Who was Simon van der Stel?

Simon van der Stel was born at sea in 1639 while his father Adriaan van der Stel, an official of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), was en-route to Mauritius to take up his new posting as the first Dutch governor of Mauritius.

A portrait of Simon van der Stel and his son Willem Adriaan. Napier collection, Ireland (destroyed in 1962).

His mother was Maria Lievens, daughter of a freed Indian slave woman known as Monica of the Coast of Goa, or Monica da Costa. Simon van der Stel was therefore of mixed race-origin.

Simon spent seven years at Mauritius. The family left for Dutch Ceylon where his father was murdered in 1646. His mother died in 1652. Simon went on to Batavia, capital of the Dutch East Indies, where he remained until he was 20 years old. He then went to Holland (then known as the United Provinces). He soon began to take an interest in farming, bought land and planted vines to make wine and distil brandy. Simon’s grandfather, Simon van der Stelle was one of the city fathers and an eminent citizen of Dordrecht.  It is therefore not surprising that Simon associated with the most important members of the VOC, such as Willem Six (then mayor of Amsterdam). In 1663 he married Willem Six’s daughter, Johanna Jacoba Six (1645–1700). They had six children and were living in a house on the Keizersgracht in Amsterdam.

In 1679, Simon van der Stel was appointed Commander of the VOC’s colony at the Cape of Good Hope.

Van der Stel and his wife, Johanna Jacoba Six, did not enjoy a very good relationship. His wife remained in Amsterdam. Her sister Cornelia accompanied Simon to the Cape. Simon never saw his wife again. She died in 1700 in Amsterdam.

Simon was an energetic and thorough commander. He was personally involved in the planning of settlements such as Stellenbosch (named after him) and the surveying of farms on the banks of the Berg River (Drakenstein). The establishment of Paarl and Franschhoek was Simon’s initiative. He increased the number of Company outposts and placed them under sound supervision. This resulted in improved crops and the reduction of annual deficits.

He devoted a great deal of attention to agriculture and forestry (thousands of oak trees were planted). Horticulture was improved under his management through the appointment of able gardeners. He shared his knowledge of viticulture with the free burghers. During his excursion to the north, he supervised prospecting for copper ore and helped to smelt it. He reported that the mines were too far from the coast to be exploited. He was also curious to accumulate knowledge on indigenous people, the interior and the coast of Africa, also the fauna and flora – he was instrumental in establishing an interest in Cape flora abroad.

He set a good example on his farm Groot Constantia by planting oak trees, fruit trees, olives, chestnuts, walnuts and even banana trees.

Simon also improved the Castle by moving the gate from the sea side to the current position (see our logo). He build a new commander’s house on the cross wall that divides the courtyard in two.

This portrait by Pieter van Anraedt is reported to be that of Simon van der Stel but it has not been proven with absolute certainty as the painter died in 1678 and Simon arrived in the Cape in 1679.

Van der Stel retired in 1699, and was succeeded by his son Willem Adriaan van der Stel. In retirement, Simon devoted himself to his estate at Constantia, where he died in 1712. He was buried in the Groote Kerk in Cape Town.

Simon van der Stel’s legacy is still very tangible in the Cape. Both Stellenbosch and Simon’s Town were named after him. There is a school that carries his name, a mountain Simonsberg and the historic Kenilworth property Stellenberg.