Gordon's legacy consists of his drawings, maps, travel journals, letters and manuscripts on divers subjects.

Content of this page

Who was Robert Jacob Gordon?

Gordon's journeys

Gordon's writings and drawings


About this website

Who was Robert Jacob Gordon?

When he committed suicide in 1795 Colonel Robert Jacob Gordon had spent just short of twenty years at the Cape. During that time he had amassed an enormous quantity of material, both visual and verbal, concerning the topography, fauna, flora, meteorology, geology and inhabitants of South Africa which, taken together, give an astonishingly complete and detailed overview of the country during the final decades of the Dutch East India Company's regime. His achievement is all the more remarkable in that he collected and classified it almost single-handedly, showing equal skills as a botanist, zoologist, ethnographer, linguist, geologist, cartographer and draughtsman, assisted only by a small group of untrained servants and semi-skilled soldiers.

This outstanding representative of the European Enlightenment was born at Doesburg in Gelderland in June 1743 to a large family whose Scottish forebears had come to the Netherlands in the early 17th century. His grandfather had been burgomaster of Schiedam; and his father had chosen a military career, eventually rising to the rank of Major-General in the Dutch army’s Scots Brigade into which young Robert, the sixth of his seven children, was enrolled at the age of ten. After two years at Harderwijk University, apparently without taking a degree, Gordon returned to the brigade in 1761 and was soon promoted to lieutenant and then captain.

Little is known about Gordon's first trip to the Cape in 1773-74, apparently made at his own volition, during which he travelled as far east as Mossel Bay and at least as far as the Berg River estuary in the north west. On his return to Holland he frequented scientific and Enlightenment circles in The Hague until, in 1776, he was commissioned into the Dutch East India Company’s army and posted to Cape Town as second-in-command of the garrison there. Arriving in mid-1777, he almost immediately undertook an extensive exploratory journey, the first of four which he assiduously recorded in daily entries in his travel journals. By the time the fourth Anglo-Dutch War broke out in 1780 he had already travelled over the greater part of the colony and had established most of the course of the great river which then formed its northernmost border and to which he gave the name Orange in honour of the Stadholder Willem V. He described and dissected hundreds of indigenous animals and plants, had measured drawings made of them, and sent their details to correspondents throughout Europe. He also learnt the principal Khoisan and Bantu languages and dialects, as well as recording the customs and religious rites of these and other indigenous peoples.

There is evidence to suggest that Gordon had been asked to send detailed reports about the colony directly to the Stadholder; but the only surviving writings in which he attempted to synthesise his observations are his letters to Willem’s principal advisor, the griffier (or secretary of state) Hendrik Fagel. For the rest, he codified his material on his Great Map, which was by far the most accurate to have been produced until well into the nineteenth century. Although many of his contemporaries believed him to be preparing a publication about South Africa, it would appear that his military duties prevented him from achieving this.

Gordon took full command of the Cape garrison in 1780 and was promoted colonel in 1782 – a higher rank than any of his predecessors had enjoyed. After the end of the fourth Anglo-Dutch War he was able to make one last journey, in 1785; but the revolutionary uprisings in The Netherlands from 1786 and in France from 1789 bred political uncertainty necessitating greater military vigilance. Ultimately the colony was caught unawares after the French invasion of the Netherlands and the Stadholder’s flight to London in 1795. When a British force arrived at the Cape that year claiming to represent the Stadholder, Gordon was torn between his deep loyalty house of Orange and his duty as employee of the Dutch East India Company which, to his dismay, he discovered now subject to the French-controlled Batavian Republic.

After his death his widow attempted to sell his papers in London and to publish them in Paris; but to no avail. Having spent almost a century in a British collection, Gordon’s collection of visual material, consisting of 455 drawings and maps, mainly in watercolour and extensively annotated, were acquired by the Rijksmuseum in 1914. In 1979 his travel journals and other papers were purchased by the Brenthurst Library in Johannesburg. These texts and images are now reunited on this website with other material relating to Gordon.

Gordon's Journeys

Gordon's first journey, in 1773-1774, was undertaken before he entered the Dutch East India Company's service and no journal of it is known to have survived.

Second Journey, October 1777 to March 1778: from Cape Town to the Sneeuberge and the eastern frontier; then north to the Orange River, returning along the south-eastern coast.

Third Journey, August 1778 to January 1779: to the eastern frontier with the Governor van Plennenerg, and onwards towards the Orange River; then, after leaving Plettenberg, across the Great Karoo and the Roggeveld to the west coast and thence south to Cape Town.

Fourth Journey, June 1779 to January 1780: from Cape Town north through Namaqualand to the mouth of the Orange River; then inland along that river with excursions to the north of it before returning through Namaqualand.

Fifth Journey, November 1785 to March 1786: from Cape Town north up the west coast to the Jakkals River; then east across the Roggeveld and the Great Karoo to Algoa Bay, returning along the south-eastern coast.

Gordon's Writings and Drawings

The vast majority of Robert Jacob Gordon's surviving manuscripts and drawings are kept in three depositaries. The Brenthurst Library in Johannesburg and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam house manuscripts, maps and drawings that Gordon's widow brought to Europe after her husband’s death; the Dutch National Archives (Nationaal Archief) in the The Hague preserves letters written by Gordon to the griffier Hendrick Fagel as well as a group of seven panoramas and maps (all of them duplicated in the Rijksmuseum's holdings) which are almost certainly those Gordon sent to the Stadholder Willem V. All of this material (with the exception of the Nationaal Archief's panoramas and maps) is now available on this website in the form of high resolution scans made from the original items. In addition, all the inscriptions on the Rijksmuseum's drawings and maps are transcribed and translated into English, as are all Gordon's letters to Fagel. From the Brenthurst papers, Gordon's four surviving travel journals (there is none for his first journey) are also available in both transcription and translation, as are transcriptions and/or translations of some of the more complete MSS, including Gordon's notes on Khoekhoen and San customs and a compilation of notes on animals. It is hoped to add further transcriptions and translations of the remaining Brenthurst MSS in due course; in the meantime users can read them directly from the scans in the section Untranscribed Manuscripts.

