Early South African Houses
Life at the Cape Dutch Settlement
Life for the Europeans was not always a Bed of Roses
The early colonists who settled as farmers were soon to move away from the control of the Dutch East India Company based in Cape Town and become nomadic cattle farmers. Their lifestyle required a distinct architecture. In their wanderings they met with the Khoi-Khoi, adopting some of their building techniques.
Tough bushveld reeds, slender poles from indigenous trees and clay were the basic building materials. Two types of houses were built: The "Hartbeeshuis" was constructed of poles, reeds and clay with a grass roof while the "Kapsteilhuis" had no side walls as the roof trusses reached right down to the ground.
Later on, permanent houses were built from self-manufactured bricks or sandstone. Trusses were made of any suitable and readily available indigenous wood. Once again trusses were joined with wooden pegs and reinforced by raw leather thongs, which were twisted around the joints. Once dried these thongs shrank to form a sturdy tie.
With thatching grass as the natural roofing material, ropes had to be woven from thongs or sisal to tie down grass bundles.
Farmers of the southern Free State did not have thatching grass at their disposal. They improvised with a typical Karoo-style house topped with an affordable flat roofing system known as a Brakdak. A layer of brackish ground, impervious to water due to its high salt content, was packed tightly on top of a sturdy plank or reed ceiling. These roofs were sloped to the backs of the houses, which ensured that what little rainwater did fall, was able to run off quite easily.
Further up north, Pedi, Venda and Tswana people were building more permanent structures. These people are believed to have introduced the "cone on cylinder" type of construction. The rondavel , as it was known, consisted of a circular mud walled structure with a conical cap of thatch for a roof.
This was to set the trend of South African architecture ever since as an innovative marrying of traditions.
Inside a European style Rondavel
Simon van der Stel is also the founder of Stellenbosch , Drakenstein and Franschhoek, and is responsible for the construction of many of the famous homesteads in the Cape.
More farmers soon settled in
along the little streams pretentiously named
and Diep Rivers
on the soils so well suited to the vine. West of the
mountains, Kronendal in the Hout
Bay valley was granted to another enterprising settler in 1681 and
a wagon road into the valley was opened over Constantia Nek twelve
Willem Adriaan van der Stel also developed the Vergelegen estate, where he built a house and planted over 500 000 vines, large orchards and corn lands. He stocked the farm with 800 cattle and 10 000 sheep. The fact that the Governor traded his products with ships in the port brought him into conflict with other farmers and eventually led to his recall to Holland and confiscation of his estate.
Gradually the little dorp in Table Valley began to assume the character of a town. No longer was it referred to as Cabo de Goede Hoop, De Caab or De Kaapse Vlek, but during the last quarter of the eighteenth century it acquired the name of De Kaap or Cape Town.
In 1814, Lord Charles
Somerset became Governor, and the following
year he inaugurated the first mail-packet service between England
and Cape Town.
In 1824, Cape Town's first
Commercial Advertiser was published.
It was printed in English and Dutch. In
1830, Sir Lowry
Cole laid the foundation stone
of St. George's
Church, now the Cathedral, the first English
Church in South Africa.
The first recorded use of gas in Cape Town was in June 1842, when the Presbyterian Church of St Andrew, in Somerset Road, had a small gas plant installed. "The Scotch Church", as it was known, made its gas from whale oil, which not only gave a better light than coal gas, but was said not to need expensive purification processes. In 1844, the Cape of Good Hope Gas Light Company was established, under the chairmanship of Baron von Ludwig. The new works was located close to the seaward end of Long Street, and the foundation stone was laid with great ceremony by the Colonial Secretary, John Montagu, on the 6th October, 1845.
