Historic buildings can tell you a lot about a place, giving clues to its past and present. I was reminded of this as I walked around Swellendam, the third oldest town in South Africa. The town is home to more than 50 heritage buildings, many of them in the Cape Dutch style, and each with its own story to tell.
The Cape Dutch Architecture of Swellendam
Swellendam has a long history. First settled by Europeans in 1745, it briefly declared itself a republic in 1795 but was soon reabsorbed into the newly founded British colony. It is the Dutch influence that is predominant here: many of the buildings are in the Cape Dutch style, often thatched with whitewashed walls, but almost always with the distinctive gable ends. Despite the name (and the gables which will be familiar to anyone who has visited Amsterdam), Cape Dutch architecture draws its inspiration from a mixture of European and Asian styles, reflecting the mixed heritage of Swellendam and South Africa.
Exploring the town felt a little like being in a living museum, with historical houses on every corner. Many were built at the height of Swellendam’s prosperity in the 19th century, but a few remain from the time the town was first founded in the 18th century. Some are still lived in; others have been coverted to offices or restaurants. Then there is the Dutch Reformed Church, built in 1911, with its splendid mix of architectural features: it is (of course) whitewashed with ornate gables, but also features Gothic, Baroque and other elements.
The Drostdy Complex
The best place to explore the town’s history is the Drostdy Museum, a group of several historical buildings. These include Swellendam’s oldest buildings, the Drodsty (magistrate’s residence) and the old jail, both dating from 1747 and now full of historical information and artefacts. The complex also incorporates Mayville (home to a prosperous 19th century family) and the Zanddrift (an old farmhouse that was moved to its present location). When you’ve finished exploring the Drostdy you can stop for a drink and a snack at the Old Gaol Restaurant.
But Swellendam was more than just a home to the bourgeousie. The emerging colony had to become self sufficient and many skilled craftsmen were brought to South Africa. The Ambagswerf (“trades yard”) behind the old jail house, is full of reconstructed artisans’ workshops, together with a watermill and a charcoal kiln. Swellendam may appear quiet and sleepy today but visiting the Ambagswerf I could almost hear the sounds of its former industry.
Recent History of Swellendam
No matter how old the town and its buildings, history never stops. I thought about this as I walked through the Drostdy, past a room full of old books and towards the Mandela room. The room is full of information about the late president and was opened by Nelson Mandela himself, bringing history right up to date.
And in 2011 Swellendam declared itself a republic once more. Not in the political sense, but as a tribute to the new South Africa, a celebration of racial harmony and of a sustainable way of living. Hopefully this “republic” will be longer lived than the last one.
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