Further material by or associated with Gordon (mainly miscellaneous single items) is in the British National Archives at Kew, the libraries of the universities of Leiden, Amsterdam and the Witwatersrand, the Dutch Koninklijk Huisarchief in the Hague, Museum Africa in Johannesburg, IZIKO Museums in Cape Town, and the Musée National d'Histoire naturelle in Paris. It is also hoped to add the more significant of these, as well as any future discoveries, to this website.

History of the collections
After Gordon's death his widow, Suzanne Nicolet, originally from the Swiss canton of Vaud, returned to Europe with their four sons. She initially attempted to sell Gordon's papers in London, and to have them published in Paris; but they were eventually purchased in 1810 by Elizabeth Leveson-Gower, née Gordon, Marchioness of Stafford and later Duchess of Sutherland, with whose descendants they remained for over a century. While in the collection of the Dukes of Sutherland the drawings and maps were separated from the manuscript material and bound into six large volumes at some time after 1841. These were sold at auction in 1913 and purchased the following year for the Rijksmuseum, where they are kept as "The Atlas Gordon". The manuscript material, its connection with the drawings apparently forgotten, was at some time placed on deposit as part of the Leveson-Gore family archives in the Staffordshire County Record Office. After its rediscovery there 1964 it was sold at auction in 1979 and purchased by Mr Harry Oppenheimer for his Brenthurst Library in Johannesburg.

The letters to Hendrik Fagel in the Nationaal Archief were acquired by that institution as part of the Fagel family archive (Collectie Fagel) in 1930.
The maps and panoramas which are now part of the topographical collections there had at some time been placed in the Archief van Oorlog; they were transferred to the Nationaal Archief from the Topographische Dienst, Delft, in the mid-twentieth century and are inventoried with the Van der Graaff Collection as 4. TOPO 15.120.


I. The "Gordon Atlas" in the Rijksmuseum

The Gordon material in the Rijksmuseum is preserved in the sequence in which it was ordered while owned by the Dukes of Sutherland, and which almost certainly does not reflect Gordon's own arrangement. For reasons of conservation the topographical material and landscapes have been removed from the first two albums; the rest of the drawings remain in their albums. The drawings in albums 1 through 5 have inventory numbers beginning RP-T-1914-17, while those in album 6 (flora) are inventorised as RP-T-1914-18; in this site the these are abbriviated as GA-17 and GA-18. The albums are all in half-leather, stamped with the arms of the second Duke of Sutherland; the first two, formerely containing geographical material, measure 70.5 x 98.5 cm.; the others all measure 68 x 50 cm. and are titled as follows:

1 "Maps Plans Etc I".

2 "Maps Plans Etc II". These albums contained 16 maps (GA-17-1 to GA-17-15, and GA-17-19), plus 52 landscapes and views (GA-17-16 to GA-17-18; and GA-17-20 to GA-17-68) including all the oversized panoramas, many of which are mounted together according to size rather than subject, date or location.

3 "Men Reptiles Fishes" containing: 25 watercolours of an ethographical nature (GA-17-69 to GA-17-93, to which should be added three sheets from Album 4, GA-17-193 to GA-17-195 which contain copies after San rock-paintings); 14 watercolours of reptiles (GA-17-94 to GA-17-107); 13 of fishes and crustaceans (GA-17-108 to GA-17-120); and 3 of insects (GA-17-121 to GA-17-123).

4 "Quadrupeds" containing 115 watercolours of mammals (GA-17-124 to GA-17-238), including a southern right whale and a kangaroo (GA-17-237 and 238) as well as three sheets copying San rock-paintings of various animals (GA-17-193 to GA-17-195)

5 "Birds" containing 110 watercolours (GA-17-239 to GA-17-348) of birds, including some not found in South Africa.

6 "Plants" containing 108 watercolours and drawings of South African flora (GA-18-1 to GA-18-108).

II. The Gordon Papers in the Brenthurst Library

The Gordon material at the Brenthurst library is ordered into 17 fascicules, probably following the arrangement made by Gordon's widow, to whom can most probably be attributed the blue cover-sheets annotated in French.

107/1 The Journal of Gordon's second voyage (fully transcribed and translated on this website).
Cover sheet: "No 1 / Voyage du 6 Octobre 1777 au 8 Mars 1778 / Complet."

107/1/1: "Journaal van een reis door een gedeelte van het zuiden van Africa door R:J: Gordon Capitein gedaan in het jaar 1777 beginnende aan de Caap den 6 october". Bound exercise book of 93 pages, plus covers; folio, 30 x 20,5 cm. The inside of the front cover and the title-page are filled with rough lists of words in various indigenous languages.

107/1/2: "Vervolg van het Journaal van den reis van Captein Gordon in het zuider gedeelte van africa beginnend 6 oct: 1777". Bound exercise book of 74 pages, covers missing; folio. 31 x 21.4 cm. The daily entries end on p.49; pp. 50 to 65 are blank; p.66 has an Bantu vocabulary; pp.67-70 is an insert entitled "aanmerkingen wegens de Caffers en Hottentots talen", followed by vocabulary lists on pp.71-74. The scans and transcription are to be found in "Other Writings", Appendix to MS 107/1/2.

107/1/3/1 and 107/1/3/2: two loose sheet of ephemera in English, evidently dating from the period in which Gordon's widow was attempting to sell the collection in England. See "Other Writings", Appendix: MS 107/1/3/1, and Appendix: MS 107/1/3/2.

107/2 The journal of Gordon's third voyage (fully transcribed and translated on this website)
Cover sheet: "No. 2 / Voyage du 28 Aout 1778 au 25 Janvier 1779"

107/2 "Journaal der derde reis door een deel van zuidelijk africa gedaan van den 28 aug: 1778 tot 25 jan: 1779. R:J: Gordon." Folio MS of 43 pages, once bound but now without stitching, 37 x 25.5 cm.; pages 1 to 9 are blank apart from one sentence on p.1.

107/3 The journal of Gordon's fourth voyage (fully transcribed and translated on this website).

107/3/1/1: "Journaal van de vierde reyse van Captein R:J: Gordon in het Zuidelyke Gedeelte van Africa. begonnen den 27 Junij 1779 van de Caap de Goede Hoop”. Folio MS of 72 pp, of which pages 68 to 72 are blank.; has lost stitching or was never stitched; 42.2 x 26.8 cm. . The daily entries in this, the first of the two notebooks recording the fourth voyage, end on p.59 (21st October 1780). Pages 60 to 67 contain fair-copy accounts of: ostriches, lions and other animals; a Nama wordlist and extensive notes on Nama customs. The scans of these and a partial transcription and translation are on this website under "Other Writings", Appendix to MS 107/3/1/1; see also Smith and Bull 2016.

