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Drink a toast to the rich Creole heritage of the Cape’s wines

Anthony Lane has been described as “design supremo” and “master designer” with “a well-deserved near monopoly of top-end label design in South Africa”.

But late last year one of his designs was not well received. “It made a dull thwack,” blogged Harry Haddon. “A thwack full of bewilderment, confusion and wonder. It was the sound of my palm hitting my forehead.”

Lane’s design was the logo for the new Cape Vintners Classification (CVC), an association launched by producers aiming “to build South Africa’s reputation as a producer of world-class wines”. And Haddon’s problem was that “it shouts about oppression, segregation, and colonial rule” because it references the Dutch East Indian Company or Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC).

Rust en Vrede wine estate in Stellenbosch. (Supplied)

“The CVC wants its logo to denote quality, which it might just do, but its connotation will be the tale of our colonial past, and a worrisome narrative that pays homage to European settlers while too comfortably ignoring the oppression, thievery, and racism they brought with (sic). […] To reinforce the Dutch, and thus Afrikaans, heritage of our wine industry and align this with top quality, creates an inherently dishonest narrative. […] We hold on to a history that serves a minority. A history we need to engage with and tell truthfully.”

Why it would be remiss
After thinking about the CVC logo for almost a year, a year in which I have researched the fascinating beginnings of the Cape wine industry, I can no longer support most of Haddon’s rant (however politically correct) except for that last sentence about telling history truthfully.

I would argue that for modern producers to play down the role of the VOC would be as remiss as it was for most apartheid-era historians not to tell us that Simon van der Stel wasn’t white (his grandmother was the Indian slave known as Monica of Goa), or that the man who put South Africa’s most famous wine, Constantia, on the international map in the 1720s, Johannes Colijn, wasn’t the son of a freed slave (but of the remarkable Maria Everts whose parents came from Guinea, West Africa).

And those two examples merely hint at what a melting pot the Cape really was under the VOC.

Take a fresh look
I believe it’s time to take a fresh look at what the VOC stood for – profitable commercial enterprises rather than empire building – and what its refreshment station at the Cape ultimately resulted in: a Creole multi-ethnic Dutch-Indies-African culture, epitomised in one of the most beautiful domestic building styles in the world (so-called Cape Dutch, though personally I prefer Old Cape, and either way I don’t hear anyone calling for the demolition of all whitewashed farmsteads built before 1795).

To start with, the VOC’s makeup wasn’t entirely Dutch. As Dan Sleigh notes, it employed some 30 000 people of various nationalities, classes and education levels at its company’s stations.

Among the German “louts” was Jacob Klauten from Cologne, the first man to obtain individual land title (in 1657) and progenitor of the “respectable” Cloete family (of Groot Constantia fame) – not bad for a man who stood trial on numerous charges ranging from illegal bartering with the “Hottentots” to failing to pay his servants’ wages, all culminating in his murder by persons unknown in 1693.

Chance at a better life
Other non-Dutch settlers included the Dane Peter Meerhoff (who married the famous Goringhaicona woman Eva, born Krotoa), the Swedish Olaf Bergh (who married Anna de Koning, daughter of the slave known as Angela of Bengal), and the Norwegian Lambart van Hoff (who married the halfslag Margaretha Jans van de Caep, whose daughter Elsabe would inherit the original Klein Constantia from her first husband, German-born Jan Jurgensz Cotze, and leave it to her second husband, the aforementioned and decidedly nonwhite Johannes Colijn).

Not to mention those 200-odd French Huguenots who arrived in 1685 after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Whatever their actual (probably minimal) contribution to wine growing in South Africa, one thing is indisputable: they were rescued from religious persecution in France by the Dutch, and their chance at a better life was entirely thanks to the VOC.

Miscegenation was condoned
Opportunity, in fact, was a defining feature of the VOC, where it was possible to rise from the lowest rank to the highest. Ceylon governor Adriaan van der Meijden started out as a cabin boy, for example, while top-ranking governors generals Mossel and De Klerk first joined the VOC as ordinary seamen.

Slavery, unfortunately, was universal practice in those days, even within the warlordism and caste systems of indigenous African and Asian societies, and with the doctrinal blessing of Islam, Judaism and Christianity alike.

At the Cape, however, the VOC initially discouraged it: “In our opinion the colony should be worked and established by Europeans, and not by slaves, as our nation is so constituted that as soon as they have the convenience of slaves they become lazy and unwilling to put forth their hands to work, and this is a great failing in India among the Dutch […] and this failure could be prevented at the Cape completely if only a fair number of freemen would make up their minds to settle there.”

Jan van Riebeeck argued that the arrival of some female slaves might encourage more men to settle. Slaves did come, as we know, and marriages did eventualise, as we have seen, though “concubinage” was more common (Everts , for example, was not married to Bastiaan Colijn).

And it goes without saying – certainly without condoning it – that VOC men fathered many children at the Slave Lodge. Although VOC laws forbade “that shameful crime of fornication, and whoredom”, miscegenation was at least covertly encouraged at the Cape during the first couple of decades.

Being ‘very black’ no obstacle
Halfslag children were “born into freedom”, which is to say they were baptised, educated in Dutch, and freed at legal majority on payment of a manumission fee. Slaves, too, could be manumitted, sometimes on application, sometimes when their owners died or left the Cape, sometimes under special circumstances.

For example, Everts’s father, Evert of Guinea, became the Cape’s first vrijswart on August 22 1659 after divulging the whereabouts of some absconded slaves.

Freed herself in 1670, Maria went on to become one of the Cape’s wealthiest landowners, her property including what is now Camps Bay as well as the farms Mosselbank at Klipheuwel and Klawervlei at Darling. And her name appears as both buyer and seller in numerous slave transactions from the late 1690s.

Other wine industry examples of successful freed slaves include Anthonij of Angola, who was granted a farm in Jonkershoek in 1683 (later incorporated into Lanzerac), where he employed the Englishman William Teerling and Germans Hans Jes and Christian Marenz, while Willem Stolts, freed in 1724, went on to own the Swartland farms Wolwedans and Hoornbosch, not to mention 11 slaves of his own.

Tip of the iceberg
Of course slavery was wrong but, as evidenced by slave-owning former slaves, it was the way at the time.

As for racism, later so infamously institutionalised in South Africa, vrijswarten under the VOC had the same rights and opportunities as European or white Cape-born free burghers.

Being “very black” was no impediment to Everts’s success, while her descendants would farm in Constantia until 1857, producing (before and then alongside the Cloetes of Groot Constantia) the most famous wine of the southern hemisphere. Meanwhile, the blood of just those relatively few slaves brought from West Africa in 1658 runs in the veins of Afrikaner wine industry families with surnames including Badenhorst, Basson, Eksteen, Goosen, Heyns, Jonker, Kruger, Vermeulen and Van Zyl.

And that’s the tip of the iceberg, given that most Cape slaves came from Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius, and some from as far away as Malaysia and even Japan.

In short, the VOC heritage of our wine industry is neither very Dutch nor lily-white.

On the contrary, the inherent diversity of the VOC at the Cape is in our DNA (literally, in many cases), expressed in the Creole language that so many of us speak (Afrikaans), and built into farmsteads that are the architectural envy of other New World wine-producing nations, yet had such modest origins – much like the men who first built them, whether “raw churls” from Europe or freed slaves.

And this is why I believe the Cape’s story is nowhere better told, in all its diversity, than in the evolution of its buildings.

Built for practical reasons
As architect Alex Robertson reveals, the earliest farmsteads were nondescript three-room dwellings hastily constructed from rough stone, earth and clay; later smoothed over using ant-heap earth; and eventually lime-washed (using burnt seashells) to make them water-resistant.

Over time, their simple I-shape was expanded into an L or a U (with a courtyard for wind protection), while the “T” proved popular in less windy areas, easily expanding into an “H” as family or fortune grew.

The floors were earthen or made from compacted peach pips; wild reeds were used to thatch the roofs; and even the small klompjes also known as Batavian tiles were only introduced because they were easily available.

“They actually had nothing to do with Batavia but were made in Holland or Germany for use as ballast on the ships that would be bringing spices back from the East,” reveals Robertson.

Gables, too, were initially built for purely practical reasons – one at each end of the roof to prevent thatch from blowing off; one over the front door in case of fire (to catch burning thatch) or to make space for a small window (Boekenhoutskloof with its simple wolfneus is an example) .

From the mid-1700s, the gables became increasingly curvaceous and decorative to signify increasing wealth, from the holbol or curvilinear style with a plain façade (such as Joostenberg, dated 1756) through Baroque-inspired scrolls, wavy lines, brackets and more complicated motifs (Morgenster, dated 1786) to the neoclassical design of the most ornate cellar of all, Groot Constantia, featuring Ganymede seated on Jupiter’s eagle, pouring wine from a flagon, surrounded by cherubs (dated 1791).

German master sculptor’
The Cape’s most beautiful farm gables are attributed to Anton Anreith (1754-1822), who has gone down in history as a “German master sculptor”. Yet he was listed as a mere “carpenter” when he arrived at the Cape in 1777, and “his own peculiar version of stucco”, as De Bosdari describes it, was almost certainly influenced (if not learnt from and largely implemented) by his Malay workforce.

Similarly, the beautiful symmetry of Old Cape farmsteads (indeed of entire werfs including cellar, pigsty, fowlhouse, jonkershuis, kraal, stables and – yes – slaves’ quarters) is often attributed to French military engineer-turned-architect Louis Michel Thibault (1750-1815) and/ or German stonemason-turned-architect Hermann Schutte (1761-1844).

But in fact there is very little to indicate who built what, with slightly uneven floors, doors and window frames in many cases suggesting limited expertise – which only makes the beauty and longevity of the buildings all the more remarkable.

Sheer endurability
In their modest origins, ingenious adaptation to local conditions and sheer endurability, Old Cape farmsteads are like the people who built them, who planted vines, who made wine under the VOC that “most notedest company in the universe” that has never been “properly engaged with” by the South African wine industry, neither during the apartheid era (when much was made of what Haddon calls “brave white settlers arriving on the dark continent and, while heroically taming the savages, managing to make wine”) nor since 1994 (twenty years of democracy in which the contribution made by some truly remarkable “nonwhite” individuals under the VOC has still not been acknowledged).

And if some do still find VOC references problematic, then our identity surely lies in the design of those gables.

Joanne Gibson’s essay, which has been edited for the Mail & Guardian, was one of the shortlisted entries for the 2014 Du Toitskloof Wine Writer of the Year Competition in association with Standard Bank. The topic this year was “The role and/ or history of design in contributing to the uniqueness of the South African wine industry”. Tim James was announced as the winner. For more information, visit

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