Formally established in 1652 by Dutch settlers who sought to establish a victualling station to service and re-provision spice-trading sailing ships on the long sea route to the east, The Company Gardens were superimposed on a landscape that was occupied occasionally by indigenous hunter gatherers. Originally only modified by pastoralists who used the area in the standard migratory agricultural pattern of the time, this halfway-house was the foundation stone of the Western colonisation of southern Africa.
Cape Town’s earliest records show that the Garden was originally divided into rectangular fields protected by high trimmed myrtle windbreaks, and watered via a system of open irrigation furrows fed by the area’s numerous mountain streams. The design was typical Dutch agricultural practice of the time, apart from the furrows, which had been adapted to suit the region’s topography and weather.
Typical of the Dutch landscape style were formal walkways lined with avenues of Oak trees and clipped hedges which were crossed at right angles by smaller paths. Two such examples still exist : Government Avenue, which is the traditional public promenade through the garden precinct, as well as the main axial walkway through the ‘old garden’ itself. These long straight walkways lead the eye to distant vistas – which may be prominent buildings or natural views. Government Avenue, for example leads the eye to views of Table Mountain and makes it part of a ‘borrowed landscape’. The Dutch Baroque landscape style also included rectangular plant-beds grouped into fours with corners cut away at central focal points. Parterre gardens were prominent and today these still exist at the old Governor’s residence, Tuynhuis, which has become the modern President’s Cape Town residence. This is situated about halfway along Government Avenue, and itself forms a vista from the garden. These elements were typical of the Baroque-era garden style and the Company’s Garden reflected this influence with the combination of the ordered style of the Dutch Kitchen Garden and the “flamboyant expression of grandeur and power of the officials of the Dutch East India Company” who were largely inspired by contemporary landscape influences in Europe at the time, the epitome of which was the Palace Garden at Versailles.
The 17th century Cape Town grew significantly, fueled in no small part by its role in supplying ships engaged in foreign wars. The Garden expanded accordingly, and became famous for its plants, which were increasingly exported. In 1795, a new gateway and guardhouse, designed by Louis Thibault, was built. However, at the turn of the 18th century the Dutch East India Company, until then responsible for the Garden’s upkeep, became bankrupt and by 1795, the Garden was in ruin.
The British occupied the Cape the same year to forestall any French interest in the strategic sea route to India and elsewhere. The new owners invested little money or interest in the garden and it deteriorated further. Instead, they sourced fresh vegetables from outlying areas, shut the Garden’s horticultural function down and closed it to the public, leaving only the public walkway, the Avenue, open. During the brief Dutch Batavian Republic administration (1803-1806), the garden was revived, and the central Government Avenue was extended and connected through to Orange Street. The walk thus became the public thoroughfare as we know it, greatly enhancing the pedestrian link between town and the market garden of Oranjezicht.
When the British returned, portions of the Garden were used to build important institutional buildings, and the Gardens themselves were again given to the Governor for his use. In 1848 a portion of the Gardens was released as a public open space, under the control of a panel of citizens, funded by subscription monies, the sale of plants and public entry fees. The Tuynhuis side remained for the Governor’s use.
In 1892, the Municipality took over the Public Garden, and in 1898, incorporated the Avenue and the Paddocks into it. For the first time the garden was open to all as a right and not a courtesy.
The public section of the garden has been enjoyed by visitors for the sheer beauty of its flora and the allure of its historic setting since it was proclaimed for public use in 1848. It is abutted by numerous important landmarks, including the lodge house for the slaves who built large parts of the historic city, the present day Houses of Parliament, the Iziko SA Museum and Planetarium, St George’s Cathedral (which is the seat of the Anglican church in SA), the National Library of SA, the SA National Gallery, the Great Synagogue and Holocaust Centre and Tuynhuys, which is used by the President on State occasions. Other attractions include: