In 1778 Captain Robert Jacob Gordon stood on a Karoo koppie near the Swartberg mountains and painted the tranquil scene of Zacharias de Beer’s farm Qweekvallei in the valley below. In time this painting found its way to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Almost a century later a town, named in honour of Queen Victoria’s husband, sprang up on Queekvallei and later still a copy of the painting found its way to the town’s Fransie Pienaar Museum. Then, in May, 1999, the town, honoured Gordon, by naming the koppie in his honour. A small granite slab was placed at the site where he stood, and the now popular Koppie Trail, was created to allow visitors to enjoy “Gordon’s view” and to learn more about the Karoo plants of the area. Gordon’s Koppie is one of the few places where the endemic mesembryanthenum Bijlia cana, flowers.
Born on September 29, 1743, Robert was the sixth of seven children born to Jacob Gordon and his wife, Johanna Maria Heidenrijck. He married Swiss-born Susanne Marguerite, daughter of Colin Nicolet and his wife, Jeanne Francoise (nee Leresche) They had four sons. Robert was a ‘Renaissance man’, a Dutchman of Scots descent, an explorer, soldier, artist, naturalist and linguist. He went on more expeditions in South Africa than any other 18th-century explorer and travelled with men like Carl Peter Thunberg, Francis Masson, William Paterson, Governor von Plettenberg and Johannes Schumacher. The latter accompanied him on all his journeys, and produced a fine record of their travels. Gordon himself was a diligent recorder of such data as altitude, compass headings and hours travelled. He was responsible for naming the Orange River, introducing Merino sheep to the Cape and discovering the remains of the Dias Cross at Kwaaihoek. In addition to French, Dutch and English, he spoke several indigenous languages and showed great interest in tribal customs and ceremonies.
Robert was the commander of the Cape garrison which surrendered to Britain’s Admiral Elphinstone in 1795. He was accused of treason. He became an outcast and a target for derision and violence. This led to severe depression and he committed suicide in the grounds of his house, Schoonder Sight, on October 25, 1795. By then he had spent almost 20 years at the Cape and had amassed an enormous quantity of information on the topography, fauna, flora, meteorology, geology and inhabitants of South Africa. Much of his work was lost for over 160 years because his widow sold it to the Marchioness of Stafford in 1810. His papers and paintings were only rediscovered in 1964 at an auction of the Stafford House library. It was then acquired by the Rijksmuseum.