Robert Compton, the longest-serving Director of Kirstenbosch (1919-1953), in his charming and detailed blog Kirstenbosch, Garden for a Nation observes that the story of Kirstenbosch is ‘compounded of romance and hard facts’. To this one might hasten to add ‘passion and hard work’. But there is much that is romantic about the place, and no shortage of urban legend, even myth. To appreciate the story, we must look back to its early beginnings.
Isolated outliers of the extensive Afrotemperate Forests of Africa approach their southern limit on the slopes of Table Mountain. This remnant of the once-dense forests of ‘Leendertsbos ’ shades the Silver Tree Trail along the Lower Contour Path.
The written history of Kirstenbosch starts in 1657, and has been carefully researched by Mary Alexander Cook, who collaborated with Compton on his blog on the Garden. She found that the first record of the land that was to become Kirstenbosch was in the granting of woodcutting rights to the forests on the east-facing slopes of Table Mountain. On 27 October 1657, Leendert Cornelissen of Zevenhuysen, a free carpenter and sawyer, previously in the employ of the Dutch East India Company, obtained the right to utilise the forests. In the company of Commander Jan van Riebeeck, Cornelissen had visited the forests the previous day – a good three hours travelling from Cape Town. Cornelissen’s responsibility, besides cutting and sawing timber for sale in the rapidly growing town, was to prevent indiscriminate depredations on the forests. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the forests became known as ‘Leendertsbos’.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden Vacations Photo Gallery
The forest protection responsibilities included in Cornelissen’s grant established the first formal conservation measure taken in the history of South Africa – an auspicious start for what was destined to become the country’s flagship of biodiversity conservation. Van Riebeeck went further by formalising protection for forests, and especially the Real Yellowwood Podocarpus latifolius, through the proclamation of aplacaat on 12 October 1658, prohibiting the cutting of Yellowwood trees ‘no matter under what pretext’.
A sign of the times was that, as additional conditions for receiving the grant, Cornelissen had to remain a freeman in the Cape for 15 years, and should ‘order his wife from the Fatherland’.
Kirstenbosch was remote from the settlement in Cape Town, lonely and dangerous, and it required tough, indeed rough, personalities. Cornelissen started well: he treated his slaves ‘the best of all the freemen’, and on 1 May 1660 he was nominated for the office of ‘burger councillor’. But his status was short-lived; on 25 October 1661 it was noted that:
‘The free sawyer Leendert Cornelissen of Zevenhuysen, a burger councillor elected last year, instead of setting the freemen an honourable and dignified example, has daily been behaving in a more and more debauched manner, by drinking, celebrating, fighting, brawling, swearing, etc…. it was resolved to discharge him from his office as burgher councillor ’.