Research Notes by Professor DJ Van Zyl


1.1  ‘Dutch East India Company’ refers to the mighty Dutch trading company which was established in March 1602 under the name of the ‘Generale Verenighde Nederlandsche g’octroieerde Oostindische Compagnie’. From the initials of the abbreviated Dutch name, the Company generally became known as the VOC, which was also the distinctive mark on all its flags and merchandise.

1.2  The VOC was an amalgamation of existing small Dutch companies trading with the East Indies with the view not only to strengthen, regulate and protect the already profitable and considerable trade carried on by small Dutch companies, but also to simultaneously avoid the negative financial consequences of the immense mutual competition which had developed among them since they started to trade in the Indian Ocean in 1595.

1.3  The VOC’s main aim was to establish itself as the major force in the East Indies, to monopolise the trade, and to secure large profits from the sale of the much sought-after products like spices, silks and other articles of luxury to clients in Europe. To succeed, the VOC had first to break the Portuguese monopoly of the Cape sea route and its trade in East Indian merchandise which it gathered from its settlements. These were established in East Indian territories during the previous century, following the discovery of the Cape sea route to India by the great Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1497–1498.

1.4   Besides the Portuguese, the VOC’s main rivals in the East Indies were the Spanish and the English trade companies – the latter a new and formidable rival which also began trading there after the formation of the English East India Company (‘John Company’) in 1600.

1.5   The VOC acted as the ‘trade arm’ of the Dutch government (the State-General) which granted it a charter according to which it would have the monopoly of Dutch trade and navigation between the Cape of Good Hope eastwards to the Strait of Magellan (Chile), i.e. the total area of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, where it could establish factories, colonies, erect forts, make treaties, wage wars, and appoint military and civilian officers.

1.6  Right from the start, the VOC achieved many successes in East India: it expelled the Portuguese from Ceylon between 1638 and 1658, and from Malacca in 1641; and it established trading stores on West Java, and eventually wrested from the Portuguese and Spanish their choicest possessions in the East.

1.7  The centre of the authority of the VOC in the East was based on Java, the most important island of Indonesia, situated between Sumatra and Bali. Here the ‘head’ office was set up permanently in Batavia (today Djakarta, the capital of Indonesia on the north-western coast of Java) in 1619 after the VOC chased the English away from the island of Java. It became the seat of the VOC’s Governor-General and the Council of India. From here the Dutch trade and government in Asia was regulated, subject to the control to the VOC’s supreme authority in the Netherlands (Amsterdam), namely the executive committee of 17 directors, known as the Chamber or Assembly of 17 (Afrikaans: ‘Here XV11’). Subordinate to Batavia were the many factories and settlements in the East Indies (and later also the Cape), ruled by commanders (the lesser ‘branches’) or governors (the settlements of greater importance) of the VOC


2.1  Although hundreds of vessels from various European nations sailed around the Cape to and from East India during the 16th and first half of the 17th centuries, neither the Portuguese, English nor Dutch were interested in establishing a permanent provision station or settlement at the Cape of Good Hope. For about 150 years, they preferred to make use of the island of St Helena, where fresh water supplies were taken in, and fruit and game obtained.

2.2  During these centuries, vessels of the above-mentioned countries touched the Cape only occasionally to take in fresh water, to obtain firewood, and to barter cattle and sheep from the local inhabitants (later to become known as the Khoikhoi). During this time, the Cape also served as a rendezvous for the ships of a fleet that had been dispersed by storms.

2.3  The Dutch began to look around for another provision station in about 1650, and their attention was directed to the Cape by the following main economic and geographical reasons: (i) the need for another victualling station to take the place of St. Helena, which had been rendered unsuitable by the wanton destruction of trees, plants and game by the crews of ships calling at the island; (ii) the need for an adequate and reliable supply of vegetables, to minimise the hardships and privation on board ship, and to reduce the high death rate caused by sickness (especially scurvy) due to a lack of fresh food and water; and (iii) the suitability of the Cape as a halfway station and a place of shelter in view of its geographical location, and the nature of the prevailing winds and currents.

