A Rich Heritage: The Cape Dutch Buildings of Swellendam, South Africa

Auld House, Swellendam
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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.  

Auld House, Swellendam
The Auld House has associations with the Barry family, a prominent family in Swellendam’s history

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.  

Mayville House, Swellendam
The 19th century Mayville House, now part of the Drostdy Museum

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.  

Dutch Reform Church, Swellendam
The Dutch Reformed Church is an eclectic mix of styles

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.  

Drostdy, Swellendam
The Drostdy, or former magistrate’s residence, was started in 1747

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.  

Workshop at Ambagswerf, Swellendam
Artisans’ houses have been reconstructed in the Ambagswerf

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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12 thoughts on “A Rich Heritage: The Cape Dutch Buildings of Swellendam, South Africa”

  1. Having seen the Dutch architecture on the the island country of Curacao I was intrigued by your post of the Dutch influence architecture in South Africa. The whitewashed homes are beautiful as well as the church, especially when contrasted against the lush green lawns. I'd love to visit South Africa and the charming "republic" city of Swellendam.

  2. I immediately thought of Anita's posts on Curacao when I saw your first photo. The design elements are so distinctly Dutch Colonial, even though the locations are on opposite sides of the Atlantic from each other. Beautiful!

  3. We visited Stellenbosch on a day trip from Cape Town, but not Swellendam, when we were traveling in South Africa last October. Stellenbosch bills itself as South Africa's second oldest town and also provides the opportunity to visit restored houses from different eras in the town's history. As you observed, South Africa's "history" is very much a work in progress. With 13 official languages and the diversity that represents, I hope they can maintain their union.

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Karen Warren

WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…


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