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The Rise and Fall of the Swellendam Republic

Ja, Adam Tas het as individu hom verset teen die Kompanjie en deur sy optrede die einde van die Van der Stels aan die Kaap verhaas, maar dit was die burgers van Graaff-Reinet en Swellendam wat in 1795 die eerste keer hier te lande ‘n georganiseerde politieke protesaksie teen die owerheid van die dag geloods het. Jare lank, so verneem ek vandag, het Swellendammers hierdie opstand teen die destydse politieke orde gevier met ‘n gedenklesing en -maal. Kan ons nie weer hierdie tradisie terugbring nie? Kompleet met kommandant Petrus Delport wat landdros Anthonie Faure by die Drosdy se voordeur uitgooi. (Verkieslik voor die ete, want soos julle op die spyskaart kan sien, is daar ook uitgebreid gedrink by die gedenkmaal.)

“Daarmee hebben de Swellendamse Patriotten uiteindelijk het gezag van de Compagnie afgeschud en is de oude orde voorbijgegaan.”

Eduan Swanepoel Bokmakiri Books

Ja, Adam Tas as an individual opposed the Company and through his actions hastened the end of the Van der Stels at the Cape, but it was the citizens of Graaff-Reinet and Swellendam who landed here in 1795 for the first time. organized political protest action against the authorities of the day. For many years, I understand today, Swellendammers celebrated this revolt against the political order of the time with a memorial lecture and meal. Can we not bring back this tradition? Complete with Commandant Petrus Delport throwing out Magistrate Anthonie Faure at the Drosdy’s front door. (Preferably before the meal, because as you can see on the menu, there was also extensive drinking at the memorial.)

“With that, the Swellendam Patriots have finally shaken off the authority of the Company and the old order has been bypassed.”

Eduan Swanepoel Bokmakiri Books ‘

SO… what happened in 1795?

Early travellers and explorers who visited the Cape in the 16th century traded with the original inhabitants, the Khoe people, trading inland as far as Swellendam. Rather than continuing on the Great Trek into the interior, many of the colonists – artisans such as wainwrights and traders settled and established a village in the area. This outlying settlement soon became a gateway to the interior and the services of the residents were of great importance.

In 1745 Swellendam was declared a magisterial district – only the third one in South Africa. Its name comes from Hendrik Swellengrebel, the first South African born Governor, and his wife, Helena Ten Damme and has nothing to do with dams, despite popular interpretation!

Hendrik Swellengrebel

The Dutch East India Company (DEIC) ruled the Cape and had outposts, commandos, and magistrates in various places. They agreed to buy the farmers grain at a fixed price for fifteen years. When the DEIC introduced toll gates and taxes, farmers struggled, and to increase their distress, the DEIC grain stores were closed to farmers.

A Republic is Born

By 1795 the incompetency and poor management of the Dutch East India Company caused the long-suffering burghers of Swellendam to revolt, and on 17 June 1795, while the court at Swellendam was in session, nine armed men appeared and ordered the heemraad (council) to leave the Drostdy court building. Officials were dismissed and DEIC rule rejected. At this point, legend has it, the burghers declared Swellendam to be a Republic. (It is also alleged that they declared Swellendam to be the capital of the world!)

Hermanus Steyn was appointed as President of the ‘Republic of Swellendam’. The burghers of Swellendam started to call themselves “national burghers” – after the style of the French Revolution.

However, the Republic was short-lived, as there was a desperate call for support against the British who had arrived in Cape Town. Initially the Swellendam “Nationals’ declined to send troops in the defence of the colony, but eventually capitulated and in July they sent 168 mounted Burghers as reinforcements. On September 14 a force of nearly 5000 British troops advanced on CapeTown from Muizenburg. A handful of Burghers harassed the line of march, and a body of Swellendam”Nationals”showed conspicuous bravery.

You can read more from the original source material here

It was however, an uneven fight which ended on 4 November 1795 when the British occupied the Cape.

British rulers tried everything to appease the Swellendam people. No more taxes were imposed and after a short 4½ months the Swellendam Republic was ended. It took quite a while until peace reigned in the Swellendam district. The two leaders of the revolt, Delport and Pisani were arrested and deported to Holland.

With the arrival of British settlers the Overberg boomed, and Swellendam was soon the heart of the mercantile empire of Barry and Nephews, created by Joseph Barry, which dominated trade in the area up until 1870. Ships sailed 35 km up the Breede River to Malgas to unload and load merchandise.

By the middle of the 19th century, the eastern districts had been colonised by the British settlers and Swellendam was a thriving metropolis. The town continued to serve as a useful refreshment station on the long, slow journey up the coast.

Today Swellendam is a flourishing agricultural area, and has many attractive and historic buildings which serve as a reminder of its past. Today the Drostdy forms part of a museum complex that consist of several heritage sites, namely the Drostdy, the old Gaol, and Mayville.

In June 2011, the Swellendam Municipality area, which includes Barrydale, Bufflejagsrivier, Suurbraak, Malgas, Infanta, and Stormsvlei, under the auspices of Swellendam Tourism, re-declared itself a Republic. This republic was dedicated to the principles of the New South Africa, and celebrated rural life, racial harmony, respect for nature and wildlife, and aimed to promote sustainability and an “unplugged” way of life for all to enjoy. These principles play an important part in the lives of many in the area today.

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