107/3/1/2: loose sheet, with remarks about Le Vaillant's giraffe. See "Other Writings", Appendix: MS 107/3/1/2

107/3/1/3: folded folio of 2 pp. with notes on Xhosa places, names, chiefs, words and kraals. See "Other Writings", Appendix: MS 107/3/1/3

107/3/2 "Vervolg van ‘t Journaay van de reis in 1779." Quarto notebook of 54 pp. stitched, but without covers; paginated by Gordon; 31.2 x 20 cm. The daily entries end on page 49 (13th January 1780). Pages 50-54 contain fair-copy notes on Nama decorations and names; burial customs; and other rites; page 54 has notes on animals. See "Other Writings", Appendix to MS 107/3/2; and Smith and Bull 2016.

107/4 The journal of Gordon's fifth voyage (fully transcribed and translated on this website).

107/4 Folio notebook of 40 pages, sewn, with no covers;; 33.2 x 21 cm. The fly leaf is blank, there is no title-page and no preliminary heading.

107/5 Meteorological notes
Cover sheet: "Observations Meterologiques"

107/5/1 "Observations méteorologiques faites au Cape de bonne Espérance pendant les années 1751 et 1757" Bound MSS of 14 pages. This is a copy or paraphrase of the observations made by the Abbé de la Caille.

107/5/2 "Proeve over De Meteorologie in het generaal; beneffens eene Schets van het weer aan de Caap de Goede Hoop &c &c." Bound MS of 30pp, with decorated cover sheet bearing title, plus 30pp. Not in Gordon's hand. An English translation of this MS is given in Plug 1995, where it is identified as copy of a MS entitled “Korte stellingen omtrent de meteorologie…” in the Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Archief van Rogier Gerard van Polanen, no.317.

107/6 Notes on the Khoekhoen and San (fully transcribed and translated on this website, following Smith and Pheiffer 1992)
Cover sheet: "Particularités relatives à quelques hordes Hottentottes"

107/6/1 Loose leaf manuscript of 14 pages in Gordon's own hand; pages 1-6 are numbered by Gordon. There is no heading or title-page.

107/6/2 A single folded folio sheet of 4 pages concerning the "Moetjoana", with a short vocabulary.

107/7 Notes on Cape vegetation:
Cover sheet: “Observations sur la regne Vegetal”

107/7/1 Notes on different types of wood: fair copy, not in Gordon's hand

07/7/2 Loose sheet folded into four pages with remarks on a disease of orange-trees.

107/8 Notes on Mineralogy:
Cover sheet: “Observations sur la regne mineral”

107/8/1/ to 107/8/6: Eight loose sheets with notes of compass-bearings taken on mountains, mainly on the Cape peninsula, but including Riebeecks Casteel, Robben Island and elswwhere. Very rough notes made on spot in pencil on the bearings of mountains in the peninsula and False bay

107/8/7 Folded double folio with lists of different types of stone; not specific to the Cape but how to identify them; numbered 10 and 11 on the recto, not on the verso]

107/8/8 Two folded folio sheets, with an alphabetic key (probably to a drawing) identifying of stones, beginning: " A. Pierette de la premiere Couche de la Montagne de la table pres du cap".

107/8/9 and 107/8/10 Lists of compass bearings taken from Riebeeck’s Kasteel and Witteboom

107/8/11 "Korte schets der qualiteiten der Stenen", two folded folio sheets making 8 pages in Gordon’s hand. This does not appear to be specific to the Cape, and is perhaps copied from a publication.

107/9 Notes on topography and geography
Cover sheet : " Meterologique Observations Geographiques & Topographiques sur diverses parties de l' interieur de L'Afrique"

107/9 /1 Two folded folio sheets, headed “Basis" with distances and heights of various mountains, including Muizenburg, Malagas Island, etc. not in Gordon’s hand

107/9 /2 Loose sheet with compass bearings, and account of the Roggeveld and the description of an earthquake of 1783, in Gordon’s hand

107/9 /3 "Route van de Geisiqua na den keisi van de geisiqua daar men uitdraaijt” . Folded folio, concerning the country north of the Orange river, with marginal annotations about the "Moetjoeana", and, in English, on camels and various areas in north Africa

107/9 /4 Folded folio with notes on Bushmen, Hottentots, and the lunar eclipse of 23rd November 1779

107/10 Notes on languages (partially transcribed in Fauvelle-Aymar 2005)
Cover sheet: “Collection de mots des divers languages de l’Afrique méridionale”

This fascicule contains eleven items with vocabulary lists of various African languages: amaXhoasa and Khoekhoen, and also including those of slaves from Loanda, the Gold Coast and Madagascar. Only the Khoekhoen vocabularies are transcribed in Fauvelle-Aymar 2005.

107/11 Notes on animals (the partial transcription in Rookmaaker 1979 is included on this website)
Cover sheet: “Renseignements; & Descriptions de plusieurs animaux”

This extensive of fascicule 35 items consists mainly of notes, in various hands including Gordon’s, on various animals based both on Gordon’s own observations, and copied from publications and elsewhere. These are fully transcribed in Rookmaaker 1979: see under "Other Writings".
Additional to these are the following:

107/11/9 “Verhandelingen van verscheiden Siektes al hier in Afrika zig bevinden aan Paarden, Ossen, Schaapen bokken en Varkens”, 4pp., not in Gordon’s hand

107/11/11 Copy of a San drawing showing four dancing men and a jakhal, with what appears to be musical notation below.

107/11/25 In addition to notes on giraffes, this folio page contains extensive notes on the Nama language and customs

107/11/28 Contains the names of Nama chieftains, a mention of Coetzee’s journey north of the Orange River in 1768, and a list of quadrupeds found in southern Africa

107/11/30 Permit, dated 21 April 1780, granting Gordon permission to send two cases containing the skin and skeleton of a giraffe to the Netherlands on the return ship ‘t Zeepaard

107/11/31 Copy of letters from John Hunter to William Paterson, dated February 1791,

107/12 Miscellaneous Notes
Cover sheet: “Observations & Reflexions sur divers sujets”.

