Know Your Country - Catharina Ras

Last updated: Aug 05, 2015

The first owner of the Steenberg Estate in Constantia was a woman called Catherina Ras. She was a particularly rugged and adventurous person known for her gutsy personality and for riding horses bare-back into town.

Catharina Ustings Ras left Germany for Cape Town in 1662, just 10 years after Jan van Riebeeck, and in order to get on board the ship she had to dress as a man.

Unfortunately for Catharina one of her biggest hardships would be keeping her husbands alive, because they all kept dying in weird and wonderful ways.

When she left Germany at the age of 21, she was already a widow.

Her second husband, Hans Ras, was a farmer on the banks of the Liesbeek River. On their wedding night things already went awry. Catharina and Hans, along with their guests, got into two wagons headed for home. The wagon-drivers had been enjoying a few bottles of the Cape wines and decided to have a wagon race along a narrow road through Rondebosch. The passengers were forced to hold on for dear life until eventually they crashed and Hans jumped out to confront the drivers. The situation escalated quickly, and one of the wagon drivers stabbed Hans in the chest.

Hans survived but a few years later would be killed by a lion. Legend has it that when Catharina heard the news, she grabbed a gun, jumped onto her horse, and tracked down and killed the lion. We aren't sure if the lion was related to Cecil, and this attack was some sort of retro-active karma...

She then married another man who was a notoriously bad farmer and businessman. He would meet his end a year into their marriage after going on a hunting trip with friends into a Khoi chief's territory and never returning.

Undeterred by her bad luck with husbands, Catharina married again, this time to a man named Lourens Cornelisz who worked as a servant for the man who had stabbed her second husband, Hans, on their wedding night. By this time Catharina owned a farm, two properties and a house in Strand Street. Lourens loved his new found riches, but he equally loved to spend them, and soon they were in serious financial trouble. In order to earn money Lourens decided to go hippo hunting. Unfortunately he would meet his end on the trip being trampled to death by an elephant.

When Simon Van Der Stel was made commander of the Cape he was entrusted with making sure the settlers became self-sufficient. The gutsy Catharina approached Van Der Stel and convinced him to give her a piece of land in Constantia; this, at a time when women didn't own land.

She would turn this land into one of the most prosperous farms in the colony. The farm was named Swaaneweide because Catharina thought she saw swans on the farm. They weren't. They were geese.

She married her fifth husband Matthys Michelsz who no doubt had some trepidation considering the fates of his predecessors. Together they were very successful and by 1692 had planted 800 vines, and had 600 sheep and 400 heads of cattle on the farm.

Catharina was a success story for Van Der Stel and he happily showed her off to the commissionaire Baron van Rheede. He visited the farm and later remarked that she was a fiercely independent woman, "riding bare-back like an Indian and her children resembling Brazilian cannibals!"

Catharina's story is both one of great hardship and one of great triumph. She was a real frontiers woman who was able to roll up her sleeves and rise against the sexist social order of the time.

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