While there is archaeological evidence of the presence of Early and Middle Stone Age people in the Dwarsriver and Groot Drakenstein Valleys, it is the Late Stone Age people from thousands of years ago who are linked to the Bushmen, who lived in the valley well into the colonial times. The first land was allocated to the Dutch Free Burgher (Vryburger) settlers in 1687. After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and the arrival in the Cape of the first French Huguenots, significant change began to occur in the landscape as the Huguenots were granted land interspersed with the Vryburgers. Since they were disallowed from teaching it at school, within forty years few residents in the valley still spoke French.
Slavery at the Cape had been introduced shortly after the establishment of the Dutch Settlement at the Cape in 1652. Initially few farmers in the Drakenstein area had slaves, but the demand increased and eventually this region had the greatest proportion of slaves at the Cape. Slaves were highly valued – the most sought-after being artisans (masons, carpenters and wheelwrights). Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1807, yet slaves were only finally emancipated at the Cape in 1834. They were however required to do a four year ‘apprenticeship’ with their former masters before being set free. Many ex-slaves gravitated to the mission stations in the area where they could obtain schooling and learn trades.
Pniël traces its history back to 1842 when 2 local farmers of Huguenot descent, Pieter Isaac de Villiers and Paul Retief, donated land to the recently freed slaves of the Groot Drakenstein area with the intention that they should use it to build a self-supporting mission station. This first piece of land (42ha) was part of the farm De Goede Hoop. Shortly after the 2 farmers also bought the neighbouring farm Papiermolen and incorporated it into the settlement. The land was subdivided into 99 erven on which the former slaves could build houses and start vegetable and fruit gardens. In order to further assist the community the farmers of the area in 1843 created the nondenominational Apostolic Trust to fund the building of a church and school for the community.
The history of the Dwarsrivier valley is closely associated with Cecil John Rhodes who after having resigned as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony – in the wake of the failed Jameson Raid – turned to fruit farming at the Cape. In consultation with Harry Pickstone, Rhodes decided to buy old wine farms in the Groot Drakenstein area. From 1897 numerous farms – struggling to cope with the phyloxera virus that attacked the root of the vines – were bought. Rhodes ripped out the vines and started fruit farming in the area – he was apparently the first to send fruit by way of refrigerated ‘shipping’ to Covent Garden. Recently, the valley has come full circle in that many of the farms in the valley are now re-embracing wine-farming as their business instead of fruit.
In 1898 Rhodes, aware of the vital need to attract and retain labour in the face of immense labour demand from the gold and diamond mining industries, commissioned the eminent architect Sir Herbert Baker to design an orderly village for the farm workers. In addition to the traditional English style St Guiles Church over 100 houses, a school and a house for the pastor were built. The result was the village of Lanquedoc, which today still stands under its long avenue of oaks. Each cottage included half a morgen of garden for flowers and vegetables and the keeping of two horses, two cows and pigs. A hundred morgen of commonage was also provided for grazing of the livestock. The houses built were well proportioned yet functional, reflecting Baker’s combined interests in Cape Dutch architecture and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Many other buildings in the Dwars River Valley were also designed by Herbert Baker – including additions to the homestead on Lekkerwijn.
During the Anglo-Boer War Rhodes persuaded Alfred Beit and De Beers to become shareholders in his farming venture. As Rhodes’ health deteriorated he moved to his cottage in Muizenberg. In February 1902, as Rhodes was dying, a new company – Rhodes Fruit Farms Ltd – was born. Harry Pickstone became Resident Director and Technical Advisor of the company for its first few years of existence. Also in 1902, construction was completed on Rhodes Cottage. The cottage was built (at Rhodes’ instruction) exactly one mile from the Boschendal Manor House, at the foot of the Simonsberg Mountain. There is some doubt as to whether Rhodes ever spent anytime in Rhodes Cottage but there is a romantic tale that says he spent one night there.
In time a number of other settlements, besides Pniël and Languedoc, grew in the valley. Johannesdal and Kylemore were both formed after groups of Pniël inhabitants bought land outside of Pniël. Meerlust village owes its existence to the activities of the former forestry industry in the area. Today these settlements, as well as Franschhoek, all form part of Stellenbosch Municipality.
The Dwarsrivier valley is abundantly blessed by nature, rich in culture and heritage and just waiting for you to visit.