This fascicule contains 17 loose sheets, not all in Gordon's hand, with notes concerning: weather (in English); barometers and compasses; African countries, excerpted from published books; the seas and weather of India; Cape Point; the rocks at Paarl; the Alps and the Iles d'Hyères; the population of the colony; Manuel Perestrello's account of Agulhas; descriptions of San and Khoekhoen by earlier travellers. There is also a drawing, in Gordon's hand, of the sinus pudoris of a Khoekoen woman with observations and measurements; and a list of occupied and unoccupied farms in the Tulbagh valley dated 30th September 1785.

107/13 Letters
Cover sheet: “Lettres ecrites a differentes personnes”

107/13/1 Fair copy, in a secretary's hand and with some additions and amendments, of Gordon's letter to Hendrik Fagel of 24th April 1779, the original of which is in the Nationaal Archief (and is fully transcribed and translated on this website). This copy is discussed and partially translated in Smith and Pheiffer 1994.

107/13/2/1 Drafts of letters in French addressed to "M. le Comte", i.e. Johann Phillip, graf von Cobenzl, dated 1786-87, and discussing botany, zoology, geography etc.

107/13/2/2 Draft and copies of a letter in French to Professor Horace Bénédict de Saussure, dated 8th April 1789 chiefly concerning geology and mineralogy (fully transcribed, but not translated, on this website).

107/13/2/3 Draft letter dateable 1786 to “M. le Bailli”, i.e. Admiral comte Pierre André de Suffren de Saint Tropez, known as Le Bailli de Suffren, about topography, astronomical quadrants, navigation, trees etc. Fully transcribed and translated on this website from the transcription and translation in Linden 2010.

107/13/3 "Description of a Camelopard killed at the night of the 12th of October 1779" in English.

10713/4 "Observations on Sparrman's Voyage at the Cape of Good hope" in English. These are discussed in Smith 1990

107/13/5 Corrections, in French, not in Gordon’s hand, to the Abbé de la Caille’s Journal Historique

107/14-17 Miscellaneous notes relating to Gordon’s journeys

These fascicules contain rough notes, apparently made during Gordon’s journeys, which seem mostly to have been incorporated into his travel journals and Great Map.

107/14 Seventeen items consisting of rough jottings made on his journeys, consisting mainly of heights and other measurements. (There is also a ticket for the Lyon lottery draw of Frimaire an XI, i.e. November-December 1802).

107/15 Thirty-eight items, all on loose sheets with measurements and observations evidently made on the spot.

107/16 Twenty-seven items; all loose measurements and observations evidently made on the spot.

107/17 Twenty-five items; all loose measurements and observations evidently made on the spot. Also excerpts from a journal of "captain Popham', i.e the later Admiral Sir Home Riggs Popham.

107/18 Meteorological journal

"Metereologisch journaal, bijna dagelijks bijgehouden tussen 22 sept 1789 en 21 juni 1792", bound manuscript book. The final three pages contain (written upside-down in relation to the main journal) a list of " “Steenen versonden aan Proffessor de Saussure. Cabo de Goede Hoop den 1789”


Allamand 1769-81: Allamand, J.N.S.: Contributions and supplements to the "Nouvelle Edition" of Buffon's Histoire Naturelle, published in French by J.H. Schneider, Amsterdam.

Barnard 1950: Barnard, C. J. , “Robert Jacob Gordon’s se loopbaan aan de Kaap”, Archives Yearbook for South African History, XII part 1, Parow, 1950, pp.319-446.

Barnard 1993: Barnard, A., ed. A.M. Lewin Robinson, et al., The Cape journals of Lady Anne Barnard 1797-1798 (Van Riebeeck Society, 2nd Series, no.24), Cape Town, 1993.

Barnard 1998-99: Barnard, A, ed. M. Lenta and B.A. Le Cordeur, The Cape diaries of Lady Anne Barnard 1799-1800 (Van Riebeeck Society, 2nd Series, nos. 29 and 30), 2 vols, Cape Town, 1998-99

Barnard 2009: Barker, N. ed., Lady Anne Barnard's Watercolours and Sketches: Glimpses of the Cape of Good Hope, Simon’s Town, 2009,

Barrow 1806: Barrow, J., An Account of Travels into the Interior of Southern Africa in the Years 1797 & 1798, 2 vols., London, 1806

Bax and Koeman 1963: Bax, D. and Koeman, C., Argitektoniese skoonheid in Kaapstad se Kompanjiestuin, 1777-1805, Cape Town, 1963

Bindman et al. 2011: Bindman, D., Ford, C. and Weston H., “Africa and the Slave Trade”, in D. Bindman and H.R. Gates, eds., The Image of the Black in Western Art, Vol. III, part 3: From the ‘Age of Discovery’ to the Age of Abolition: The Eighteenth Century, Cambridge Mass. and London, 2011, pp.207-240

Boëseken 1944: Boëseken, A.J., “De Nederlandse kommissarisse en de 18de eeuse samelewing aan de Kaap”, Argiefjaarboek vir Suid Afrikaanse Geskiedenis, VII, 1944

Britten 1914: Britten, J, “Robert Jacob Gordon (1741-1795)”, Journal of Botany, LII, 1914, pp.75-77

Brommer 2009: Brommer, B., et al., Grote Atlas van de Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie. Vol. V. Afrika, Voorburg, 2009

Cave and Rookmaaker 1977: Cave, A.J.E. and Rookmaaker, L.C., “Robert Jacob Gordon's original account of the African Black rhinoceros”, Journal of Zoology, CLXXXII, 1977, pp. 137-156

Cloete 2003: Schutte, G.J., ed., Hendrik Cloete, Groot Constantia and the VOC 1778-1799: documents from the Swellengrebel archive (Van Riebeeck Society, 2nd Series, no.34), Vlaeberg, 2003

Cullinan 1982: Cullinan, P., “Colonel R.J. Gordon: the Dias Padrão at Kwaaihoek, the Hermitage at Mossel Bay”, Quarterly Bulletin of the South African Library, XXXVII, no.2, 1982, pp. 95-101

Cullinan 1989: Cullinan, P., “Robert Jacob Gordon and Denis Diderot: The Hague 1774”, Quarterly Bulletin of the South African Library, XLIII, 1989, pp.146-52

