Hendrik Swellengrebel (September 20, 1700-December 26, 1760), the only governor of the Cape of Good Hope to have been born at the Cape in the entire colonial period, was a conscientious and efficient administrator during years of internal expansion and international tension.
The eldest son of Johannes Swellengrebel (1671-1744), a Cape official who later became a free burgher, he joined the Dutch East India Company as an assistant clerk in 1713 and rose to be deputy governor with the rank of senior merchant in 1737. He succeeded to the governorship on April 14, 1739 and five years later was appointed a Councilor Extraordinary of India.
Soon after taking office Swellengrebel crushed a revolt of White farmers led by a former army sergeant, Estienne Barbier, against the alleged conciliatory policy of the government towards the Khoi Khoi. Punitive campaigns were also launched to deter the Khoi Khoi from raiding white farms, thus inviting retaliation, and in the interests of peace on the frontier, the regulations prohibiting barter between colonists and Khoi Khoi were strictly enforced. The pioneer missionary work among the Khoi Khoi, begun by the Moravian Brother Georg Schmidt in 1737, was continued with Swellengrebel’s blessing, but opposition on theological grounds by the Dutch Reformed Church caused Schmidt to abandon his mission in 1744. The hostility of the Dutch Reformed Church was also largely responsible for the failure of the Lutherans to found their own church at the Cape in 1742.
The ceaseless movement of farmers into the interior led to fears of increasing lawlessness and a decline in civilized standards. After the visit of the commissioner general Gustaaf Willem van Imhoff in 1743, new Dutch Reformed Church congregations were established at Roodezand and Swartland, and in 1745 an additional magisterial district was proclaimed, named Swellendam in 1747 after the govemor and his first wife, Helena Wilhelmina ten Damme. An attempt to tie farmers more closely to their lands by the reintroduction in 1743 of a measure of freehold ownership, discontinued since 1717, did little to curb expansion.
The Anglo- French struggle of 1744-48, in which the Netherlands supported Britain, increased Swellengrebel’s responsibilities. His thorough preparations to meet any possible French attack involved all sections of the population and in 1748 he supervised the training and equipping of Boscawen’s Anglo-Dutch force, including a Cape contingent, for a projected assault on Mauritius.
Swellengrebel resigned on February 27, 1751, sailing for the Netherlands on March 2. He spent his last years in Utrecht, where he remarried.
R. Elphick and H. Giliomee, eds., The shaping of South African society, 1652-1820, Cape Town and London, 1979; A. Hallema, “Een vergeten Kaapsche gouverneur, Hendrik Swellengrebel,” De Indische Gids, 1932; Dictionary of South African Biography, II, Cape Town and Johannesburg, 1972; C.F. J. Muller, ed., Five hundred years: a history of South Africa rev. ed., Pretoria, 1977; P.E. Roux, Die verdedigingstelsel aan die Kaap onder die Hollands-Oosindiese Komparyie (l652-1795), Stellenbosch, 1925; G.A. le Rous, “Europese oorloe en die Kaap (16521795),” unp. M.A. thesis, Univ. of Stellenbosch, 1941.
This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (In 20 Volumes). Volume Three: South Africa- Botswana-Lesotho-Swaziland. Ed. Keith Irvine. Algonac, Michigan: Reference Publications Inc., 1995. All rights reserved.