Why you should care
He was officially described as “a scourge unto the inhabitants” of South Africa.
No matter the danger, the burghers knew they had to tell someone. After years of unfair treatment at the hands of Willem Adriaan van der Stel, governor of the Cape Colony in what is now South Africa, the 63 men penned a document listing charges against van der Stel and managed to smuggle it onto a ship bound for Batavia, where the nearly all-powerful bosses of the Dutch East India Company hung out. It was a risky move, writes 19th-century South African historian and genealogist George Theal in Willem Adriaan van der Stel, “for if their names were to become known … they knew that they would be made to feel [the] vengeance” of a governor who had the “military power [of the colony] fully at his disposal.”
The whistleblowers’ fears were justified. When van der Stel got wind of the charges, he arrested their leader, Adam Tas, confiscated his writing desk — the 18th-century equivalent of seizing a laptop — and imprisoned him for nearly 14 months. Other prominent burghers were arrested or banished, some to Batavia (then the capital of the Dutch East Indies and now known as Jakarta), others to Amsterdam. But the burghers would have the last laugh.
So, what was the burghers’ beef?
The parallels between van der Stel’s eight-year governorship and the system of “state capture” that former President Jacob Zuma perfected during his eight years in power are too obvious to ignore.
According to the Dutch East India Company’s rules, van der Stel was not permitted “larger gardens or a greater number of cattle” than required for his own use, but the free burghers asserted that he’d obtained a thousand head of cattle “by violent means,” while neglecting his duties as governor and compromising the colony’s defense by spending weeks on end at his vast farm, a 12-hour trip from his alleged office. They accused him of buying wine from struggling farmers at dirt-cheap prices and reselling it to foreign ships at a huge markup, forcing bankers to buy wheat from him at inflated prices and requiring bribes in exchange for title deeds. In addition, they said, he had been using company resources to work on his private estate at Vergelegen (which is still well worth a visit today).
Van der Stel’s personal life was also subjected to scrutiny. He was “said to follow closely the example of our Charles II” (a reference to the hedonistic British monarch who fathered at least 12 illegitimate children) and was also accused of ordering that the Ten Commandments not be read in any church where he was present, aided by a company clergyman reportedly on the take.
Van der Stel was born in Amsterdam in 1664, the eldest child of a company official and the grandson of the first Dutch governor of Mauritius. In 1679, his father, Simon, was put in charge of the relatively unimportant colony at the Cape, which at the time was only used to provision ships on the way to or from points east. As a teen, Willem spent five years in South Africa before returning to Amsterdam, where he stayed until he took over his father’s job in 1699. To this day, the elder van der Stel is considered one of the most effective administrators ever to serve at the Cape — he ramped up agricultural production and is credited with being the father of the region’s wine industry — but his private farm, Constantia, flouted the same rules that would eventually ensnare his son, albeit on a smaller scale.
The actions of the van der Stels should be seen in the context of the Dutch East India Company, says Susan Newton-King, a professor at the University of the Western Cape who has a “soft spot” for the van der Stels due to their contributions to Cape agriculture and architecture. Salaries at the company, which employed thousands of people all over the world, were “not brilliant,” says Newton-King, explaining that “one of the key incentives for rising up the ranks was that you could trade on the side.” Strictly speaking, this was against the rules, but everyone in Batavia and India was doing it, dabbling in diamonds, spices and whatever else they could get their hands on.
The company only acted if “a person had enemies,” says Newton-King, or if they were “really messing up company trade.” The Cape, she adds, differed fundamentally from company outposts in the east: Not only were the opportunities for enrichment far punier, but the presence of the free burghers — private landowners who did not answer to the company — meant powerful enemies were far more easily made.
After immobilizing Tas and the other ringleaders, van der Stel set about concocting his defense. He coerced colonists to sign a document supporting his leadership, and reportedly fabricated confessions from Tas and other complaining colonists in which they recanted their charges. What’s more, he himself presided over the trials in which Tas and his followers were convicted.
While all this was going on, the burghers managed to pen a counter-defense containing a “Compleat Demonstration of the lying Nature of the Defence” and “a concise answer unto all [its] naked shifts [and] delusive evidences.” Unbeknownst to van der Stel, a commission had met in Amsterdam to discuss the charges against him. Eventually, in October 1706, van der Stel was fired and ordered to return to the Netherlands, where he died in 1733. As a direct result of the imbroglio, an edict was issued banning company officials from owning land in the colony; a few years later, Vergelegen was split into four separate farms and sold. Official documents described van der Stel as “a scourge unto the inhabitants of this land.”
Despite the fact that the Dutch East India Company was not a democracy, the parallels between van der Stel’s eight-year governorship and the system of “state capture” that former President Jacob Zuma perfected during his eight years in power are too obvious to ignore.
It’s unlikely, however, that Zuma’s controversial homestead at Nkandla will win any architectural prizes.