Based on the favourable recommendations of the shipwrecked sailors of a Dutch vessel, the Haerlem, in 1647 in Table Bay, who were obliged to spend about a year at the Cape, during which time they successfully planted vegetables, obtained sufficient cattle and sheep (from the local Khoikhoi), and encountered an abundance of fish and game, the Chamber of 17 decided to establish a provision station at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 under the command of Jan van Riebeeck – the beginning of the VOC’s rule at the Cape, which lasted for nearly 150 years and ended in 1795 with the British occupation of the colony.

2.4  To understand the beginning of viticulture and the difficulties it experienced in its development as a separate branch of agriculture at the Cape of Good Hope, it is important to consider the primary intentions of the VOC regarding the Cape settlement, and the nature of its economic policy and the implementation thereof, which can be summarised as follows: (i) The primary intention had been to establish a provision station which could be used as a halfway house for the purpose of supplying fresh products (like vegetables, wheat and fruit) to the Company’s passing ships and for the needs of the local employees in the service of the VOC, and to procure meat by bartering cattle and sheep from the local Khoikhoi. (ii) The Cape was regarded merely as means to an end, the most important factor being the trade with the East Indies. (iii) It was not the original intention of the VOC to colonise the Cape but in 1657 it allowed officials to leave service at the Cape to become the first ‘vryburghers’ (independent farmers or freeburghers) because the Company believed that by allowing private individuals to farm it would be more economical or less costly to produce the necessary provisions for the needs of the homeward- and outward-bound fleets. It was also the main reason for the expansion of the settlement though the establishing of agricultural settlements at Stellenbosch (1679) and Drakenstein 10 years later. (iv) The independent farmers, however, became the victims of the monopolistic policy of the VOC In its strife for maximum profit the Company forced the farmers to sell their produce like wheat and wine at minimum prices to the Company, disallowing free trade . Only when all the requirements of the VOC were met, were the farmers allowed to sell their surplus produce to the Dutch and foreign visiting ships in Table Bay. The Company also, according to its monopolistic policy, controlled the retail trade through a system of monopolies and monopoly contracts, the so-called ‘pagstelsel’, according to which monopolies were granted regarding the sale of all products by retail (for example, the selling of imported or European ‘vaderlandsche’ and locally produced wine, brandy and beer. From these contracts, which were auctioned regularly, the Company derived a substantial amount of income. (v) The monopolist contractors exercised their privileges in an arbitrary and autocratic manner to the detriment of the farmers, including the wine farmers, by paying them the bare minimum for their products.

The development of the colony, specifically agriculture and trade, was to a considerable extent restricted by the monopolisation of trade either in the hands of the Company in respect of foreign trade, or in the hands of the contractors or concessionaires in respect of trade between the colonists and the Company. Eventually these restrictions and the absence of free trade were the main reasons for the financial decline of the VOC at the Cape and elsewhere towards the end of the 18th century and finally its bankruptcy in 1798.


Times of visits:

The visits of Dutch ships to the Cape during the rule of the VOC (1652–1795) were irregular and limited to certain periods of the year in the light of the potential danger of being wrecked in Table Bay (which occasionally happened) due to the north-westerly gales during the winter months and the south-easterly winds during summertime. Most of the Dutch (and foreign) ships thus called between February and May.

The big VOC fleets to and from the East Indies, consisting of at least six to 10 vessels (sometimes even more) at a time, called only once or twice per year. Occasionally other Dutch and foreign ships would call at Table Bay, one to three vessels at a time. It often happened that the Cape authorities (the commander or governor and the Political Council) had to wait for more than six months for any vessels to visit the Cape.

On average, 33 outward- and homeward-bound Dutch vessels per year arrived between 1652 and 1699; 46 from 1700 to 1714; 68 from 1715 to 1739; 52 from 1740 to 1759; and 51 from 1760 to 1779. The number of ships (Dutch and other nationalities) visiting the Cape in a few specific years during the 18th century is as follows:


Dutch:     43Dutch:     52Dutch:        56

English:  10English:  19English:      26

Danish:     4Danish:     1Danish:         4

French:     4French:    4French:       47

Swedish:   1Portuguese:  1

Spanish:   1Austrian:      1

Italian:          5

American:   17

Economic influence

To survive and develop economically the calling of ships, especially those of the VOC, was of extreme importance. Apart from visitors, immigrants, necessities ordered by the Cape government like agricultural implements, hardware and clothing, the Dutch ships carried from the Netherlands and the East Indies also sought-after commodities for which there was a big demand but which could not be produced at the Cape, for example tea, coffee and spices (the exact quantities ordered and delivered are unknown).

