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The Van Riebeeck Society was established in 1918 to publish primary sources in southern African history, which were inaccessible to the average South African. Since then it has published a volume for every year.

In 1918, after a World War which had reawakened the antagonisms of the 1899-1902 war, white South Africans were still trying to establish a national identity. A number of organisations and institutions were formed in an attempt to forge a common identity which would overcome the divisions between Afrikaners and English-speaking South Africans. One of the most fruitful sources of this new unity was the white settler heritage, particularly the Cape Dutch heritage, with its distinctive architecture. The Van Riebeeck Society sprang from this movement and many of its volumes have reflected these origins. However, a substantial number of the volumes have contributed significantly to our knowledge of the history of the Khoi, slave and African populations of South Africa.

The origins of the Society

The Society had its birth in the National Library of South Africa (South African Library), Cape Town, and it has always retained close links with the Library. The Van Riebeeck Society owes its origins to two men in particular - A.C.G. Lloyd, Librarian of the South African Public Library, and John X. Merriman, at one time Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and a Trustee of the Library.

The impetus for the formation of the Society came from the discovery by Lloyd in November 1911 of a large fragment of Adam Tas's diary for 1704. As the leader of the free burgher opponents of the corrupt Dutch East India Company Governor of the Cape, Willem Adriaan van der Stel, Tas symbolised the struggle for freedom from the yoke of colonialism, which seemed so valuable to the building of national identity. The Trustees of the Library, led by Merriman, raised the funds to publish the diary which appeared in 1914, edited by Professor Leo Fouché.

With money remaining from the publication fund, the Library Trustees decided to publish Baron van Pallandt's General Remarks on the Cape of Good Hope, suppressed by De Mist in 1803, and a rare work. Pallandt was produced in 1917 and met with the considerable disapproval of General Hertzog, leader of the opposition at the time. His ire arose from passages referring to the bad treatment by the settlers of the Khoikhoi (Hottentots). Hertzog denounced the work in rousing terms, with the result that sales soared, providing the Trustees with a healthy profit.

With this success behind them, the Trustees now decided to publish the reports on the Cape by Governor De Chavonnes and his council, and by Van Imhoff. However, since it was not really within the scope of the Library's functions to publish archival documents and the cost was likely to be substantial since the Trustees wanted to publish an English translation as well, it was decided to start a private society to take over the administration of the project. On 29 August the inaugural meeting of the new society took place, to be called the 'Van Riebeeck Society for the Publication of southern African Historical Documents'. The Society started with 54 members, many of them members of parliament, and the first volume to be published were the De Chavonnes reports.

New directions

The volumes of the Van Riebeeck Society have often reflected the period in which they have been published. The earliest works dealt with the Dutch period, in keeping with the interest at the time in the Dutch heritage of the country. The shift of interest to a British heritage can be seen in the volumes dealing with the 1820 settlers, amongst others. The centenary of the South African / Anglo-Boer War has produced a several volumes on less familiar aspects of the war. Travellers' accounts are perennial favourites, partly because they provide such valuable information on the indigenous inhabitants of Southern Africa, but their viewpoint is that of whites.

In a post-apartheid South Africa we hope to expand the range of our publications to include the writings of black South Africans, more women, and more unusual topics. In the past we have usually waited for editors to come forward themselves; we intend now to be more active in seeking out editors and topics which we feel will contribute to the new direction of the Society.

Council Members

Prof Howard Phillips (Chairman)

Dr Elizabeth van Heyningen (Vice-Chair/Public Relations)

Mr Danie de Villiers (Secretary/Treasurer)

Ms Tanya Barben
Dr Francois Cleophas

Mr Andrew Duncan

Dr Anton Ehlers

Mr Justice Ian Farlam
Dr Russell Martin

Prof Adam Mendelsohn

Prof Alan Morris

Prof Susie Newton-King

Dr Sandy Shell

Mr Nick Southey (Gauteng member)

Prof Sandra Swart

Prof Chris van der Merwe




Mr Rolf Proske

Me Sandra Commerford