In the second half of the century the building of railways , the opening of diamond and gold mines in the interior, and all their manifold and far-reaching economic consequences added enormously to the commercial importance of Cape Town. The sleepy settlement awoke and began to grow as never before. A railway was completed to Stellenbosch and Wellington in 1863. The discovery of diamonds in Griqualand West a few years later demanded its extension to the distant diamond fields. In 1885 it had barely reached Kimberley when the Witwatersrand goldfields presented a still more distant goal. Within the next decade the opening of gold mines in Southern Rhodesia lured the railhead still farther northward. Cape Town was transformed within a generation from a roadstead on Table Bay, to one of the major ports serving a rapidly developing sub-continent.
During the mid 19th century, harbour
improvements were urgently needed. The port in Table Bay possessed
only four jetties, and recurrent wrecks in the bay were grim
reminders of its exposure to north-westerly gales. The storms of
1857 and 1865 accounted for 24 shipwrecks off the Cape coast. The
work was started in 1860 and was completed in 1870 when
Dock was inaugurated by Prince Alfred.
Completion of the Robinson
Graving Dock twelve years later equipped the
port to repair the largest vessels of the time, and the extension
of the harbour works to form the outer Victoria Basin
the end of the century endowed Table Bay with a commodious modern
harbour. The waterfront became increasingly cluttered with a
miscellaneous collection of skin-drying, wool-processing,
fish-smoking, soap making and boat-building establishments.
The History of the Cape Dutch Period
Cape Dutch Gable
The majority of the houses were built in the period 1750 to 1825. They are largely the product of three spells of prosperity, 1758-63, 1780-90 and 1796-1820, during which the burghers were enriched thanks to expenditure, by Dutch Company, foreign merchantman, or English Government, either to prepare for a trade war or to prosecute one.
But European influence was artistic as well as economic: it affected the style of houses, as well as the number that were built.
The end of the 18th century forms a clear-cut dividing line between two gable-styles.
The older style, perhaps Dutch in its origin, was a product of the Cape alone in its development. It reaches its zenith and abruptly, without any lengthy period of decadence intervening, is supplanted by a newer style, the neo-classical, whose hallmarks are European but in no way specifically Dutch.
The second quarter of the 19th century brought the decadence of the Cape Dutch style, but quickly suffered the same decline in taste which at that time settled like a blight upon the art of all Europe.
Cape Dutch Homesteads are undoubtedly less the product of a formal School of Architecture than are European houses of the same period. Before Louis Michel Thibault arrived in the 1780's, it is unlikely that a single professionally-trained architect ever practised in the Colony: many of the craftsmen were Malays, not Europeans: the materials employed were chosen because they were locally available and not because they were the most suitable.
European architecture of the 18th century was the outcome of centuries of hoarded tradition and inherited skill, in a large and organised community: Cape Dutch architecture was the product of a remote Colony, which, starting from nothing, for a century and a half grew too slowly in numbers and in wealth and too fast in area. In short, Cape Dutch architecture was what Cape History of the period made it.
Van Riebeeck landed in 16S2. He came to establish a small station at which ships of the United Dutch Chartered East Indian Company could obtain fresh vegetables - which, it was already known, relieved scurvy - and fill their waterbutts: fresh meat was to be obtained by barter with the Hottentots. VanRiebeeck himself expected to complete his task in a year or two, and then to move on, to the East and promotion. But the Hottentots refused to sell cattle, or stole back the beasts they had just bartered: the Company then changed its policy and encouraged grazing by free burghers. The primitive revictualing station thus changed into a Colony proper.
In the first-half-century of the Colony's existence, there was little building of consequence, other than for Government purposes - and, of this latter, none has survived except the Castle.
Groot Constantia, built in 1692, ungabled and of much more modest size than the present building, is the exception which proves this rule.
In 1692, the community was still tiny: the free burghers and their families numbered perhaps a thousand souls of all ages, of whom one sixth were Huguenots, recently arrived and penniless: of Company's men, officials and soldiers, there were about 300, and of slaves the same.
There were only 24 families settled between Groot Constantia and the Castle at the Cape.
The old folk could remember how nine of the Company's men, in two parties or colonies, had taken free papers only 35 years before and so become the first burghers, and how, there being no plough available for the second colony, special facilities were extended to its members, to compensate them for the fact that they would have to till with spades until a plough could be brought from Holland.
