We knew that the former home of Cecil Rhodes existed because it is mentioned in the travel guides, but none of the locals we spoke to knew of it. In fact, more often than not, they not thought I was talking about the hospital of the same name where Christiaan Barnard performed the world’s first heart-transplant.
In the end, I picked up the phone and was able to track down the curator of the estate who was happy to arrange a private visit which was quite an honour as his email confirmed:
This is a rare and singular privilege to visit and view this Residence. A visit must be seen in context:- It in fact equates to visiting the White House, Blair House or Trowbridge House in Washington or at No 10 Downing Street or Chequers the residences of the British Prime Minister or indeed the Élysée Palace or Hôtel de Marigny, the official residence and official guests house of the French President in Paris or the Italian Presidential residence, Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome.
Groote Schuur was once the home of Cecil Rhodes who gifted it to the nation on his death as a residence for the state president. Today that is Jacob Zuma, plus 18 of his cabinet colleagues.
The house is very much as Rhodes left it when he died in 1902 — rather grand and imposing as he meant it to be, but also a place that he clearly loved very much.
The history of Groote Schuur goes back to 1652 and the arrival of the Dutch East India Company at the Cape. Jan van Riebeeck had been briefed by his employer to establish fields of fresh vegetables to supply the ships en route from Holland to their colonies in the East Indies.
His attempts to grow crops to the north of Table Mountain failed miserably because of the relentless southeasterly winds and he turned his attention to the east of the mountain and the area known then as Da Ronde Doorn Bosjen, or Round Thorn Tree, the modern day Rondebosch.
This horticultural project was a great success and the East India Company ordered the building of a granary to store the crops and so Groote Schuur, or Great Barn, was born.
Groote Schuur had become a residence as well as a barn at some point and it eventually fell into the hands of the widow Hester Anna van der Byl, a woman of considerable character and eccentricity, a reminder of which is the front door shown at the top of this page — the one she took with her wherever she lived!
She went on a prolonged visit to England in 1891 and took on a tenant at her home — Cecil Rhodes, the recently elected prime minister of the Cape Colony.
When asked how much she wanted for Groote Schuur, she replied ‘Ten thousand pounds.’ Rhodes’ reply was short and to the point: ‘Fancy price.’ Mrs van der Byl’s response was equally terse: ‘Fancy house!’ and, of course, Rhodes bought it in September 1893.
Not only did he buy the house, but also 1,500 acres of the eastern slopes of Table Mountain and the transformation of Groote Schuur from granary to great estate was complete.
Rhodes was much taken with the ‘beautiful simplicity’ of the houses built by the Dutch and Hugenot settlers a century before and that is the style he wanted for Groote Schuur. This task he gave to the young architect, Herbert Baker, who created Groote Schuur much as it is today, not once, but twice.
In December 1896, a fire broke out in the thatched roof and swept through the house. The servants struggled to rescue furniture, amazingly including the billiard table.
Rhodes was away in Umtali and a messenger was sent to inform him. Worried how Rhodes might react to the news, he eventually blurted out the details of the disaster. Rhodes responded by saying: ‘Is that all? I thought it must be Jameson,’ a reference to his close friend, Leander Starr Jameson.
Baker proposed rebuilding Groote Schuur higher up the mountain, where the Rhodes Memorial now stands, but Rhodes insisted that it should remain where it had always been.
Of all the places we visited during our stay, Groote Schuur was perhaps the most memorable which explains this very long post!