These trees are a remnant of the hedge planted in 1660 by Jan van Riebeeck as a boundary to the newly established settlement at the Cape. Jan van Riebeeck, an employee of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), arrived at the Cape in 1652, to set up a refreshment station for passing ships. The settlement lay in the path of traditional Khoikhoi grazing routes and open conflict between them broke out during 1659-60.
Jan van Riebeeck decided to create a defensive barrier along the eastern boundary of the settlement that would also prevent the Khoikhoi from raiding their livestock. In 1659 they started building a wooden fence, with watch towers, from the mouth of the Salt River, through Rondebosch to Kirstenbosch, using the deeper parts of the Liesbeeck River as part of the barrier. To finish the barrier quickly, a hedge of indigenous wild almond trees (Brabejum stellatifolium) and thorny shrubs was planted along the section between the river and Kirstenbosch. Van Riebeeck left the Cape in 1662 when he was promoted to the Council of Justice in Batavia. Read more about the early days of Kirstenbosch on the History page.
For many, this hedge marks the first step on the road to Apartheid and symbolises how white South Africa cut itself off from the rest of Africa, dispossessed the indigenous people and kept the best of the resources for itself. Our challenge in South Africa today is to dismantle the barriers erected in the past, share the resources equally and build a home for all.
The trees of the hedge are Brabejum stellatifolium, the wild almond, characterized by their enormous intertwined branches and a tendency to grow horizontally as much as vertically. The wild almond is a member of the Protea Family, most closely related to the Australian genus Macadamia, the Macadamia nut. Wild almond nuts contain cyanide and are poisonous unless specially treated by soaking and roasting, a technique discovered by the Khoisan people who used to eat them.
Go to our plant information website to find out more about Brabejum stellatifolium.
Last updated on 30 November 2011
van Riebeeck’s Hedge
|“In Cape Town’s Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens are the remains of a hedge of bitter almonds, planted by Jan van Riebeeck in February 1660 to protect the settlement, the grain farms and the forests from the Khoikhoi, who inhabited the area when the Dutch arrived. Planted in a half moon and punctuated by watch-towers, it effectively isolated the settlers from the African continent. The bitter-almond hedge grew into the apartheid divisions that ran through every aspect of life in South Africa, and that invaded the psyche of the nation”
(Martin, 1996: 3)
“In many ways that hedge still exists today, both physically and metaphorically. Almost 300 years later, the architects of apartheid continued Van Riebeeck’s act of separation by legislating the “hedge” into existence through the Group Areas Act.”
Map of the Cape Colony ca 1660 (Böeseken, 1948: 52)
This barrier cut off the indigenous Khoikhoi from the grazing land they traditionally used. van Riebeeck recorded an encounter where the Khoikhoi confronted him about land rights and asked him “Who should rather in justice give way, the rightful owner or the foreign intruder?” (Thom 1954 Vol.II: 95-96). In response to this demand to withdraw, van Riebeeck said that the territory had been won in battle and now belonged to the VOC. The Khoikhoi then asked for at least the right to collect “veldkos” (bush food), specifically wild almonds (Brabejum stellatifolium) from their traditional lands. Van Riebeeck denied this request as well. He needed the very same wild almond plants to form his barrier hedge to keep the Khoikhoi out (Goodwin 1952).
Efforts to protect the hedge began as soon as it was planted. Van Riebeeck even issued a Plakaat (a posted law) forbidding everyone “not only from making passage through … the said hedge, but not even to break off from it the smallest twig, no matter what the reason is supposed to be, on pain of being banished in chains for 3 years” (van Zyl 1908: 16). Today, there are only two surviving portions of van Riebeeck’s hedge, the Kirstenbosch section and another in Bishops Court. The declaration of the Kirstenbosch portion of the hedge as a National Monument was made in Government Notice No. 529 of 6 April 1936. The Bishops Court portion of the hedge on Wynberg Hill was declared as a national monument in 1945.
The Bishops Court portions of the hedge can be best experienced by completing the “View from the Top” cache (GC211PM). That cache is also hidden amongst the branches of the hedge, and you walk along it on your way to gz. Photos and a bit more information can be found here
The complexity of acknowledging and preserving much of South Africa’s heritage can be illustrated in the mixed reaction to this plant and what it represents. This hedge can be seen to represent the colonial legacy of domination, separation and exclusion. It could also represent a legacy of determined settlers who planned on staying. The difference between this hedge and the wall that used to barricade the colonists from the Native Americans on the island of Manhattan (now Wall St.) is not in the barrier itself, but in what came after.