Each burgher had free licence to shoot one rhinoceros and one hippopotamus a year for his family's consumption. Lions killed cattle within sight of the Castle, and an elephant was killed on the Cape Flats as late as 1702. The Tygerberg was well named, for leopards abounded. Cattle-rustling was a constant danger, the descents of the Hottentot alternating with those of the Bushman, with his poisoned arrow. In such times, men built huts or even hovels, not homesteads.
By 1700, nearly all the timber within wagon-haul had been cut for fuel, including the yellowwood in the Hout Bay forest which Van Riebeeck had tried to protect as early as 1658.
Lime could be obtained by burning seashells from Robben Island. But the bricks, first made within two years of Van Riebeeck's arrival, weathered badly, and the red stone of the Steenberg was almost the only kind available which was not refractory.
Tiles might come from Batavia as ballast, and bricks and joinery be sent specially from Holland, if war threatened with the Castle unfinished. But the round-trip to Amsterdam took a year, and building materials were cargo of too low a value for a voyage on which scurvy might kill off a third of the crew, and leave the rest too weakened to furl sails on arrival.
In the first half of the I8th century, a change took place. The population increased with the arrival of the Huguenots - perhaps 200 in all. And in 1717 the Council of Policy, against a far-seeing minority of one, voted solidly for the import of slave labour.
Men married young, births were two and a half times as numerous as deaths, and Company's men increasingly took free papers after serving their time and so swelled the burgher community. By 1750, there were over 5000 colonists and 6000 slaves, besides 1500 Europeans in the Company's service.
The graziers had pushed the frontiers back, to beyond Tulbagh in the North and Swellendam in the East. Like nomads in search of new pastures, they expanded fast, for they were pushing into a vacuum.
None of them had yet set eyes on the Bantu hordes, who at the Zambesi in 1570 on their Southward migration, had by 1750 not yet reached the Fish River.
The Hottentots had been decimated by smallpox: and of the survivors, many had now attached themselves as camp-followers to the whites. Asiatic slaves were now supplemented by an organised trade in blacks from Madagascar and the Slave Coast.
Beasts of prey had been reduced: the high price of ivory had ensured the destruction of the elephant.
Two new churches, at Tulbagh and Malmesbury , were added to the existing three, at the Cape, Stellenbosch and Paarl.
In the inland district, separated from the Cape by the waste of shifting sand which stretched across the isthmus, homesteads were built, their groundplan differing in the Peninsula. These homesteads were still simple: their enlargement and their adornment with gables was to come in the second half of the century.
As late as 1800, the land was still untilled from Rondebosch to Faure.
In 1758, farming and trade at the Cape was based on the Company's right to satisfy its own requirements of farm produce at a very low rate, and the burgher's right to sell any surplus to passing ships of other nationalities at the highest price he could obtain.
French ships re-provisioning simultaneously at the Cape meant boom-time for the Cape farmer. The French were followed by the English, where after both sides continued to use the Cape till the peace of 1763. Prices doubled and trebled, of farm produce, slaves, houses.
By 1780, Holland was declining as a Maritime Power, and the Company rushing headlong towards bankruptcy.
Foreign ships at the Cape, paying the farmer's higher prices, outnumbered the Dutch three to one. A French purchasing agent, in permanent residence, bid prices up against his Danish rival.
From 1781 to 1783, there was a French garrison: prices skyrocketed again, and Cape Town had its first taste of Price Control. Money flowed in, and with it came European styles, and frivolity, and a little French Lieutenant of Engineers, named Thibault :
Cape Town was reputed a "little Paris", after the City of Fashion where he had once studied Architecture and dedicated a column to a King. Prosperity reigned, and extravagance with it: Capetonians plunged into debt, beautified their houses, imported furniture on credit.
