The original intention of the Dutch East India establishing a settlement at the Cape was to enable passing ships, en route from the Netherlands to the spice-producing countries in the east, to restock with fruit and vegetables.
The Gardens were initially laid out by Hendrik Boom at the same time that the fort was being constructed on what is today the Grand Parade in the 1650’s.The gardens were spilt into two by the Laan, now known as Government Avenue.
When Simon van der Stel arrived at the Cape in 1679, he had grand plans for the colony and immediately set about transforming the settlement with permanent alterations. He re-designed the Company Gardens, splitting off a part of them for the construction of a church and a hospital on their original site. The Gardens were run by a Dutch gardener, Hendrik Oldenland, with 50 slaves working under him. Oldenland extended the beds to the foot of Table Mountain and introduced an irrigation scheme with water from the streams that run down the mountain. He brought in an additional 100 slaves to manage the scheme.
The garden was divided into several large squares, mirroring the layout of the settlement that was being built around it. Fruit trees, flowers and vegetables from all around the world were planted.
At the entry to the Gardens was the slave lodge (which later became the Supreme Court building and today houses the Iziko Slave Museum) where 500 slaves were housed. Freshwater streams, watered the Gardens in a network of slots and furrows.
The transportation of slaves to the Cape , as well as housing and feeding them, became too costly for the settlers and soon they started buying fresh produce from the free burghers who had been given land to farm. The Gardens were turned into botanical gardens and were transformed into a public space for the European elite to stroll amongst the ponds, lawns and oak-lined walkways. In 1865, the first statue to be erected in Cape Town was unveiled in the botanic gardens, of the Governor Sir George Grey.
Today the oak trees still stand and the Gardens still provide the most pleasant place to stroll in the city centre. Squirrels (introduced by Cecil Rhodes, of whom a statue still stands in the Gardens) run amongst the trees and are fed by tourists. The main walkway alongside the Gardens , Government Avenue, runs past the national library, the South African National Gallery, the back of the Parliament building and De Tuynhuis, the president’s office. The gateways at the northern end of the Gardens still stand, ornamented by Anton Anreith’s lions. Today they are gateways to Cape Town High School (whose students pour down Government Avenue in the afternoons), University of Cape Town buildings and the Bertram House, a Georgian house from the 1840’s that today is a museum.