Celebrating and remembering

That first, tiny grape harvest of van Riebeek in 1659 was perhaps the last Cape vintage that didn’t contribute to over-production. No, let me not exaggerate: it took another good few decades before the burgeoning wine industry settled into that particular pattern.

Our first winemaker’s work was certainly not intense on that splendidly portentous 2nd of February: all he had to harvest was “the three young vines that have been growing here for two years’. It’s not known what the varieties were – possibly muscadel and chenin. Van Riebeek also refers in his famous log-book entry of that day to “Spanish grapes” going unpicked, as they were  “not yet ripe”: these were probably what came tobe called hanepoot. And whether the good commander got his own hands and lace cuffs sticky by pressing the grapes himself must also be in doubt. He did, after all, own more slaves than anyone else in the settlement: 23 in the year when the first wine was pressed, originally from Bengal, Madagascar, Angola, Guinea and Abyssinia.

For in this year 2009, when we were reminded as Barack Obama moved into the White House that it had been built by slaves, we must also not forget that the Cape wine industry was established largely by the sweat and blood of slaves. In the year of the first harvest, already the slave population of 187 outnumbered the total of soldiers, Dutch East India Company officials and burghers.

There is certainly no reason to avoid celebrating the founding of the wine industry, but let’s not deny the darker aspects of our past and let us, while paying respect to the slaveowners, also pay our respects to the memory of the slaves (whose descendants continue to supply the bulk of the industry’s labour). It always strikes me as rather odd, for example, that the slave bells scattered across the winelands seem to be treated more as graceful architectural ornaments, or charming relics than as the symbols of oppression that they are: after all, they governed every moment of a slave’s miserable, uprooted, brutalised existence. (There is, by the way, a very interesting website devoted to the story of the Cape’s slave heritage.)

I recently came across the website of a grape farm that has turned its Cape Dutch buildings into a conference and wedding centre: it happily tells us that “The original slave bell still exists and tolls before a bride walks down the isle [sic]”. Thus does a symbol of horror becomes a component of kitsch! At another property that’s now a guest house, “An old slave bell rings out half an hour before dinner, with time enough to enjoy pre-meal drinks in the sitting room or library”. Yes, well; may they enjoy their drinks.

Van Riebeek left the Cape some three years after his first harvest. WIne had probably not been on the original list of what the little revictualling settlement at the foot of Africa should provide (it seems to have been at his urging that the first cuttings were sent), but vines were by then grown much more extensively on the Company’s farms in what are now the southern suburbs of Cape Town. Van Riebeek, incidentally, also had some quaint tendencies which would have pleased the moon-watching biodynamic true-believers of today: another of his diary entries speaks of establishing a new vineyard when he, “with the aid of certain free burghers and some slaves, took the opportunity as the moon waned of planting a large part of Bosheuvel with young rooted vines and cuttings”.

And, in the year that he left he had a hard lesson in the frequent heartaches of viticulture: the 1662 crop was virtually destroyed by a plague of birds. Rather unfortunately it later became clear that one of the lessons learnt by the settlers was to pick the grapes before they were ripe enough to please the birds, with depressing effects on the wine pressed from them!

Nothing much of significance happened in the Cape wine industry after van Riebeek’s time till the arrival of Simon van der Stel nearly seventeen or so harvests later. To the latter we owe Stellenbosch and Constantia, but to the vision of good old Jan we, in a sense, owe it all.

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