Cullinan 1992: Cullinan, P., Robert Jacob Gordon 1743-1795: the man and his travels at the Cape, Cape Town, 1992

De Jong 1982: De Jong, R. C., Geografische index op de Gordon Atlas: een transkriptie van en een alfabetisch namenregister op de Delen I en II., Unpublished typescript, 1982, in the library of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

De Villiers and Pama 1987: De Villiers, C.C., and Pama, C, Geslagsregisters van die Ou Kaapse families, Cape Town and Rotterdam, 1987

Du Puyfontaine 1972: Du Puyfontaine, H.R., Louis Michel Thibault 1750-1815: His official life at the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Town, 1972

Dyer 1948: Dyer, R.A.: “Col. Robert Jacob Gordon’s contribution to South African botany”, South African Biological Society Pamphlet, no. 14, Pretoria, 1948, pp.44-62

Fauvelle-Aymar 2005: Fauvelle-Aymar, F.X., “Four wordlists of extinct Cape Khoekhoe from the 18th century”, Studies in African Linguistics, XXXIV, no.2, 2005, pp.159-178

Forbes 1949: Forbes, V.S. , “Colonel R. J. Gordon’s contribution to Cape geography, 1777-1795”, South African Geographical Journal, XXXI, 1949, pp.3-35

Forbes 1951: Forbes, V.S., “An Atlas of eighteenth century cartography of the Cape”, Africana Notes and News, IX, 1951-52, pp.97-103

Forbes 1952: Forbes, V.S., “Further notes on Colonel R.J. Gordon”, Africana Notes and News, IX, 1952

Forbes 1953, Forbes, V.S., “Some South African original drawings and maps in London”, Africana Notes and News, X, 1952-53, pp 21-24

Forbes 1954: Forbes, V.S. , “Colonel R.J. Gordon’s Family”, Africana Notes and News, XI, 1954, p.135

Forbes 1965A: Forbes, V.S., Pioneer travellers of South Africa. A geographical commentary upon routes, records, observations and opinions of travellers at the Cape, 1750-1800, Cape Town and Amsterdam, 1965

Forbes 1965B: Forbes, V.S., “Some early maps of South Africa”, * “Some early maps of South Africa,"*, II, no.6, 1965, pp. 9-20

Fransen 1974: Fransen, H., “The Josephus Jones Panorama of Cape Town and Environs”, Africana Notes and News, XXI, 1974-75, pp.171-180

Funk 2012: Funk, H., “R. J. Gordon’s Discovery of the Spotted Hyena’s Extraordinary Genitalia in 1777”, Journal of the History of Biology, XLV, 2012, pp. 301-28

Garside 1942: Garside, S., “Baron Jacquin and the Schönbrunn Gardens”, Journal of South African Botany, VIII (3), 1942, pp.201-24

Gent. Mag. 1796: [Obituary of Robert Jacob Gordon], The Gentleman’s Magazine, LXVI, no.5, May 1796, pp.442-43

Giese 1962: Giese, U., Wiener Menagerien. Ebersdaor, Neugebäude, Belvedere, Schönbrunn, Vienna, 1962

Glenn 2007: Glenn, I., “Francois Levaillant and the Mapping of Southern”, Alternation, XIV, 2 , 2007. pp. 25-39, 2007

Godée Molsbergen 1914: Godée Molsbergen, E.C., Robert Jacob Gordon, de Afrika-reiziger, Amsterdam 1914

Godée Molsbergen 1916-32: Godée Molsbergen, E.C., ed., Reizen in Zuid Afrika in de Hollandse tijd, 4 vols, The Hague, 1916-32

Gordon 1988: P. Raper and M. Boucher, eds, Robert Jacob Gordon: Cape Travels, 1777 to 1786, 2 vols., Johannesburg, 1988

Gordon-Brown 1975: Gordon-Brown, A, Pictorial Africana : a survey of old South African paintings, drawings and prints to the end of the nineteenth century with a biographical dictionary of one thousand artists, Cape Town and Rotterdam, 1975

Grant 1957: Grant, C.H.B., “Levaillant’s travels in South Africa 1781-1784, Ostrich, XXVIII, 1957, pp.83-97

Greenlees 1919: Greenlees, M., ed., Life at the Cape in mid-eighteenth century : being the biography of Rudolf Siegfried Allemann by O.F. Mentzel (Van Riebeeck Society, vol.2), Cape Town, 1919

Gunn 1954: Gunn, M.D., “Colonel R.J. Gordon”, Africana Notes and News, XI, 1954, p.135

Gunn and Codd 1981: Gunn, M. and Codd, L.E., eds, Botanical Exploration of Southern Africa, Cape Town, 1981

Haga 1996: Haga, M.D., Een beeld van een land : Zuid-Afrika gezien door R.J. Gordon, tussen 1773 en 1795, Amsterdam, 1995

Hallema 1932: Hallema, A., “Een bezoek van Mr. Hendrik Swellengrebel aan den Kafferkapitein Jeramba”, Zuid-Afrika, IX, nr. 9, 1932, pp. 131-37

Hop 1947: Mossop, E.E., ed., The journals of Brink and Rhenius being the journal of Carel Frederik Brink of the journey into Great Namaqualand (1761-2) made by Captain Hendrik Hop and the Journal of Ensign Johannes Tobias Rhenius (1724) (Van Riebeeck Society, vol. 28), Cape Town, 1947

Huigen 1998: Huigen, S., “Natural history and the representation of South Africa in the eighteenth century”, Journal of Literary Studies, XIV, 1-2, 1998, pp. 67-79

Huigen 2002: Huigen, S., “Huishoudingen van 'Caffers' en 'Hottentotten'. Voorstellingen van inwoners van zuidelijk Afrika in de Gordon Atlas”, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, LIII, 2002, pp. 182-205

Huigen 2007: Huigen, S., Verkenningen van Zuid Afrika: achttiende-eeuwse reizigers aan de Kaap, Zutphen, 2007 (translated as Knowledge and Colonialism. Eighteenth-Century Travellers in South Africa, Leiden and Boston, 2009)

Johnson 2007: Johnson, D., “Representing the Cape "Hottentots,’ from the French Enlightenment to Post-Apartheid South Africa”, Eighteenth-centuiry studies, XL, 4, , 2007, pp 525-62

Kirby 1941: Kirby, P.R. , “Heerenlogement and its visitors”, South African Journal of Science, XXXVIII, 1941, pp.352-86