Because the ships stayed for a few weeks at a time at the Cape, to be repaired, and for sick crew members and passengers to get the necessary healthcare, the presence of hundreds of crew members, soldiers and passengers created a good temporary market for locally produced food and products (like wine and brandy) bought by the ships, among others to be used as part of the rations on board by crew members and soldiers on their continued journey. Naturally, the retail sales of Cape produce like wine and brandy in the local canteens increased during the stay of the ships.



Not much is known about the winemaking methods applied by the early wine farmers. This is due to the fact that it was not customary for wine farmers to keep notes or diaries about their farming activities. There is, however, one exception: the diary kept by the Colyns, especially Lambertus Colyn, of the De Hoop op Constantia. On this farm, as well as on the neigbouring farm, Groot Constantia, the world-famous Constantia wines were produced. The diary, partly damaged, survived and is housed today in the Cape Archives.The part that survived mainly covers the period 1802 to 1821. From it much is to be learned about how Constantia wines were made on De Hoop of Constantia. In all probability, more or less the same methods were followed on Groot Constantia by the Cloetes and by the previous owners of both farms in the course of the 18th century.

For the winemaking methods of the bulk of the wine farmers who made ordinary Cape wines, we have to rely on casual remarks in the written works by European visitors and travellers who spent some time at the Cape, the most trustworthy on the situation during the 1730s was probably the information provided by Otto Mentzel, a well-educated young man, German by birth, who arrived in 1733 and spent about eight years at the Cape as a government official and, later, as tutor of the children of a high-ranking officer in Cape Town and, also in the same capacity, for two years for the children of a wealthy wine farmer in the Stellenbosch district. He thus had ample opportunity during his eight-year stay to become well-acquainted with the local conditions and customs, among others with the methods used by the wine farmers. Useful information on the subject, although incomplete, is also provided by other contemporary travellers or visitors at the Cape, viz Thunberg (relating to the situation during the 1770s) and Captain Robert Percival (relating to the situation at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries).

Based on information from these sources, as well as scattered references in official documents, the early winemaking methods of the wine farmers can be summarised as follows:


Various cultivars, originally from France, Spain and Persia, were planted at the Cape from vine cuttings brought by VOC ships from the Netherlands after the establishment of the Dutch settlement. The tradition of certain vines being planted was laid during the 17th and 18th centuries. By the 1820s, wine was produced mainly from ‘Groendruiwe’ or, as named by the Dutch, ‘Wyndruif’ (Green Grape or Sémillon), from which a dry white wine known as ‘Cape Madeira’ was made. These wines represent also the bulk of the ordinary wine made at the Cape. By 1822, Green Grape vines numbered about 21 million vines or 93.7% of the total number of vines planted. The next important cultivar was Muscadel (Red and White) which constituted only 2.4% of the total from which dessert wines, included Constantia wines, were made, while the only other cultivars worth mentioning include Hanepoot (Muscat d’Alexandrie), Pontac, Frontignac and Steen (Chenin Blanc), representing less than 1.2% each of the total. Shiraz was also brought to the Cape at an early stage but it was not widely planted.


Most wine farmers usually started harvesting the crop during February when most of the grapes ripened and at a stage they judged it proper to begin collecting their crop. In exceptional cases, especially that of the red grapes (like Red Muscadel), harvesting took place much later because the grape were left on the stalks till they began to shrivel. According to Mentzel, the resulting wine was a little less in quantity but of a much better quality in taste and colour.

Because of the scarcity of labour, the wine farmer made use of all hands available to gather the grapes: a few slaves, his grown-up children, and one or two servants. Mentzel remarked that ‘every grapecutter has a small basket, made of thin, split Spanish reed standing next to him which, when full, is carried by a slave to the pressing room or as it is wrongly called … the cellar; for it is merely a building on level ground, with no windows, with its entrance facing South, to prevent the sun from shining into it.’

