The French Huguenots

The Fine Art of Winemaking

In 1688, a community of 176 Protestant French Huguenots applied for permission to settle at the Cape. The French King, Louis the XIV, had outlawed Protestantism in 1685, and these religious dissenters were very unhappy living under the oppressive Catholic regime in France. 

©Roger de la Harpe

The Huguenots decided that they would do anything to worship freely, even if it meant sailing halfway around the world to a wild new country. The first Huguenots arrived in the Cape in 1688, and brought with them an element of culture and sophistication that was sorely lacking from the ramshackle Company outpost. They were also skilled farmers who brought the fine art of winemaking to the Cape. This small group of French people certainly left a lasting impression on the young colony.

They helped establish the renowned Cape wine industry, which is now an important contributor to the economy of the region. They also founded several family dynasties. The familiar Afrikaner family names De Villiers, Le Roux, Du Plessis, Fouche, Joubert, Rossouw and others were all spawned by the Huguenots and their numerous descendants. As one kid succinctly wrote in an exam paper, “The French Huguenots landed at the Cape, intermarried with the Dutch and produced grapes.”

Settling in Olifantshoek

©Roger de la Harpe
Vineyards near Franschhoek, Western Cape, South Africa.

At first, the Huguenots were sent to farm alongside Van Der Stel’s latest flock of settlers in the Berg River Valley around the slopes of the Drakenstein (Dragon Rock) Mountains. But the Frenchmen were unhappy with the soil of their farms, and started scouting around for better land. They found it in an isolated, dead-end valley called Olifantshoek, which was sealed off by mountains to the East.

Over the millennia, this lovely declivity had been the seasonal breeding ground for herds of elephants who migrated over the peaks each year, only to return for the calving season. It was a well-watered valley with good soil, and the Huguenots asked Van Der Stel if they could have it. In 1694, nine farms were allocated to the diligent French settlers, and the valley was renamed Franschhoek. The last wild elephant was killed in the 1930’s.

Huguenot Memorial

©Roger de la Harpe
The Huguenot Monument, Franschhoek, Western Cape, South Africa.

This small but striking monument was built in 1938 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Huguenots’ arrival at the Cape. The monument consists of a lady on a plinth who holds a bible in one hand and a broken chain in the other. This symbolises freedom from religious tyranny.

Behind her are three tall, graceful arches which represent the holy trinity. The arches are crowned with a shining golden sun of righteousness and the reflection pool below expresses the tranquillity that the Huguenots found in their verdant little valley. I should mention, however, that all of this well-intentioned symbolism pales in comparison to the natural backdrop of tall grey mountains and searing blue sky that envelop this end of the valley. A well-stocked museum and nicely laid out rose garden complete the picture.

By David Fleminger

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