On October 22nd, 1685 the Edict of Nantes, which was issued in 1598, was revoked. The Edict guaranteed Huguenots, with their reformed religious convictions, the right to practise their faith in France. By the revocation of the Edict the reformed faith was outlawed in all of France and those who practised it were persecuted and even killed. Thousands of Huguenots fled from France. The majority of them found refuge and a new existence in the Netherlands.
The flight of the Huguenots to South Africa did not, as is generally believed, occur only during the years 1688 to 1689. Over a period of more than three quarters of a century they relocated to and settled at the Cape of Good Hope, although the majority did emigrate there during the two year period.
It is interesting that the first Huguenot to set foot at Table Bay was Maria de la Quellerie, the wife of commander Jan van Riebeeck, who established the refreshment post for passing ships at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. She and her husband, however, stayed for only 10 years at the Cape and they left for the East in 1662.
The first Huguenot to permanently settle at the Cape of Good Hope was Francois Villion (presently spelled Viljoen), who arrived at the Cape already in October 1671. In 1685 Jean de Long (de Lange) and his family arrived at the Cape, and the next year the brothers Guillaume and Francois du Toit followed. Only two years later the organised susidised large scale emigration occurred.
On 3 October 1685, thus even before the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the Dutch East India Company, with its extended world wide trade interests, decided to send a number of colonists to the Cape of Good Hope to strenghten the farming activities. It was initially hoped that French refugees, in other words Huguenots, would also be part of this group of colonists. Only three French refugees were however willing to come to the Cape in 1685/6. When the decision of the Dutch East India Company was repeated in 1687, a larger number became interested due to continued deteriorating circumstances in France. Eventually approximately 175 Huguenots settled at the Cape of Good Hope between 1688 and 1689 as part of the official colonisation of the Dutch East India Company. It is recorded that some 279 French and their descendants were living at the Cape of Good Hope in 1729.
The first ship with Huguenots on board which arrived in Table Bay on April 26th, 1688, was the Oosterland. Another ship, the Voorschoten, already entered Saldanha Bay on April 13th to seek refuge against a gale force wind and heavy seas. Amonst the passengers were Chales Marais and his family, Philippe Fouché with his wife and children, Jacques Pinard (Pienaar), Jean Leroux (Le Roux) and Gideon Malherbe. Other ships which brought the first groups of Huguenots to the Cape were the Borssenburg, De Schelde, the Berg China, the Zuid-Beveland and the Wapen van Alkmaar. On board the Wapen van Alkmaar, which left Texel on July 27th, 1688 and arrived in Table Bay on January 27th, 1689 were forty two Huguenots. After Januariy 1689 various smaller groups of Huguenots still arrived at the Cape. All the ships of this first fleet left the Netherlands from Exel, and sailed along the west coast of Europe and Africa, until they reached Table Bay.
In 1707 the state-promoted emigration was ended, but various Huguenots arrived at the Cape of Good Hope after this year on their own initiative. This include Pierre Labuschagne (1710); Anna Maria Bacat (1717), Jacques Naudé (1718), Jean Blignaut (1723) and Francois Guilliaumé (Giliomee) (1726).
The Huguenots were given farming land in various places, where they were expected to settle: a couple in the Table valley, some in the vicinity of the present day Sometset West and Stellenbosch. The majority were awarded farming land in the Berg river valley between the present day Franschhoek and Wellington. It is noticeable that they were settled on the banks of rivers which flowed into the Berg river. They were purposely spread out and given farms between the Dutch farmers, because the Dutch East India Company was hesitant to allow them to settle as a single group so as to prevent them to collaborate against the Dutch authorities, or to connive with France. Initially all the Huguenots who settled east of the Cape were regarded as members of the Stellenbosch congregation where the Rev Pierre Simond, who came with them, was established as their church minister. In 1691 however they were given the right to establish their own small church building near to the present day church building in Simondium. Here the Rev Simond preached to them in French for several years. Later the church building was moved to the site of the present "Strooidakkerk" (thatched roof church) in Paarl.
Some of the Huguenots who settled at the Cape of Good Hope were well educated for their time, and practised important professions:
Josue Cellier (Cilliers, Cillié) - farmer, wine maker and carpenterThe initial years of the settlement were difficult. They had to accustom themselves to a land and climate different to what they knew, and hand to till virgin soil that had never been cultivated. Few of them had any previous farming experience. They often experience problems with the Political Council. Things were certainly not easy. As time progressed they increased their vineyards, maize fields, fruit orchards and animal stock and became part of their new fatherland. Within two generations the French language ceased to exist as home language because after 1700 not enough new French immigrants arrived, and after 1707 the French language was banned in official communications with the Dutch authorities.
Yet their influence and the inheritance of the Huguenots in the areas of religion, freedom of belief, culture and agriculture still persists in South Africa to this day. A particular contribution was the rhyming of a number of Psalms by Pierre Simond. It was the first literary and theological work which was created at the Cape of Good Hope, and subsequently published in Amsterdam in 1704 under the title Les Veilles Afriquaines ou les Pseaumes de David mis en vers Francois (The Africa night watches or the Psalms of Dawid in French verse form).
Today we honour the Huguenots and their heritage with the impressive Huguenot Monument and Huguenot Museum in Franschhoek.