The pressing process

Because of a lack of wooden screw presses (which only came generally into use during the last decades of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries), initially the grapes were crushed by hand or by foot, normally by slaves. The pressing process during the 1730s was described by Mentzel as follows: ‘A trapbalie or barrel (usually a leaguer cask cut in two) which is pierced at the bottom and along the sides with many holes made with an half-inch drill, stands on a trestle in a second larger barrel, without holes except for a bunghole, through which the must that is trodded out passes into a pail or barrel placed beneath it. A slave (or more than one) stands in the perforated barrel, holds on to a short piece of rope stretched above him, and treads the grapes with which it is filled with bare feet. (Some farmers have the berries picked from the stalks while others leave them on. If the farmer has a press or a crusher, with which the trodden grapes may be pressed or crushed, he undoubtedly obtains more wine than when it has to be pressed out of the husks by hand alone; but in the case of white wine it does not matter much whether the berries are picked from the stems or not).’

Preparing the wine and the controlling of fermentation

Mentzel also elaborated on how the wine was prepared in the olden days and how fermentation was controlled by a sulphuring process – the only relatively successful way in which fermentation could be controlled, especially in the extremely hot months of February and even March, and in the absence of any cooling facilities. (In the 19th century, many wine farmers began to add quantities of locally produced brandy to the wine in an extra attempt to control fermentation, not a good practice because locally produced brandy was in general of poor quality which also damaged the quality of Cape wines). Mentzel writes: ‘Good farmers … scald out their barrels before the vintage with peach leaves and boiling water. The pressed-out must is immediately poured into a barrel or leaguer which had previously been strongly smoked with sulphur.’

The sulphurating process described by Mentzel was as follows: ‘A piece of cotton cloth is slightly moistened and drawn through liquefied sulphur. Of this, a strip of about two inches in length and three-quarters of an inch in width is cut off and attached to a bent wire as to a hook. The sulphur is then ignited and the wire lowered to the centre of the barrel while the barrel is closed tightly with the bung and a wet cloth…The new must is now poured into a barrel thus impregnated with sulphur but the barrel not entirely filled and the bung is removed, so that during fermentation the husks and other dregs thrown up by the must may drain off; otherwise the barrel would explode. Fermentation is in full swing the very next day and if the wine is desired mellow and sweet, it should soon be drawn off into a newly sulphurated barrel which process should continue daily until the wine quietens down and does not ferment any longer, and lets the real lees sink.’

On the making of red wine, Mentzel remarks: ‘The first wine-grapes to be gathered are the red and the blue (sic) grapes which ripen first… The red wine is the first to be ready and the quickest to make. If a really good quality wine is desired, the berries have to be picked from the stems and then trodden and crushed; for otherwise, since the juice has to remain beside the husks and stems for a few days before being poured into the barrels, it acquires the acid taste of these. When the red grapes have been trodden and crushed in this way with bare feet, they are left in this state in a vessel for four or five days without further treatment, so that the whole mixture may ferment for a while with the husks, or I should say putrefy, until the small veins in the skins of the berries burst open and release their red juice. It is this red juice contained in the tiny veins of the husk which colours the wine red… After four or five days according to the weather, when it appears that the wine has become quite red, it is pressed out either with a press or, better still for this wine, with a squeezer for it does not squeeze out all the dregs. He who possesses neither press nor squeezer has everything pressed out by hand but obtains less wine as a result and can use what remains in the husks only. When the red wine has been crushed, squeezed or pressed out, one or two Muscat nuts are taken (according to whether the barrel is small or big), stuck on a slightly bent iron wire, set alight and hung over the bunghole to allow the Muscat nut a little air in which to burn. As soon as the nuts have burnt out, the wine is poured in and the barrel bunged tightly. Red wine, or rather the vessel in which it is contained, may not be muted, since this would remove the red colour from the wine… After a few days when the lees has drained off somewhat, the red wine thus made is drawn off in another barrel, in which once again one or two Muscat nuts have been burnt. This is repeated several times, until the wine appears to have become quite clear. Then, unless the barrel is very full, another Muscat nut is burned over the wine and its fumes agitated over the liquer by constant blowing: then the barrel is tightly corked. The wine is then left undisturbed for a few weeks when it may sold or transferred to smaller barrels for personal use. At the Cape little red wine is drunk and I doubt whether one leaguer of red wine is sold for every hundred leaguers of white.’