Kirby 1943: Kirby, P.R., “A further note on the Heerenlogement”, South African Journal of Science, LX, 1943, pp.334-36

Koeman 1951: Koeman, C., “Een nieuwe ontdekking van kaarten en tekeningen van R. J. Gordon”, Koninklijk Aardrijkskundige Genootschap, 2de series, LXVIII, no.4, 1951, pp.452-58

Koeman 1952A: Koeman, C., ed., Tabulae geographicae quibus Colonia Bonae Spei antiqua depingitur, Amsterdam, 1952

Koeman 1952B: Koeman, C., “Nieuwe bijdragen tot de kennis van Zuid-Afrika’s historische kartografie”, Tijdschrift van het Koninklijk Nederlandsch Aardrijkskundige Genootschap, 2de series, LXIX, 1952, pp.73-95

Le Vaillant 1973: J.C. Quinton, and A.M. Lewin Robinson, eds., François Le Vaillant traveller in south Africa and his collection of 165 water-colour paintings 1781-1784, 2 vols, Cape Town, 1973

Le Vaillant 2007: Glenn, I., ed. and trans., Travels into the interior of Africa via the Cape of Good Hope by François Le Vaillant (Van Riebeeck Society, vols. 38 et seq.), Cape Town, 2007

Linden 2010: Linden, J.K., “Letter from Robert Jacob Gordon to ‘Monsieur le Bailli’ on his fifth journey in the interior of the Cape colony (1786)”, Outre-mers, XCVI, no. 366, 2010, pp.183-98

Maggs Bros. 1913: [Maggs Bros.], South Africa in 1777-96: the Gordon Collection of unpublished contemporary watercolour drawings, London, 1913

Mentzel 1921-44: Mandelbrote, H.J., ed., A geographical and topographical description of the Cape of Good Hope by O.F. Mentzel (Van Riebeeck Society, vols 4, 6 and 25), Cape Town, 1921-44

Nienaber and Raper 1977: Nienaber, G.S., and Raper, P.E., Toponymica Hottentotica, 2 vols., Pretoria, 1977

Oliver 1948: Oliver, H.G., ‘The Gordon Drawings”, Africana Notes and News, VI, 1948, pp.17-22

Panhuysen 2010: Panhuysen, L., Een Nederlander in de wildernis : de ontdekkingsreizen van Robert Jacob Gordon (1743-1795) in Zuid-Afrika, Amsterdam, 2010

Paterson 1980: V.S. Forbes and J. Rourke, eds., Paterson’s Cape travels 1777 to 1779, Johannesburg, 1980

Penn 1999: Penn, N., Rogues, Rebels and Runaways. Eighteenth-century Cape characters, Cape Town, 1999

Penn 2005: Penn, N., The Forgotten Frontier: Colonists and Khoisan on the Cape’s Northern Frontier Zone in the 18th Century, Cape Town, 2005

Plug 1994: Plug, C., Robert Jacob Gordon’s meteorological journal, Cape Town, 22 September 1789 to 22 June 1792, Pretoria, 1994

Plug 1995, Plug, C., “Robert Jacob Gordon’s ‘Investigations into meteorology Parts I and II’, Quarterly Bulletin of the South African Library, XLIX, nos. 1 and 3, 1994-95, pp.10-19 and pp.150-162

Porter 1991: Porter, D., Haunted journeys. Desire and transgression in European travel writing, Princeton, 1991

Roessingh and Visser 1978: Roessingh, M.P.H. and Visser, W., Guide to the sources of the history of Africa south of the Sahara in the Netherlands, London, 1978

Rookmaaker 2008: Rookmaaker, L.C., Encounters with the African rhinoceros : a chronological survey of bibliographical and iconographical sources on rhinoceroses in southern Africa from 1795 to 1875 : reconstructing views on classification and changes in distribution, Münster, 2008

Rookmaaker 1979: Rookmaaker, L.C., Robert Jacob Gordon (1743-1795) en zijn bijdrage tot de zoölogie van de Kaap de Goede Hoop, unpublished Master's dissertation, Utrecht University, 1979

Rookmaaker 1980: Rookmaaker, L.C., “De bijdrage van Robert Jacob Gordon (1743-1795) tot de kennis van de Kaapse fauna”, Documentatieblad werkgroep 18de eeuw, XLVI, 1980, pp.3-27

Rookmaaker 1981: Rookmaaker, L.C., “De Gordon Atlas: achttiende eeuwse voorstellingen van het Zuidafrikaanse binnenland, Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum, XXIX, no3, 1981, pp. 123-35

Rookmaaker 1989: Rookmaaker, L.C., The zoological exploration of Southern Africa, 1650-1790, Rotterdam , 1989

Rookmaaker et al. 2004: Rookmaaker, L.C., et. al., François Levaillant and the Birds of Africa, Johannesburg, 2004

Rookmaaker 1983: Rookmaaker, L.C., “The observations of Robert Jacob Gordon (1743-1795) on giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis) found in Namaqualand”, Journal van de SWA Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft, XXXVI-VII, 1983, pp.71-90

Schutte 2012: Schutte, G, “Vragen rondom het drama op Schoonder Sigt: Een nader onderzoek van de zelfmoord van Robert Jacob Gordon in 1795”, Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe, LII, no. 2, June 2012, pp.209-220

Skuncke 2014: Skuncke, M.-C., Carl Peter Thunberg : botanist and physician : career-building across the oceans in the eighteenth century, Uppsala, 2014

Sliggers and Wertheim 1994: B.C. Sliggers and A.A. Wertheim, eds., Een vorstelijke dierentuin : de menagerie van Willem V. Le zoo du prince : la ménagerie du stathouder Guillaume V, exh. cat. Teylers Museum, Haarlem, 1994.

