The sum of all a father's fears
by Herman Labuschagne

Eden Express article, 10 February 2014


One day I walked the streets of Stellenbosch, down avenues of oaks that Van der Stel had planted 300 years ago. I strolled slowly while the dry leaves rustled around my feet. Unhurriedly I drifted until I was blown against the fence of ancient memories. And then they whispered. A sad story, which few have ever heard. The story of a loss that knows no equal.


It was the summer of 1694 when Governor Simon van der Stel sent his son Cornelius to Batavia on a lumbering East Indiaman. Aboard the Ridderschap van Holland a bright-eyed lad of 22 waved good-bye to his adoring father, who must have stood and watched until the sails were gone. The trade winds blew, the waves rolled on and so the months slowly passed until a year went by without a letter from the boy. It was then that the icy hand of fear began to touch the governor’s throat.


For two whole years there was no news, until an English ship brought tidings that the Ridderschap had fallen prey to the pirates of Madagascar. Distraught, Van der Stel began to plan a rescue. As the months withered slowly, more news came in. He sent ships and expeditions – every effort that could be made to find his son and bring him home. Sadly, though, the rescuers were always one step behind the latest news. For 10 years the father searched – until in 1704 he was finally informed that his son had been killed by natives. Yet, even then, he dispatched another search vessel.


Those who know will sometimes say that the sum of all a parent’s greatest fears is losing a child and having no answers. I stood in Stellenbosch and touched a tree. And for a moment I felt the old man’s heart.

Image: “Ships in distress in a heavy storm” [the Ridderschap and Hollandia]., Ludolf Bakhuizen., WikiMedia Commons.,