In 2001, the plaque commemorating the Bishops Court portion of the hedge was vandalized. The South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) removed it and asked for public opinion on if a new plaque should be made, and what it should say. The following (rather long) quote sums up the task ahead for all of us (and I include geocachers) concerned with the importance of public places and their significance.
“As much as statues and plaques bear the brunt of people’s anger, precisely because they are tangible markers of national heritage, the simple act of removing them does not erase history from people’s memories, from their lives, or from the city spaces they share. The past persists in spaces, in words, and in the intersection of the two. While any combination of cities and words may be available for use, we cannot simply organize cities and words into just any combination. We are bound to work with, and even work through, the city spaces and rhetorical practices into which our lives are thrown. Recognition that rebuilding Cape Town as a post-apartheid city demands the past not get erased or become forgotten, that Cape Town residents are bound to work through the spaces and practices into which they are thrown, was captured in questions asked of visitors to the 2002 exhibition on Riebeeck’s legacy, “Do you think that SAHRA should replace the plaque? If so, what words would you inscribe on a new plaque?”
The question of choosing the right words to mark the hedge challenges the people of Cape Town to recall what many would probably just as soon forget, but what they cannot forget. But it is not only that. It is also the challenge of having to put into words what they know all too well in their hearts and minds about the racial geographies of colonialism and apartheid. Their challenge is finding words to do more than remember, to do more than describe the landscape, to do more than pass judgment on the boundaries of Dutch colonialism. The question of choosing words to inscribe a new plaque invokes the broader question of truth and reconciliation faced by South Africans since the end of apartheid rule. Truth and reconciliation require reinterpretation of the separation of self and other across boundaries of difference built into the landscape, memorialized in monuments, and expressed in words.”
(Marback 2004: 257-258)
Maybe, if you are so inspired, you can share your thoughts as to how best to commemorate or acknowledge this important plant, or other aspects of South African heritage, in your logs.
For information on all aspects of Kirstenbosch, click here.
The Garden is open 365 days a year from 08:00 – 19:00 (September -March) and from 08:00 – 18:00 (April – August). The entrance fee is R35 for adults and R20 for South African students with student ID cards. Fees for school children (6-18 years old) are R10. Children under 6 years old and Botanical Society members have free entry. SA senior citizens have free entry on Tuesdays, if it is not a public holiday.
Böeseken, A.J., 1948. Geskiedenis-atlas vir Suid-Afrika Kaapstad,: Nasional pers
On the other hand, the indigenous population on whose land van Riebeeck was to carry out the refreshment station project, the Khoikhoi and the San, lived a semi-nomadic culture, which included hunting and gathering. Since they did not have a written culture, they had neither written title deeds for their land, nor did they have the bureaucratic framework within which to negotiate the sale or renting of land with strangers from a culture with written records supported by a bureaucratic system of governance. Hence Van Riebeeck, coming as he did from a bureaucratic culture with a unilateral, albeit written, mandate to establish a refreshment station, refused to acknowledge that land ownership could be organised in ways different from the Dutch/European way. He denied the Khoisan right and title to the land, claiming that there was no written evidence of the true ownership of the land. Consequently within three years of his attempt at establishing a refreshment station on the land of the Khoikhoi and San, the Khoikhoi embark on the first of an unsuccessful series of armed resistance against the Dutch invasion and appropriation of their land that was to continue for at least one hundred and fifty years.
The Dutch colonial administrators documented this history of colonisation in reports, memoranda, maps and correspondence and other forms of records in their archives in Cape Town and in the Netherlands. The indigenous people recorded this history in their various oral forms of history. As far as the colonists were concerned, their claims to the land had more validity than those of the Khoikhoi since they had written proof of ownership in the form of title deeds, reports of battles and peace agreements and settlements, land grants and birth certificates. Orality became powerless against the written record.
In a sense the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in April 1652 was the irreversible beginning of the end of indigenous cultures, of their ways of organising society and of knowing. Far from merely establishing a refreshment station, Van Riebeeck opened up the floodgates for the total colonisation of independent political entities and free people. Hence a question for students of history around commemorating the arrival of Europeans is: what role can the study, writing and oral recording of history play in coming to terms with the legacy of colonisation?