In 1685, Louis XIV of France issued an edict (the Edict of Fontainebleau) that essentially put an end to religious tolerance in France. Hundreds of thousands of Huguenots, who were Protestant in Catholic France, sought refuge in neighbouring countries. Roughly 200 of those who fled to the Netherlands took the Dutch up on their offer of free passage to the Cape colony between 1688 and 1689.
Although the French Huguenots had very few possessions — and could bring even less with them on the voyage — they did possess skills. More specifically, they were skilled in wine farming, and wine was one of the items that ships passing the Cape needed. In addition to free passage, the Huguenots were also promised land, seed and equipment. Although 200 may seem like a small number, at the time it made up a sixth of the white settler population of the Cape colony.
Most of the Huguenots settled in an area that is now known as Franschhoek (Dutch for “French corner”). At the time, however, it was known as Olifantshoek Vallei “Elephant’s-corner Valley”) because of the herds of elephants that roamed the area. The Huguenots named their farms after the areas in France from which they had come.
Because the Dutch East India Company had a strict language policy that ensured Dutch was the only language spoken in schools and used for official correspondence, it wasn’t long before the Huguenots were assimilated into Dutch culture. By the middle of the 18th century, French had disappeared as a home language.
However, the French influence can still be seen in the surnames of many white South African families and in the names of the wine farms in Franschhoek — La Motte, La Cotte, Cabriere, Provence, Chamonix and Dieu Donne.
In Franschhoek you will find the Huguenot Monument and the accompanying Huguenot Memorial Museum, which recognises the role that these early settlers played in shaping the Cape. The monument is made up of three arches, which symbolise the Holy Trinity, and a central female figure who personifies religious freedom — in her one hand she carries a bible, in the other a broken chain.
Of course, if you really want to immerse yourself in the heritage of the French Huguenots, you should spend the rest of the day tasting wine in the region!