Well over two centuries ago a Dutch explorer stood on a Karoo koppie near the Swartberg Mountains and painted a tranquil farming scene in the valley below. As he concentrated on details of the farm, Qweekvallei, which he was painting, little could he have imagined that in time this koppie would be named in his honour. The farm belonged to Zacharias, one of the De Beer Brothers who had moved into the valley and were doing quite well for themselves there. Almost a century later a town sprang up on this farm and in time the people of this village, Prince Albert, commemorated Robert Jacob Gordon, the long-gone artist, naturalist, soldier and explorer, by naming the koppie in his honour. In 1999, a small granite slab was placed at the site where he stood, near the town’s now popular Koppie Trail and Patrick Cullinan, whose book, Robert Jacob Gordon, the Man and his Travels at the Cape, came to Prince Albert to unveil this memorial. Patrick’s book won the 1993 Cape Town Historical Society Award and from his vast research into the life of Robert Gordon he was able to deliver a fascinating talk on the vital role which he played in recording the history, fauna and flora of the Cape and Karoo.
Many consider Robert Jacob Gordon to have been the most important 18th century travellerexplorer in South Africa. Yet oddly enough he is possibly the least heralded among the early explorers. Gordon was a Dutchman of Scots descent. His father, Maj. General Jacob Gordon was serving with The Scots Brigade in the Netherlands when he met and married a Dutch woman in Gelderland. She gave birth to Robert Jacob in Doesburg, Gelderland, on September 29, 1743. Robert must have loved his mother dearly because he grew up with a strong allegiance to the Netherlands. At the age of 10 he joined the Dutch Light Dragoons as a cadet; he was 16 when he enrolled at the University of Harderwijk in 1759 to study the humanities. He later also served with his father’s regiment, The Scots Brigade and later still joined the Dutch East India Company in whose service he rose to the rank of colonel and in 1780, at the age of 37, was sent to the Cape to take command of the garrison. He and his Swiss wife, Susanna Nicolet, the Marachioness of Stafford, set up home in a house called Schoondersigt.
Gordon went on more expeditions than any other 18th-century explorer. He undertook six excursions into the hinterland, meticulously recording all he saw, but sadly most of this material was lost. Fortunately material covering four journeys he undertook from 1777 to 1786 was re-discovered in 1964.
Gordon spoke French, Dutch,English, Hottentot and Xhosa. He penetrated deeper into the hinterland than any other European explorer of the day. He was one of the first explorers to reach the mighty Gariep River which he named the Orange in honour of the William, the Dutch Prince of Orange. Gordon is credited with introducing Merino sheep to the Cape Colony and for the discovery of the remains of Batholomew Dias’s padrao at Kwaaihoek in 1786. As commander of the garrison he was forced to surrender to Britain’s Admiral Elphinstone in 1795. This depressed him greatly and he committed suicide on October 25, 1795, in the grounds of his home. He was 52 years old.
His wife sold all his effect soon after his death. Fortunately some of this material was rediscovered 150 years later and his paintings were acquired by the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam. Among the paintings still there today is the tranquill Queekvallei farm scene he painted so very long ago.