The French Huguenots were refugees in the Netherlands fleeing religious persecution brought about by the ascendancy of Catholicism in France. The Edict of Nantes, passed in 1685, inspired a great deal of resentment among non Catholics. Fleeing religious persecution in Catholic France, protestant Huguenot refugees entered Holland in large numbers from the 1680s until early in the 18th century.
The core of the Huguenots arrived 1688 and 1689 and became part of the free burghers. In the 1690s the Huguenots comprised only a sixth of the free burgher population. Hereafter individual arrivals continued sporadically until the Dutch government withdrew state subsidies in 1707. One of the enduring legacies left by the Huguenots in South Africa is wine growing and viticulture.
As early as 1686, two years before the arrival of the larger group, brothers Guillaume and Francois du Toit arrived at the Cape. Pioneer Francois Villion (later Viljoen), had arrived at the Cape in 1671. There was a significant encouragement from the Dutch East India Company for the Huguenots to settle at the Cape. This was because like the Dutch, the Huguenots were Calvinists. Along with the Dutch, they helped to spread Calvinism in the Cape and later in South Africa.
One of the most enduring legacies of the Huguenots is wine growing. The Huguenots initially concentrated on wheat and sheep farming as they promised to generate income quicker than viticulture and oenology. The Huguenots and their dependants proved to be hard working and industrious, helping to propel the Cape’s wine-making industry into one of the most profitable.
At the time of their arrival at the Cape, the colony was under Governor Simon van der Stel. Van der Stel became governor between 1679 and 1699 and was responsible for the initial expansion of the Dutch settlement in the colony. The arrival of the Huguenots gave increased momentum to the spread of the white settlement at the Cape.
Their initial success led to the growth of the wine industry in the Cape. Under van der Stel’s son, Adriaan Willhem van der Stel, the wine industry continued to grow. The younger van der Stel set aside prime land for his own wine farm. Known as Vergelegen, the farm became the envy of the Free Burghers, who petitioned the government in Holland, complaining about the corrupt administration of van der Stel. In 1711 van der Stel was recalled, showing that the Free Burghers had political clout.
The Huguenots left a legacy that is far reaching in South Africa. Family names such as Du Preez, Du Plessis, Malherbe, De Villiers, Malan, and Du Toit are still used today with the spelling unchanged. Others have adapted their families to the South African context. These are names such as Retief, Senekal, Cronjé, Pienaar and Viljoen.
• Pieter Coertzen: The Huguenots of 1688-1988, Tafelberg Publishers 1988
• Viljoen, H. C., The Contribution of the Huguenots in South Africa, [online], Available at www.hugenoot.org.za [Accessed: 22 December 2011]
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