had made the garden much more botanically focussed,  beginning the first serious study collection of the indigenous Cape Flora, and going on expeditions in search of  plant material for the garden.

Some of the oldest surviving indigenous trees in the Garden were planted by him.  It was also the time when bulbs and plants such as succulents and pelargoniums were being exported to Holland for sale to an increasingly discerning and lucrative European market.

Inevitably this attracted the attention of plant collectors from other western countries – foremost amongst them Sir Joseph Banks  who had called at Cape Town in 1771  on his  return voyage with Captain Cook’s expedition which had “discovered” Australia.    He had seen the unique character and extraordinary richness of  the Cape’s flora and when in 1772 Cook was sent on his second expedition to the Pacific, he was accompanied by Francis Masson  from the royal gardens at Kew who got off at Cape Town to go plant hunting.  [I’ve written about Masson’s exploration is an earlier post. Mary Eleanor Bowes of last week’s Gibside post also sent out William Paterson to collect specifically for her.]

Cape Town, Jan Brandes 1787

The approach from the south

Botanical exploration was soon to be much more difficult because the American War of Independence had widened with Holland, France and Spain joining the colonists fight with  Britain. French troops were sent to Cape Town in 1781 – 1784 to prevent a British invasion, and afterwards remained as mercenaries paid for at great expense by the VOC.  In fact the cost forced the VOC into a rapid decline before they were bankrupted and shut down in 1799.

The Gardener’s Bothy

There was a brief interlude of peace before war broke out again.  A British force landed in 1795  and seized control from the Dutch. The new Governor Sir George Young  closed the garden to the public and began to wall it in,  intending to make it the private garden of Government House.  This caused a major outcry and when in 1801 his Governorship ended the scheme was dropped.  There was a brief return to Dutch rule in 1803 before the British returned as masters in 1806 and remained until 1931.

Unfortunately the rest of the 19thc century was generally less kind to the garden. The continual expansion of the City led to repeated encroachments, notably the granting in  1827 of  another acre [0.4ha] for the new St. George’s Anglican Cathedral.

The main entrance to the garden, with the Desmond Tutu memorial arch next the Cathedral. The present government has closed off a large section of the garden with razor wire and barricades   fearing break-ins to the Parliament building which backs onto the site.


It was not all bad news though, because in 1848 Sir Harry Smith, the then Governor, appointed a board of commissioners to establish  a proper Botanic Garden and gave them a budget of £1264. Although it was decided  that the site, now down to 14 acres [5.6 ha] was not ideal,  it was, because of its central location better than any other suggestion.

The grounds were completely remodelled  with  the formal grid  pattern replaced by  curving pathways and new garden areas such as a rockery, pond  and succulent garden.


Further inroads were made on the garden in the 1880s when, amongst other buildings, Parliament House and the Public Library were built on the lower portion.

Later  the Art Gallery, and South African College were built on the central and upper parts while a number of monuments, statues and other structures were erected elsewhere.

All this was tolerated by the commissioners but when it was decided to build the new  South African  Museum on the most ornamental part of the old garden they were so incensed that they resigned en masse, although of course it made no difference.  Overall this meant that by  the early 1900’s the gardens lost more than half of the space the British took over. What was left of the garden was handed over to Cape Town Municipality  in 1892, and its final descent from botanical garden to public park got underway, and by the time Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens were established in 1913  the process was complete.

The remaining space – now down to 8 acres [3.2ha] – had many historic trees but was thought overgrown and rather oppressive so when in the 1920’s it was decided to build a memorial rose garden for South African soldiers who were killed during the First World War  it was an opportunity for another makeover, redesigning the garden and removing  many of the old trees.

Since then the basic layout has remained largely unchanged although there have been a number of new installations – in particular the re-imagining of a much miniaturised version of the Dutch 17thc kitchen garden.

For more information about the garden and its features many of which I haven’t had time to mention there is a good well-illustrated on-line guide by the Cape Town authorities. 



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