Fining practices

According to Mentzel wine, after it has been sufficiently muted, drawn off and settled, was left undisturbed for a few weeks. Then it was fined especially with imported isinglass. It is, however, highly improbable that this was the method generally used for fining wines because it was very expensive. One has to agree with C. Louis Leipoldt, the distinguished Afrikaans poet and writer who also wrote a book on the history of Cape wine that, although Mentzel did not mention it, (goat) blood was the most common and the cheapest fining material and was already extensively used by all wine farmers. It was also the general method, as noted in his diary, used by Lambertus Colyn for fining his Constantia wines.

Maturation of wines

Maturation of wines was not general practice at the Cape except in the case of a limited number of wealthy farmers, including the makers of Constantia wines who, for example, had the means to buy enough large vats for maturation purposes.

According to Mentzel, not all Cape wines were suitable for maturing. He writes: ‘What is not good wine by nature and quality (or, has not been properly prepared) is not improved by long seasoning, but only becomes sharp and prickly … really good, well-prepared and well-cellared Cape wines improve with age; only the vessels in which to store them are lacking. All the same, I have seen on farms of prosperous wine farmers vats so large that they held eight ordinary leaguers [i.e. about 1 216 gallons (Dutch measurement) or 45.6 hectolitres.].’

Quality and reputation of Cape wines

The quality of the Cape wines varied considerably, pending on the knowledge, care taken and financial ability of wine farmers regarding the making of their wine. The prosperous wine farmers made wine quite acceptable to the taste of officials and visitors to the Cape. Favourable reports about the quality of Cape wine exported were also often received from the Netherlands and Batavia. These applied in the first place to Constantia wines, but also to Muscadel wine made by other well-to-do wine farmers, the quality of which was regarded as nearly as good or of the same quality as the Constantia wines. It also referred to good Madeira wine made by them. Unfortunately, the bulk of the ordinary wine was of poor quality, caused by the slovenly and careless manner in which many farmers made their wine. These wines were mainly consumed by the labouring classes in canteens, or by slaves and free labourers on farms, while certain quantities thereof were sold to passing ships to be used as part of the crew’s rations.

It is interesting to note that little was done during the VOC’s rule at the Cape to improve the quality of the wines. Because of its monopolistic policy, the VOC was only interested in furthering the interests of the colonists if it was to its advantage, financially or otherwise. In this light, its policy towards the sought-after but limited quantities of Constantia wine must be understood. To lay its hands on the wine to be consumed by high-ranking V.O.C officials and their influential friends, locally and abroad, the Company (and, after 1795, also the British authorities for a few years) compelled the owners of the Constantia wine producers, much to their financial detriment, to sell a quota of their produce to the VOC at much reduced prices!

The only real encouragement by the authorities to improve the quality of Cape wines was the prescribed regulations on how to make good wine by Governor Simon van der Stel and, by way of personal example, making the first wines of high quality on his farm Constantia. Accordingly, wine farmers had further to rely on information regarding improved methods from different people with a knowledge of winemaking in Europe and who stayed some time at the Cape. In this connection, it is ironic that there is an erroneous assumption that the arrival of the few Huguenot immigrants from France during the late 1680s did much to improve the quality of Cape wines. This is a highly exaggerated view because at the time of their arrival at the Cape there were only one or two men among them who knew anything about winemaking. In fact, it was the established Dutch wine farmers at the time who taught them how to make wine. It was only much later, during the first years of the 18th century, that some men from France with good knowledge of wine settled among the wine farmers, to some extent possibly contributing to the improvement of the wines at the Cape.


5.1  The need for slaves as a labour force and the first importations

The implementation of slavery at the Cape by the VOC was a continuation of a system known and practised for centuries, among others, by European nations in their overseas colonies and settlements by countries like Portugal, Spain, England and the Netherlands. Thus, by the time the settlement was established at the Cape in 1652, the VOC already had a long experience of practising slavery in the East Indies.

