Van Riebeeck was born in Culemborg, Netherlands as the son of a surgeon. He grew up in Schiedam, where he married 19-year old Maria de la Quellerie on 28 March 1649. (She died in Malacca, now part of Malaysia, on 2 November 1664, at the age of 35). The couple had eight or nine children, most of whom did not survive infancy. Their son Abraham van Riebeeck, born at the Cape, later became Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies.
Joining the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) Dutch East India Company in 1639, he served in a number of posts, including that of an assistant surgeon in the Batavia in the East Indies. He subsequently visited Japan. His most important position was that of head of the VOC trading post in Tonkin, Vietnam. However, he was called back from this post as it was discovered that he was conducting trade for his own account.
In 1651 he volunteered to undertake the command of the initial Dutch settlement in the future South Africa. He landed three ships (Dromedaris; Reijger and Goede Hoop) at the future Cape Town on 6 April 1652 and fortified the site as a way-station for the VOC trade route between the Netherlands and the East Indies. The primary purpose of this way-station was to provide fresh provisions for the VOC fleets sailing between the Dutch Republic and Batavia, as deaths en route were very high. The Walvisch and the Oliphant arrived later in 1652, having had 130 burials at sea.
Van Riebeeck was Commander of the Cape from 1652 to 1662; he was charged with building a fort, with improving the natural anchorage at Table Bay, planting cereals,fruit and vegetables and obtaining livestock from the indigenous Khoi people. In the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town there is a Wild Almond hedge still surviving, that was planted on his orders as a protective barrier around the Dutch settlement. The initial fort, named Fort de Goede Hoop ('Fort of Good Hope') was made of mud, clay and timber, and had four corners or bastions. This first fort should not be confused with Redoubt Duijnhoop or the Cape Town Castle. The Castle, built between 1666 and 1679, four years after Van Riebeeck's departure, has five bastions and is made of brick, stone and cement. (Zacharias Wagenaer laid the cornerstone of this castle.)
Van Riebeeck was joined at the Cape by a fellow Culemborger Roelof de Man (1634-1663) who arrived in January 1654 on board the ship Naerden. Roelof came as the colony bookkeeper and was later promoted to second-in-charge.
Van Riebeeck reported the first comet discovered from South Africa, C/1652 Y1, which was spotted on 17 December 1652.
In his time at the Cape, Van Riebeeck oversaw a sustained, systematic effort to establish an impressive range of useful plants in the novel conditions on the Cape Peninsula – in the process changing the natural environment forever. Some of these, including grapes, cereals, ground nuts, potatoes, apples and citrus, had an important and lasting influence on the societies and economies of the region. The daily diary entries kept throughout his time at the Cape (VOC policy) provided the basis for future exploration of the natural environment and its natural resources. Careful reading of his diaries indicate that some of his knowledge was learned from the indigenous peoples inhabiting the region.
He died in Batavia (now renamed Jakarta) on the island of Java in 1677.
- Dutch pronunciation: [ˈjɑn vɑn ˈribeːk], Afrikaans pronunciation: [ˈjɐn fɐn ˈribeək]
- Trotter, Alys Fane Keatinge (1903). Old cape Colony : a chronicle of her men and houses from 1652 to 1806. London : Selwyn & Blount. Retrieved 2009-07-25.
- S. Pooley, 'Jan van Riebeeck as Pioneering Explorer and Conservator of Natural Resources at the Cape of Good Hope (1652–62)', Environment and History 15 (2009): 3–33. doi:10.3197/096734009X404644