Beyond the isthmus, the well-to-do farmer lived the easy life of a country gentleman: Africans were his labourers, Asiatics his masons, carpenters and coopers. His slave quarters were full: with the work of their inmates he enlarged them. His prices were high: he raised a gable and added a wing to his homestead.
The war ended, but not wartime prosperity. For the Company replaced the French garrison with one of its own, and kept it at full strength till 1790, as long as it could afford to.
To save its isolated empire from ruin in the late war, it had opened its trade to ships of all flags; it now set itself to regain the leeway thus lost to the French and the Danes. More than half the ships calling at the Cape were still foreign - French, English, Danish, American, Portuguese, Austrian, Spanish, Swedish, Prussian. Cosmopolitanism triumphed, but the end of Dutch Company rule was at hand.
It still had time to render one service to Cape Dutch architecture, to provide the noble woods necessary for furniture and joinery.
There were travelers' tales of forests far to the East, of trees of vast girth, as straight as a ship's mast and three times as high. Twice beforehand exploring parties missed the Forests of Knysna, in 1734 and 1752.
Colourful buildings at Bokaap
The first shipment of timber left for the Cape from Plettenberg Bay, named after the Governor. The year was 1788, and war was again in the air. The timber was destined for wagons and gun-carriages.
But yellowwood beams and door-panels, ceiling and floor-boards, were soon to follow, and stinkwood and ironwood for the Cape cabinet-makers.
By 1793, the Company owed 10 million Sterling and had defaulted on its loans. At the Cape, its annual income, from a colony of 30,000 people - over half of them slaves - and a few thousand Hottentots, was barely a quarter of its annual expenditure. An economy-axe had slashed the garrison, sold off public buildings, and produced a slump. The Company was dissolved; and when the Cape was handed back by the English in 1803, it was handed to the Dutch State, now re-christened Batavian Republic, and not to a Chartered Company.
Two years later, an English war-fleet started once again on a six months' voyage to the Cape. During these six months, an army assembled at Boulogne to invade a nation of shopkeepers: Trafalgar broke the back of the French Navy: thirty thousand Austrians laid down their arms at Ulm: Napoleon entered Vienna. In happy ignorance of these earth-shaking events, in January 1806, the English landed at Blasuwberg Strand. This time they had come to stay.
The Lodge de Goede Hoop and the Tulbagh Drostdy are the only buildings surviving intact which are known with certainty to be Thibault's. His Old Supreme Court has been much altered. Caledon Square Police Station is probably his, at least in part. But the following are attributed to him: - the Kat Balcony in the Castle, the Koopmans de Wet House, the Wine Cellar at Groot Constantia, Uitkyk, Vredenhof and the De Wet House at Tulbagh.
The Cape Dutch gables at Groot Constantia and at Nectar are also sometimes attributed to Thibault. But Cape Dutch is not the style that was natural to him: he was trained in the Paris of the last years of Louis XV and of the first of Louis XVI, and in a school the master of which, Gabriel, made his name with the twin classical facades which still stand on the North side of the Place de la Concorde.
Anton Anreith. A German from Freiburg-im-Breisgau, born in 1754, he came to the Cape as a soldier in 1777 and died here in 1822. A sculptor and woodcarver he was probably the best artist who ever worked at the Cape.
Thibault frequently worked in conjunction with him, and, in one of his designs for a public monument, even specified that Anreith alone at the Cape was capable of executing the sculptural work, and that, should Anreith not be available, that part of the design would have to be deleted.
His works, certain or attributed, include the pediments of Groot Constantia Wine Cellar, Caledon Square Police Station and the Old Supreme Court Building, the pulpits in the Lutheran Church and the Groote Kerk, Cape Town, the parapet of the Kat Balcony, the lions at the Castle Entrance, the lionesses at the S. A. College Gateway, a pediment at 131 Bree Street, Cape Town, and the woodcarving of the Normal College. To him is due the ornamental fanlight, typical of the Cape Town of his day. He also worked as an architect: the Lutheran Church, before taking its present form, had a facade designed by Anreith, and the Martin Melck house, next door to it, is often attributed to him.