Van Riebeeck soon realised that the importation of slaves was essential to meet the acute labour shortage he experienced regarding the undertaking and the maintenance of various enterprises, like the building of the first fort and buildings, sealing, whaling and, in general, for the primary task of the refreshment station: the servicing of the VOC’s ships and crews. His available sources of labour, namely the small garrison and the transient personnel of the Company’s fleets, were wholly insufficient. The other immediate sources of labour – convicts and the indigenous Khoikhoi population – were unsuitable: the convicts were too few, and the Khoikhoi proved unwilling.

Initially, there were only a handful of personal slaves, owned by officials like Van Riebeeck, at the Cape. After his arrival, attempts by Van Riebeeck to get free Chinese and Mardijkers (emancipated Indonesian slaves) to meet the labour shortage failed but, in 1658, the first significant numbers of slaves were imported: the first consisting of a shipload of 228 slaves as a result of the VOC’s expedition sent to Dahomey, and the second one a shipload of 174, as a result of a chance capture by the Dutch of a Portuguese slave ship bound for Brazil and carrying Angolese slaves. These two shiploads were the only West African slaves brought to the Cape during the Company period.

5.2  Numbers, origins and trades in which slaves were engaged

From 1658 to the end of the Company’s rule, many more slaves were brought regularly to the Cape in various ways, chiefly by Company-sponsored slaving voyages and slaves brought to the Cape by its return fleets. From these sources and by natural growth, the slave population increased from zero in 1652 to about 1 000 by 1700. During the 18th century, the slave population increased dramatically to 16 839 by 1795.

Taken over the whole period, most of the slaves originated from only three territories: from India (about 36%)), the Indonesian islands (31%) and Madagascar (26%). The rest were from various places like Malaysia and Mozambique.

The Company’s forced labour consisted primarily of slaves, but also included Asian and Indonesian convicts. Between 1679 and 1793, the total number of slaves owned by the Company fluctuated between 300 and 600. A large number of its slaves, who were lodged in the notorious Slave Lodge in Cape Town, were general labourers. Others were stevedores, gardeners, domestics, masons, carpenters, coopers, smiths, nurses and herdsmen, etc. Daily control over the work by Company slaves was exercised by overseers (‘mandoors’) who were slaves themselves, or by paid overseers, either Europeans or free blacks (emancipated slaves).

All but a few privately owned slaves belonged to freeburghers or colonists. After 1692, burgher slaves were the most numerous group, largely owned by the citizens of Table Valley (later Cape Town), and soon by far exceeded in number those of the Company. By 1795, the Company owned only about three percent of the reported total of 16 839 slaves – a number that exceeded the free population (whites and free blacks) but excluded the indigenous Khoikhoi. The citizen’s slaves were engaged in many trades, among others specialised trades like carpentry, smithing and masonry. The handsome 18th-century domestic agriculture of the south-western Cape is traditionally linked to the skills of slave masons and craftsmen.

With the expansion of agriculture at the Cape from the late 1680s and in the course of the 18th century, eventually a few thousand slaves, mainly men, were kept chiefly by the wine and wheat farmers to do all the manual labour, and eventually also as craftsmen (like smiths and masons, especially slaves who originated from East India) on the farms under the supervision of their owners. On the wine farms, the slaves were actively involved in all the viticultural and winemaking processes by preparing the soil and planting of the vine stocks, pruning and dressing of vineyards, the gathering of the harvest, pressing the grapes by foot, and controlling fermentation by sulphuring barrels and continuously pouring over the wine into other vessels. Consequently, when the wine was ready for sale, they were responsible for the transporting on ox wagons of the wine to be sold in Cape Town. Naturally, in the course of time, many slaves, based on their experience of viticultural and winemaking methods, became very able ‘assistant’ winemakers and in this respect of great value to their masters.

5.3  Characteristics of slavery at the Cape

From documentary evidence, it is clear that most of the slave owners at the Cape owned only a few slaves per person. In 1750, for example, 57 percent of owners had only one to five slaves; 22 percent had six to 10. The wealthy colonists, among them the prosperous wine farmers, representing the rest of slaveholders, owned from 11 to 50 slaves.

