SA wine history: It’s time Constantia acknowledged Colijn

By , 28 October 2021

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Johannes Colijn is the man who put Constantia wine on the international map in the 1720s.

I’ve written about him previously (see here) but to recap very briefly: he acquired the smallest sub-division of Simon van der Stel’s original Constantia estate through marriage in 1718; he negotiated the first shipment of his red and white Constantia wines in 1726; he reached a formal agreement to supply the Dutch East India Company annually from 1727; he secured a loan (including money of his own) for his sister Johanna’s husband to buy Groot Constantia next door in 1734, and so highly regarded were his wines by 1736 that he was able to negotiate a sizeable price increase.

Long story short, Colijn’s descendants continued to produce their sought-after Constantia wines at Hoop op Constantia until the late 1850s, and the only conclusion one can reach for their exclusion from most history books (at least until recently) is the fact that Colijn’s mother was a black woman, freed from slavery as a child, the daughter of Evert and Anna van Guinea: Swarte Maria Evertsz.

The fact that Colijn was overlooked during the Apartheid years is perhaps understandable; that his contribution continues to be downplayed in these more enlightened times is inexplicable.

Which is why I’ve been scouring the old records more closely than ever before to prove his importance.

In her 2014 book, Constantia and its Neighbours, Dr Helen Robinson does include Colijn, I’m happy to say. Citing Genealogies of Old Cape Families by CC de Villiers and C Pama as her source, however, she claims that he first came to Hoop op Constantia as ‘a talented young winemaker’ who was employed by the owner, Jan Jurgen Coetze, to oversee wine production. Before long, to quote Sigi Howes who recently gave a talk entitled ‘Zwarte Maria, Camps Bay and Constantia Wine’ to the Genealogical Society of South Africa, citing Robinson as her source, Colijn was ‘chilling the wines and warming the bed’ of Coetze’s widow, Elsabe van Hof, who became his wife on 1 May 1718.

I’m not comfortable with this ‘cheeky upstart’ deduction.

Firstly, I haven’t really come across winemaking as a ‘job’ during those early years. Secondly, Colijn didn’t need a job; he was a young man of some substance, having inherited property, livestock and even slaves from his mother as well as from his half-brother, Jacobus ten Damme, who both died during the 1713 smallpox epidemic. Thirdly, the 1717 Muster Roll (dated May 1717) very clearly enumerated Colijn alongside his father and four siblings (not to mention their 15 male slaves, three female slaves, two slave boys, one slave girl, 1,900 sheep and 7,000 vines) while Jan Jurgen Coetze and Elsabe van Hof were listed pages away with their son, 12 male slaves, four female slaves, 12 horses, 24 oxen and 24,000 vines. They had no knecht (white overseer).

Only one year later, ‘Jan’ Colijn was listed in the Muster Roll dated May 1718 with his vrouw, Elsabe van Hof, her son, 12 male slaves, four female slaves, two slave boys and (wait for it) 50,000 vines.

Johannes Colijn as mustered in Constantia in 1718. (If you’re struggling to decipher his name, he’s the one with 50,000 vines…) Source: Nationaal Archief den Haag.

I’ll get back to the sudden doubling of vines in a moment. As for Colijn’s notably quick courtship of Elsabe, my theory is that he had probably known her for most of his life. She, too, was the child of a woman born into slavery, the halfslag (i.e. European-fathered) Margaretha Jans van de Caep, who had risen through the ranks to become the Slave Lodge’s first schoolmistress before her manumission and marriage to the Norwegian Lambart van Hof in 1685. The number of free women at the Cape in the late 1600s/early 1700s was small. The number of free women who also happened to be ‘black’ was tiny. There is no way they didn’t know each other.

How to explain the doubling of vine plantings? My best guess is that Colijn, right from the start, was managing the vineyards of his absentee neighbours at Groot Constantia, Captain Olof Bergh and his wife Anna de Koningh (also born into slavery as the halfslag daughter of Ansela van Bengale, another well-connected Free Black woman…). When Anna died in 1734 (10 years after her husband), the inventory of her vast estate listed only two leaguers of red wine in the Groot Constantia cellar (one leaguer being roughly equivalent to 575 litres).