Herman Schutte. German, born in Bremen in 1761, he came to the Cape as a soldier in 1790, was released from service in 1792, then worked as contractor and architect and died here in 1844.
He became Inspector of Town Buildings, and he built the early lighthouses . He designed and built the present Groote Kerk. As an architect, he probably made use of the sketches and designs of which he had received a number both from Thibault and Anreith, a collection dispersed by sale between his own death and that of his great-grandson in1912.
George Coenroad Kuchler . A German by birth, he was a military engineer in the Company's service, who rose to the rank of Major and commanded the Artillery in the short campaign of 1795: in 1804 he was put in charge of the Military Workshops.
He often worked in an official capacity with Thibault, and with the latter signed the Inventory of Buildings, Fortifications and Estates handed over to the English in 1795. When Thibault's plans for Paarl Church were rejected, Kuchler was called upon: the present Church, to his designs, was completed in 1805. On the second English occupation, he preferred repatriation and sailed for Europe in November 1806. His wife stayed behind on a property he had bought in Paarl, and died here.
Johan Jacob Groaf. A German, he was born at Riedlingen on the Danube in 1754.
Reaching the Cape in 1775, he was by 1778 master-carpenter, in charge of House Carpentry for the Dutch Company: he died in 1804. He executed the pulpit in the Groote Kerk - and quite probably other important works - to the design of Anreith.
German architecture at Swakopmund
Among the original grantees or settlers, there are many French names at Groot Drakenstein and further North, as would be expected once the Huguenot influx had taken place: but the high proportion of German names may be surprising; the reason for this apparent disproportion, as against the number of Dutch names is, in part, the growth of Cape Town: the earliest settlers were largely Dutch and the earliest grants those nearest to the Castle, either towards the Peninsula or towards the Tygerberg, and many of the homesteads built here have disappeared in recent years, as the city and its satellite towns have grown.
But, apart from this, the fact is that there was a constant trickle of German immigration, throughout the 18th century, in the form of Germans who took service with the Dutch Company, generally as soldiers.
A united Germany did not exist: the feeling of nationality throughout all Europe was not then strong; and Dutch language - belonging to the Nederduits group or Low German as opposed to High German - and culture extended into the German principalities that lay to the East of the Dutch border.
The German of high or low estate, who made his way to Amsterdam to enter the Dutch Company's service was so common a phenomenon that there existed at Amsterdam a class of persons known as sellers of souls ", who made their livelihood out of this traffic - and out of the convenient fact that the German recruit did not come on to the military payroll, until his ship outward bound had passed a certain mark anchored in the Texel by advancing the German the money for his keep while he awaited his ship, and obtaining reimbursement, with a handsome profit, direct from the Company after the ship had sailed. The Company then recouped the amount by deductions from the soldier's pay at the Cape.
These deductions, added to the cost of uniform and bed, both of which the soldier had to buy for himself, left the man with next to nothing for his five years' service at the Cape 33 gulden or £3, in an estimate made by one such man - or would have done so, but for the practice of hiring soldiers out.
Sometimes the man had arrived as a soldier-craftsman, when he was hired out internally, practising his craft for the Company itself, or for its leading officials: Anreith is an outstanding example of this kind of soldier.
But much more usually the man was hired out to free burghers, either as a tutor or as a farm overseer or farm-hand.
This practice suited the Company, which thereby effected a saving on the cost of the garrison; and it suited the farmers who, in remoter parts of the country, had no other means of educating their children.
And it also suited farmers' widows, who frequently married soldiers thus hired out - and not infrequently hired them out with a view to marriage: life for a widow on a farm worked by slaves was not easy.
But for hiring out, many a German would have returned to his Fatherland at the end of his five years' service, nearly as penniless as he had arrived. Thanks to hiring out, many took free papers, and stayed on permanently.
This was the source of a small but steady stream of German immigration.
Cape Dutch Houses and Farms by C De Bosdari, published by AA Balkema - 1971