Because slaves were the property of their masters (like their farm and cattle), slaves constituted a capital investment and a valuable asset. The average price of an adult slave (who were normally traded by auction or private sale) pending on his/her age and ability as a labourer, varied between 60 and 200 riksdaalders per slave (the ‘riksdaalder’ or rixdollar was the monetary unit during the VOC’s rule, equivalent to about 4s-6d sterling in 1795 and 1s-6d in 1826) during the greater part of the 18th century, rising to an average of 700 rixdollars by the 1780s.

Because slaves formed an indispensable source of labour, much capital was invested in them and, in many cases, they were the most important asset of individual owners. As this was the case, slaves were readily accepted as security by moneylenders. The maintenance of slaves was, however, costly and simultaneously a risky investment – even regarded as a financial burden by many owners. This was why many slaveholders did not resist the emancipation of the slaves in 1834 in the Cape Colony by the British government, as long as they would be paid sufficient compensation for their capital investments in their slaves – something that unfortunately was not realised in full. Most of the slaves continued their labour on the farms as free labourers after emancipation, forming the bulk of the ancestors of the present day labourers on farms in the Western Cape and part of the so-called ‘coloured’ community.

Through their labour and craftsmanship, slaves made a huge contribution to the development of the Cape economy, particularly in the fields of the wine and wheat industry, but whether slave labour was remunerative in terms of interest on capital is strongly doubted. It also must be said that slavery, wherever it was and is still practised, remains a despicable social institution. 


The tradition of drinking quality wine, spirits and beer at the Cape was introduced by the VOC officials of high ranking. These ‘vaderlandsche’ (European) products were imported and brought by VOC’s vessels to the Cape. Naturally, these officials preferred to drink the European products because of their relatively high quality and, for a very long time, they looked down on the locally produced wine and brandy because of their relatively poor quality. In course of time, as the quality of some wines improved, however, they also started to drink quality Cape wine, like the Muscadel sweet wine and dry Madeira wine. The ordinary Cape wine, even of poor quality, was only drunk by the labouring classes in the many canteens which were started in Cape Town.

From contemporary sources, it is clear that from the beginning of the settlement die drinking of wine at different times of the day was customary for many citizens of Table Bay (Cape Town). Dr. C. Graham Botha, Chief Archivist of the Union of South Africa, wrote in his book on the social life in the Cape Colony in the 18th century as follows: ‘The beverages were tea, chocolate, seltzer water, beer, brandy and wine. The people are said to be a great coffee-drinking community, but a fair amount of tea was also drunk. This was obtained from the East and bought at a high price… Light wine was always on the table and at 11 o,clock in the morning everyone partook of a glass of wine and cake… Today (the 1920s,) tea has taken the place of wine. Those who indulged in spirits took arrack, geneva and brandy. There were no coffee houses in Cape Town such as were found in most cities of Europe, but there were more taverns than were necessary for the size and population of the place. Here the common class people were to be found.’

On the wine-farms, drinking of wine was also a daily routine. Wine farmers did not sell their whole wine production but held back a few barrels of their best quality wine for the consumption of their family, friends and visitors. They also held back a few barrels of poorer quality wine which was reserved to be used by their slaves and other labourers who received four or five times per day ‘doppe’ (a certain quantity of wine – about one-third of a bottle at a time, served in different containers like a tin mug as part of their daily ration. (This system became known as the ‘dopstelsel’. It was only abandoned eventually during the last decades of the previous century, after much criticism that it enhanced alcoholism among farm-workers.)

From the earliest times when the freeburghers began to produce their own wine it became customary for them to enjoy their wine, which they also offered to their visitors, with meals. In 1665, for example, a visitor to one of the first freeburghers described the wine made by the farmer himself and which he had with a nice meal as ‘very drinkable’.

By the 1730s, it was general practice in the homes of the wealthier wine farmers to serve wine with all meals. Mentzel, who experienced it personally, writes: ‘One sits from three-quarters of an hour to an hour at table, and at none of the three meals is table wine wanting; but well-bred people never drink more than three or at most four glasses between the courses at every meal. After the evening meal one might also drink a few glasses of wine over a pipe of tobacco…’

It seems that the example to enjoy wine drinking in abundant quantities during the 18th century was set by the wine farmers themselves – something that spilled over to their slaves and other labourers.