By H.C. Viljoen

The Huguenots who arrived at the Cape of Good Hope at the end of the 17th century, consisted of only a fraction of the large-scale Protestant flight from France after the revocation of the Edict on Nantes in 1685. Nevertheless their numbers were large enough to have a considerable influence and leave a lasting impression on the young settlement at the Cape. As early as 1671 the first Huguenot refugee, Francois Villion (later Viljoen), arrived at the Cape. In 1686 the brothers Guillaume and Francois du Toit arrived. After the main stream of Huguenots arrived during 1688 – 1689, they comprised approximately one sixth of the free burgher population, after which individual arrivals continued sporadically until the termination of the state subsidised emigration in 1707.

A complete surnames list (original spellings) of Huguenots who emigrated to the Cape and have descendants in South Africa, appears in the column at left. Not all of these surnames exist in South Africa today, since a number of Huguenot « stamouers » (founding fathers) only propagated in the female lines.

The potential emigrants from Europe were allowed to take only the minimum amount of necessary luggage along. After their arrival at the Cape, they were expected to make a living from agriculture, business or by practicing a trade. If they decided to farm, they were allotted free farms, and implements, seed and animal stock would be provided, the cost of which had to be later reimbursed to the Dutch East India Company in terms of produce or any other goods.

The contribution of the Huguenots in South Africa Huguenot Society of South Africa

The Dutch East India Company encouraged the Huguenots to emigrate to the Cape because they shared the same religious beliefs, and also due to the fact that most of them were highly trained craftsmen or experienced farmers. Initially they concentrated on wheat and sheep farming, specifically as it would provide an income sooner that would have been the case with viticulture and oenology (the growing of grapes and making of wine, brandy and vinegar). They, as well as their descendants, proved that they were hard working and industrious, and their efforts later led to a marked increase in the improvement of quality Cape wines. A number of wine estates have French names to this day, as a reminder of their important contribution to this industry in the Western Cape. The number of vine plants increased from 100 in 1655 (three years after the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck at the Cape) to 1,5 million in 1700.

When John Ovington visited the Cape in 1693, he wrote:

“Their vineyards have been established over an area of more than seventy five English miles, yet they still have their eyes on large pieces of virgin soil before them. In this district they farm with livestock, plant maize, establish vineyards and improve everything conscientiously for the greatest benefit …. Their vineyards, which they have multiplied to a large variety of cultivars, can now also provide the passing ships…”

A number of Huguenots were listed as experienced « vineyard pruners ». The De Villiers brothers in particular arrived at the Cape with a reputation for viticulture and oenology. Through the years the De Villiers brothers planted more than 40 000 vines at the Cape.  They moved from the original farm allocated to them (which they named La Rochelle) to finally settle on individual allottments near Franschhoek with the namesBourgogne, Champagne and La Brie.

The legacy of the Huguenots was however far reaching. Today thousands of their proud descendants carry with dignity surnames of which the spelling is unchanged from the original, such as De Villiers, Malan, Du Toit, Du Plessis, Du Preez and Malherbe; the spelling of others were localised, such as Viljoen, Cronjé, Pienaar, Retief and Senekal. Certain first names which the Huguenots brought with them are poplular amongst their descendants, especially male christian names such as Francois, Pierre, Etienne, Jacques  and Louis. Research has shown that the contribution of the Huguenot genes to the Afrikaner people amounts to some 24%. Their descendants are proud of ancestors who sacrificed a great deal – even their country of birth –  and were willing to suffer personally for their religious convictions.

The Huguenots are characterised by their intrinsic pride, diligence and honesty. Although they strove to maintain their own identify at first, they soon intermarried with the other colonists to fully become just South Africans. Within two generations even their home language, French, largely disappeared.

As a group the Huguenots arrived at a very early stage of the settlement at the Cape when the white population was still relatively small in numbers . What they experienced as children of the Reformation in their own country, they brought as spiritual assets to their new country of choice.


The contribution of the Huguenots in South Africa Huguenot Society of South Africa-img2.png

Perhaps their most important influence on South Africa, is the fact that they – like their Dutch compatriots – were supporters of  Calvinism. In his work  Het leven van Johannes Calvijn (« The life of John Calvin ») D’Arbez concludes: 

Nowhere on earth is the legacy of Calvin stronger than in South Africa, where the spirit of Calvin has not waned due to the influence of the twentieth century, as has been the case, and still is the case, in the countries of Europe”.

A number of writers mention different characteristics of the Afrikaner nation which could be ascribed to the influence of the Huguenots: physical features such as a darker complexion and black hair,  a cheerful disposition, stamina, artistic ability, individualism and a sense of independence, a love for personal and political freedom, courtesy, hospitality, humour and joyfulness, and ingenuity (the ability to make a plan). 

A survey published in the Sunday Times Magazine of October 4th, 1981, indicated that of the 36 most common surnames amongst the white population, nine are of Huguenot origin. They are the surnames Nel, Du Plessis, Coetzee, Fourie, Du Toit, Le Roux, Viljoen, Marais and Du Preez. In the first four volumes of the South African Biographical Dictionary (« Suid-Afrikaanse Biografiese Woordeboek ») articles of 25 individuals with the surname De Villiers appear, seventeen about Du Toit’s, twelve on Malan’s, nine on Joubert’s, and eight on Viljoen’s. Desendants of Huguenots can be found amongst the leaders and achievers on every terrain in South Africa – religious, social, economical, cultural, research and development in the areas of agriculture, science and engineering; sport and politics, as military leaders and statesmen, as poets and philosphers and authors.

The Huguenots did indeed leave a direct and indirect legacy in South Africa. They did not continue to live as an separate, clearly identifiable subgroup. Already early in the eighteenth century they were assimilated by the rest of the population at the Cape as a result of both political measures and their minority numbers.  But despite their relatively small numbers, they nevertheless left an indelible mark on and made a valuable contribution during the early years of the settlement at the Cape of Good Hope to various areas – economy, education, technology, agriculture, culture, church life, religion, etc. 

The legacy of the Huguenots is wide-ranging but subtle; throughout the years researchers looked in vain for a definitive French influence under the Cape colonists, and only the names of people and farms remain. Whatever their contribution, it can no longer be clearly identified separately from that of their fellow colonists. But the Huguenot sense for values remains, and romanticism still surrounds the French farm names in the Western Cape, reminding us of the Huguenot refugees. Nobody expresses it better that Maurice Boucher in his « French Speakers at the Cape« :

What remains of lasting value, is the proud heritage of men, women and children who suffered for a cause and followed the road of exile to retain their spiritual integrity. This was certainly true of most of the refugees, and the longing which they must have felt for the country which they left for ever is reflected in the names which they have chosen for their farms which they laid out along the hills of the Western Cape: Languedoc and Provence, La Brie, Calais and Cabrières; and many others which recalled memories of images from their childhood and the roots from which they sprang.




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