SA wine history: Some delicious early correspondence regarding Constantia wine

By , 12 February 2019



I’ve previously written about the role of slaves in the SA wine industry, and not only from the point of view of anonymous, thankless, back-breaking labour but also in terms of the slave blood running through well-known ‘white’ wine families as a result of marriage or concubinage between vrijburghers and slaves in those early years.

Against that backdrop, I’ve re-introduced the critically important Colijns of Constantia, whitewashed from history during the Apartheid years because Johannes Colijn – the man who put Constantia wine on the international map from the 1720s – was the son of a black woman, Maria Everts, who was born into slavery yet became an astonishingly wealthy property (and slave) owner in her own right.

So I’m not entirely surprised to find that some of the earliest letters mentioning Constantia wine were written by (you guessed it) slaves.


Batavia, on the Indonesian island of Java, was founded as a trade and administrative centre of the Dutch East India Company (VOC).

Historian Nigel Worden says the letters from the freed slave Johannes Morgh, living in Batavia, to his half-brother Arnoldus Koevoet, at first still enslaved at the Company’s notorious Slave Lodge and two years later living in Church Street as a free man, ‘suggest a more widespread literacy than historians have usually been prepared to recognise for Cape slaves and freed slaves’.

Actually slave literacy is not entirely surprising, given that Hendrik Adriaan Van Rheede tot Drakenstein, the VOC administrator who imposed ludicrously low prices on Cape wines in 1685, insisted at the same time that the children of Company slaves must attend school until the age of 12, attend church with their schoolmaster every Sunday, and learn the catechism. (The irony is that slave children probably received a better education than many of the children born to illiterate settlers from Europe…)

And so, in a letter dated 10 February 1729, Morgh in Batavia wrote as follows to Koevoet: ‘Brother dear, please send me a half-aum of wine for my account because wine is unavailable and especially Constansie wine which here [costs?] 8 rixdollars like at Jan Klijn’s the half-aum… See whether brother can make an accord with Jan Klijne for a half-aum of wine on my account. I will send him whatever he wants, fabric or chintz or striped stuff, whatever he wants, he only has to write.’

Jan Klijn(e) was of course Johannes Colijn, who in 1727 had negotiated with the VOC to send an annual shipment to Batavia of 10-12 leaguers of red wine at 80 rixdollars each (10 rixdollars per half-aum) and 20 leaguers of white at 50 rixdollars each (6.25 Rixdollars per half-aum).

Johannes Morgh, meanwhile, had been listed as a mandoor (overseer) at the Slave Lodge in 1727 but by 1729 had secured his manumission (by offering the slave Titus of Bengal as his replacement) and was living in Batavia, working as a coachman and horse trainer.

Despite still being enslaved, Arnoldus Koevoet seems to have been highly skilled and well connected: he was able to deliver letters and parcels, procure christening certificates, crayfish and wine, and even dispatch relatives to Batavia!

Following his manumission in 1731 (which he secured by offering the slave Masinga van Rio de la Goa as his replacement), he worked as a carpenter and builder (his surname meant ‘crowbar’) and in March 1732 he was sent another letter by Morgh, again asking him to acquire wine: ‘Red and white, Constanse wijn, and also other sorts of red and white wine, as much as Your Honour can send me, and annually 3 or 4 vats of salt cabbage and sour cabbage; regarding the money, I will send it to you in cash or in goods, at your Honour’s discretion.’

Was Colijn more open to bartering or reaching an agreement with Morgh and Koevoet because they shared a slave background?

I suspect not, given that Colijn’s mother had been free for over two decades when he was born (in 1692) and he was a wealthy man, having inherited property from his mother as well as his first wife, the widow of Klein/Hoop op Constantia. His second wife was Johanna Appel, a white woman whose parents both came from fairly prominent vrijburgher families (her mother was a Cloete) and thanks to producing the Cape’s best wine (with the assistance of some slaves of his own, needless to say), he was in the VOC’s good books.

It all goes to show, to me at least, that things were less ‘black and white’ in those early days at the Cape, which by no means implies that slavery was ever okay, or that it was easy to achieve freedom and future success in life (on the contrary, Robert Shell says that during the 170 years of VOC rule at the Cape, only 103 out of 4,213 slaves born at the Slave Lodge obtained their freedom).

The point is that there is still so much to uncover about early SA history. Those few individuals who did break free, against seemingly impossible odds, must have truly extraordinary (and at least a couple of them appreciated good wine).

Robert Shell, Children of Bondage: A social history of the slave society at the Cape of Good Hope 1652 – 1838, Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg, 1994

Nigel Worden (ed), Cape Town between East and West: Social Identities in a Dutch Colonial Town, Jacana, Johannesburg, 2012

  • Joanne Gibson has been a journalist, specialising in wine, for over two decades. She holds a Level 4 Diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and has won both the Du Toitskloof and Franschhoek Literary Festival Wine Writer of the Year awards, not to mention being shortlisted four times in the Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards. As a sought-after freelance writer and copy editor, her passion is digging up nuggets of SA wine history.


4 comment(s)

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    jonathan snashall | 12 February 2019

    Joanne fair to say that Cape wine has never competed in a ‘free’ and ‘open’ market before the early 90s? Price fixing, market manipulation, over-regulation etc until then? We are still competing with dysfunctional government support, meddling?

      Joanne Gibson | 12 February 2019

      Well, there have been moments of relative (illusory?) freedom. For example, on 18 Sept 1795, at the start of the first British Occupation, Major General James Craig proclaimed: ‘The monopolies and oppression which have been hitherto exercised on behalf of the East India Company are now at an end. A free internal trade and market take place from this day; Everyone may buy from whom he will, sell to whom he will.’
      Famous last words…
      in 1797, the Brits discovered – in a drawer, quite by chance – the ‘specifick agreements’ of 1793 which had compelled both of the Constantia producers (the Cloetes of Groot/Great Constantia and the Colijns of Little/Klein/Hoop op Constantia) to deliver their ‘best and highest flavoured’ red and white wine to the VOC for 150 Cape guilders (50 Rixdollars) per aum ‘without their having any claim on the profits’. Cape Governor George Macartney, 1st Earl Macartney, immediately ordered ‘the farms and vineyards of great & little Constantia’ to continue supplying their new government on the same terms as before. ‘I cannot discover the smallest ground which could justify one in waiving a right now possessed by His Majesty,’ he proclaimed.
      As the decades passed during the second, more permanent, British Occupation, official demand for Constantia gradually fell away (as indeed did demand for the increasingly unfashionable sweet wine generally).
      But, in short, yes, SA producers are no strangers to meddling in its various forms…

    Hennie C | 12 February 2019

    You need to do a bit of translation for me please Joanne. How much is a leaguer, how much is an aum and was the rixdollar the currency of the Dutch at the time?

      Joanne Gibson | 12 February 2019

      Apologies, I’ve ‘translated’ in previous columns but overlooked doing so in this one. A leaguer was about 563 litres and there were four aums (and therefore eight half-aums) in a leaguer. The currency at the time was indeed the rixdollar.

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