Sluysken 1797: Sluysken, A.J. , Verbaal gehouden by den Comissaris van de Caap de Goede Hoop, The Hague, 1797

Smith 1981: Smith, A.B., “Col. Robert Gordon on the Orange River”, Quarterly Bulletin of the South African Library, XXXVI, no.2, 1981, pp.58-61

Smith 1990: Smith, A.B., “Gordon on Sparrman”, Quarterly Bulletin of the South African Library, XLV, no.2, 1990, pp.72-77

Smith 1990: Smith, A.B., The Khoikhoi at the Cape of Good Hope : seventeenth-century drawings in the South African Library, Cape Town, 1993

Smith 1992: Smith, A.B, “In the footsteps of Gordon”, Quarterly Bulletin of the South African Library, XLVI, no.3, 1992 , pp.91-93

Smith 1994: Smith, A.B., “Dutch artists at the Cape in the 17th and 18th Centuries, and the development of Khoikhoi iconography”, in C. van der Merwe, H. Waher and J. Hambidge, eds.:, Rondom Roy: Studies opgedra aan Roy H. Pheiffer., Cape Town, 1994, pp.189- 96

Smith and Bull 2016: Smith, A. and Bull, D., "Col. R.J. Gordon’s observation of some cultural practices among the Khoekhoen in the late 18th century", The Digging Stick, XXXIII, no.3, December 2016, pp. 1-5

Smith and Pheiffer 1992: Smith, A.B., and Pheiffer, R.H., “Col. Robert Jacob Gordon’s notes on the Khoikhoi 1779-80”, Annals of the South AfricanCultural History Museum, V, no.1, 1992

Smith and Pheiffer 1994: Smith, A.B., and Pheiffer, R.H., “Letter from Robert Jacob Gordon to Hendrick Fagel, 1779”, Brenthurst Archives: Footnotes to History, Vol I, no. 2, 1994, pp.29-45

Sparrman 1975: Forbes, V.S. ed., and Rudner, J. and I., trans., A. Sparrman: A voyage to the Cape of Good Hope towards the Antarctic Polar Circle round the world and to the country of the Hottentots and the Caffres from the year 1772-to 1776 (Van Riebeeck Society, 2nd Series, nos. 6 and 7), 2 vols., Cape Town, 1975-77

Swellengrebel 1951: Hallema, A., Die Kaap in 1776-77: Akwarelle van Johannes Schumacher uit die Swellengrebel Argief te Breda, The Hague and Johannesburg, 1951

Swellengrebel 1982: Schutte, G.J., ed., Briefwisseling van Hendrik Swellengrebel oor Kaapse Sake 1778-1792 (Van Riebeeck Society, 2nd series, no 13), Vlaeburg, 1982

Thunberg 1985: Forbes, V.S., ed., C. P. Thunberg: Travels at the Cape 1772-75 (Van Riebeeck Society, 2nd Series, no.17), Cape Town, 1986

Wikar 1935: Mossop, E.E., ed., The journal of Hendrik Jacob Wikar (1779) : The journals of Jacobus Coetsé Jansz: (1760) and Willem van Reenen (1791) (Van Riebeeck Society, vol.15), Cape Town, 1935

Wilson 1989: Wilson, M.L., “'Strandlopers’ in the Gordon Journals: A Correction”, South African Archaeological Bulletin, XLIV, 1989, p.120

Wilson and Klinghardt 1989: Wilson, M.L. and Klinghardt, G.P., [Review of Gordon 1988], South African Archaeological Bulletin, XLIV, 1989, pp.49-52

About this website

This principal aim of this website is to reunite the papers of Robert Jacob Gordon, sold by his widow in 1810 and now divided between Amsterdam and Johannesburg.

All 455 drawings and maps in the Rijksmuseum’s collection and all 930 manuscript pages in the Brenthurst Library can here be consulted in high resolution scans, as can the series of letters Gordon wrote to the griffier Hendrik Fagel between 1778 and 1784 now in the Nationaal Archief in the The Hague. It is hoped to add other manuscripts in due course.

In addition, Gordon’s principal writings -- most notably the journals of his four exploratory voyages into the interior of Southern Africa and a selection of his surviving letters -- together with all the inscriptions on the drawings and maps are here given in text-searchable transcriptions of his original Dutch accompanied, in most cases, by translations into modern English. Where possible, Gordon’s texts are interactively coupled with the associated drawings and with Gordon’s "Great Map" on which he codified much of the information he assembled. On the Great Map itself are indicated all the places which can be identified with certainty as having been visited by Gordon and it, in turn, is interactively coupled to the GoogleMaps webmapping service.

How to use this website
The scans of Gordon’s written and drawn material can be accessed from the web-page “Writings and Drawings”; the scans of the transcribed documents appear below the transcriptions and can be enlarged. The scans of the Untranscribed Manuscripts are arranged and numbered following the Brenthust Library’s classifications. Gordon's Great Map has its own web-page, on which pointers indicate places where Gordon is known to have been, and which is coupled to GoogleMaps on which standard modern place names can be found and GPS coordinates can be read.

Only the texts that have been transcribed and/or translated are searchable, and users should bear in mind that the untranscribed manuscripts may contain much of interest. The Search function is predicated on the English translations, but Gordon’s aberrant nomenclature and orthography has been taken into account: thus a search for hippopotamus should return all mentions, singular and plural, including zeekoe, zeekoeien, hippopotamussen, nijlpaard and so on; and a search on any one of those should produce the same results. This is more reliable for zoological, botanical, and geological terms than for proper nouns: for example where Gordon writes Noddé, the usual modern spelling Naudé is preferred in the translation; and the usual modern spelling Sneeuberg is used where Gordon writes Sneeuwberg. But see further under "The Translantions" below.

Any search will produce a list of where the sought term appears: in the title and/or inscriptions of a drawing; in Gordon's travel journals; and in any of the letters and other documents that have been transcribed, including references to, and inscriptions on, the Great Map. The search may further be refined by choosing "Travel Journals", "Drawings", or "Letters" to restrict the results to those categories. In the case of the drawings, a transcription of Gordon's Dutch inscription will appear alongside the image, with an option to switch to the English translation of it; in other cases the transcription of Gordon's original Dutch and the English translation of it appear side-by-side.

A search-result gives the total number of times the sought term is found and, in brackets, how many of these are related to places on the Great Map. For exemple, a search for 'peacock' followed by the choice of "Map" will produce pointers on the Great Map showing where Gordon was when he mentions such birds. Clicking on the pointer will give the date of the mention; and clicking on the date will produce the page of the relevant travel-journal. The pointers on the map always refer to a place Gordon mentions in the travel-journals under a particular date; or to a place he records visiting by giving its name or co-ordinates on a drawing or by marking it with a red circle on the map.