Following the death of Elsabe in 1721, Colijn took a bit longer to find a new wife, eventually marrying Johanna Appel (no slave roots) on 23 September 1724. The Muster Rolls show that in 1728 he had 25 male slaves tending his 50,000 vines, supervised by a knecht. In 1734 he had two knechts, and he was then joined in Constantia by his sister, Johanna Colijn, and her German ex-soldier husband, Carl Georg Wieser, who moved in next door at Groot Constantia.

It seems fairly safe to assume that the brothers-in-law worked together to meet the Dutch East India Company’s increasing demand for Constantia wines over the next few years. But comparing the two producers as they appear in the Muster Rolls is an interesting exercise, especially when you consider that Hoop op Constantia (measuring 45 morgen or 38.5 hectares) was five times smaller than Groot Constantia (224 morgen or almost 192 hectares).

Here goes:

In 1736, Colijn declared 50,000 vines planted at Hoop, tended by 30 male slaves, supervised by two knechts. Wieser declared 40,000 vines at Groot, tended by 11 male slaves, overseen by one knecht.

In 1737, Colijn employed three knechts and declared 40 leaguers of wine in his cellar. Wieser no longer had a knecht (he also lost his wife that year) and declared 18 leaguers.

Over the next three years, vine plantings and wine production remained more or less constant: Colijn had 50,000 vines and between 25 and 30 leaguers of wine in his cellar; Wieser had 40,000 vines and 12 to 15 leaguers in his cellar.

In 1740, as an interesting aside, Colijn acquired the Stellenbosch farms Vergenoegd and Geduld, previously owned by his father-in-law, Ferdinandus Appel (remember him?). Meanwhile, Wieser married Maria van der Poel, the Widow Van der Spuij, and they had 20 male slaves in 1740 – a number which increased to 25 the following year, by which time Colijn had 33 male slaves…

In 1742, Colijn had 36 male slaves, but alas he was dead by the time of the next Muster Roll, dated 30 April 1743, when his widow was listed with three sons, three daughters, two knechts, 35 male slaves and 50,000 vines. Wieser still had only 40,000 vines, a number which rose dramatically to 60,000 in 1751 and 80,000 in 1755 but was back down to 50,000 from 1760 onwards. Meanwhile, Colijn’s widow and her ‘new’ husband, Lambertus Meijburg, now had 90,000 vines…

Listed under his own name for the first time in 1760 was 18-year-old Johannes Nicolaas Colijn, who in 1776 purchased Hoop op Constantia ‘very cheaply from his parents’ (i.e. his mother, widowed in 1771) for 61,680 guilders, whereas the vastly larger Groot Constantia was sold to Jan Serrurier in January 1778 for only 53,000 guilders. Although Hendrik Cloete paid 60,000 guilders for Groot Constantia less than a year later, he himself described its buildings as ‘ruined’, its vineyards as ‘exhausted’ and the old slave who had been its cellarer for many years as ‘very ignorant’ (in letters to his Utrecht-based friend Hendrik Swellengrebel).

Groot Constantia certainly reached new heights under the ownership of Hendrik Cloete and his descendants (even as Johannes Nicolaas Colijn and his descendants were continuing to produce their Constantia wines at Hoop op Constantia). But the Muster Rolls provide proof, in black and white, that Hoop op Constantia was producing more wine than Groot Constantia for most of the 18th century, with Johannes Colijn having also almost certainly been responsible for Groot Constantia’s vineyards and wines from 1718 until at least 1734.

Yet Groot Constantia barely acknowledges Colijn to this day, despite having actually incorporated Hoop op Constantia with its historic farmstead and cellar into the estate in 1975 (not to mention another adjoining property named ‘Coleyn’ which was incorporated in the early 1980s). The Constantia Wine Routes website also skips from the death of Simon van der Stel in 1712 to the arrival of Hendrik Cloete in 1778, as if nothing happened in between. (Never mind ample evidence that Constantia wines were ‘prized’ by European nobility from at least the mid-1700s, with those savoured by some American Founding Fathers and cellared by Frederick the Great of Prussia and Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of France, for example, all predating the Cloete era…)

In my opinion, the story of a man with African/slave roots building the reputation of the southern hemisphere’s most famous wine (historically speaking) is an empowering one for Constantia producers to tell, to South African and international wine lovers alike. Isn’t it finally time to acknowledge him, celebrate him, perhaps even name a wine after him?

  • 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.

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