The Great Map
The page dedicated to Gordon's Great Map provides an alternative and supplementary manner of searching, which will take users to the relevant page(s) of the Travel-Journals that treat of that location. The markers are coloured to correspond to the journeys as follows:
Orange = the second journey
Green = the third journey
Red = the fourth journey
Blue = the fifth journey
Grey pointers indicate the locations at which, or of which, drawings were made.

Hovering with the cursor over a marker will show the name of the location (either the modern name or Gordon's); and clicking on it will produce a link to the relevant journal-entry and/or drawing. The same markers appear on the GoogleMap, which will zoom automatically when Gordon's map is zoomed in or out. Given the resources and instruments available to him, Gordon's map is extremely accurate; but there are discrepancies between the two. Gordon's longitudes are mostly given with the meridian at the Cape Castle; though he occasionally uses that of Tenerife. They are as accurate as can be expected at this period.

The Travel Journals
Gordon's four surviving travel-journals are here presented in the form of a transcription of Gordon's original Dutch with a modern English translation parallel to it. They are arranged by day; and a thumbnail, which can easily be enlarged, of the MS page(s) for that day are given below. The transcription can thus always be checked against Gordon's actual handwriting. In addition, a snippetfrom GoogleMaps at upper right shows Gordon's position on that day: clicking on the marker shows that location on Gordon's own Great Map. The journals can be read sequentially, day by day, by clicking on the "Next" button", which opens the entry for the following day.

Letters and Other Writings
In these the transcribed and translated texts are presented side by side. The scans are accessed by scrolling to the end of the document, and opening them there; page- or folio-numbers are signalled in both transcriptions and translations.

The category "Other Writings" includes those MSS at Brenthurst that have been transcribed and/or translated at the launch of this website in February 2017, and will be added to in due course. They include, under the title, Appendix, the miscellaneous and often important writings with which Gordon filled blank pages at the beginnings and ends of the notebooks in which he wrote his travel journals, which are mainly general in nature and cannot be connected to any day or moment of that journey. This category will also be refined in due course.

Untranscribed Manuscripts
Users of this website are encouraged to explore the scans of the Untranscribed Manuscripts, which range from a fair-copy bound MS of meteorological observations, to very rough and loose notes on which Gordon calculated latitudes or annotated events or facts for eventual incorporation into his journals and maps.

The Transcriptions
The transcriptions of the four Travel-Journals are in essence those made by the late Patrick Cullinan, which have been used with the kind permission of Prof. Andy Smith to whom Cullinan had entrusted them to make publicly available. Cullinan worked from photocopies of the MSS now in the Brenthurst Library, and his transcriptions have been thoroughly checked and amended against the high-resolution scans to bring them as close as possible to Gordon's originals, including his aberrant orthography and punctuation. Users of this site are encouraged to check them against the scans for themselves.

The transcriptions of texts on the maps and topographical drawings were largely made by Robert C. De Jong (De Jong 1982); and those on the zoological drawings by Kees Rookmaaker (Rookmaaker 1979 and Rookmaaker 1989). The transcriptions of the letters and other documents have been made by the compilers of this website or are credited at the head of the relevant documents.

An attempt has been made to identify the various handwritings found on the drawings and in some of the Maunsripts as follows:
Hand G: Gordon's own hand
Hand Sch: Johannes Schumacher
Hand V: François Le Vaillant
Hand S1: Gordon’s “first secretary”
Hand S2: Gordon’s “second secretary”
Hand S3: Gordon’s “third secretary”

The Translations
The translations of the Travel-Journals are based on those made by Patrick Cullinan for his own use and have also been made available by Andy Smith (see [http://www.digitalservices.lib.uct.ac.za/news/robert-jacob-gordon-transcripts-online-collection][1]).

These translations have been revised and amended by Duncan Bull and Geoffrey Badenhorst working directly from the scans of the MSS while also making considerable use of the translations by Peter Raper and Maurice Boucher published by the Brenthurst Press in 1988 (Gordon 1988).

The principal aim of this revision was an attempt to bring them as close as is possible in modern English to Gordon's original Dutch. As Gordon's punctuation is extremely erratic it is often difficult to establish the extent of a sentence or the correct destination of subordinate clauses. The solutions given here often differ from both Cullinan's and those of Raper and Boucher. Users of this website are encouraged always to check against the scans.

While the words "Hottentot" and "Bushman" have been used in the translations as historically correct, one particularly troublesome word has been softened as "Caffre", the standard eighteenth-century spelling used by Gordon's travelling-companion William Paterson and other writers in English. With this exception archaisms have been avoided. Words that have entered standard South African English, such as "outspan", "koppie" and "vlei", have been used throughout.

Proper nouns have presented a particular challenge. For the names of places and people the modern (usually Afrikaans) spelling has been used in place of Gordon's often phonetic Dutch wherever possible. Thus "Vogel valeij" has mostly been rendered as "Voëlvlei", and "Pinar" as "Pienaar". But consistency in this regard is impossible, especially as the names of many farms have changed, and many places to which Gordon gave names of his own choosing, such as Fagelsfontein, cannot now be identified. Furthermore, the places marked on Gordon's Great Map are often spelled very diffently in his Travel-Journals and Letters.

Every translation necessarily contains interpretations, and users are invited always to check against Gordon’s original Dutch, either as transcribed or or directly from the scans. Using the GoogleMap it is often also possible to find the modern name of a farm which incorporates at least a memory of that recorded by Gordon.


This website is an initiative of the Rijksmuseum, with the kind co-operation of the Brenthurst Library, and has been partially funded by Welfit Oddy (Pty) Ltd. It has been compiled largely by Geoffrey Badenhorst and Duncan Bull and depends heavily on the scholarship of others (see the Bibliography), most notably that of the late Patrick Cullinan and the late Vernon Forbes, as well as of Kees Rookmaaker, Andy Smith and Robert C. De Jong to whom we are grateful for carte-blanche permission to make use of their published and unpublished material. Andy Smith also allowed us to use the transcriptions and translations made by Patrick Cullinan and available on the University of Cape Town’s website:
Needless to say, all errors and omission are those of the compilers.

The website itself has been designed/engineered by Fabrique with the assistance of Q42.

The compilers of this website welcome any suggestions for its improvement, and would be grateful to be apprised of any errors: info@rijksmuseum.nl

Rijksmuseum Brenthurst Library



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