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Celebrating the ‘mother’ of Constantia

Posted on 08 Aug 2017

This Women’s Day, which isn’t about pampering but commemorates the 1956 march of 20 000 women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to petition against Apartheid South Africa’s pass laws, we remember and celebrate the woman who can arguably be regarded as the ‘mother’ of Constantia.

This remarkable woman wasn’t Simon van der Stel’s wife, Johanna Jacoba Six, who for reasons unknown opted not to accompany her husband and their children to the Cape in 1679. Although Simon and Johanna never saw each other again, records show that he sent her money while she shipped over many of the furnishings and artworks that graced his residence at Constantia (and theories abound about why he chose this name for his estate, but he certainly seems to have valued ‘constancy’, both in his long-distance marriage and in his commitment to the Cape).

The ‘mother of Constantia’ also wasn’t Anna de Koningh, who inherited the portion of Constantia known as Groot Constantia when her elderly husband Oloff Bergh died in 1724. Daughter of the slave known as Angela of Bengal, freed at the Cape in 1666, Anna was by all accounts (and judging from a surviving picture of her) a great beauty. Alas, she does not appear to have ever lived at Groot Constantia, and when she died in 1734, her will listed only two leaguers (1,126 litres) of red wine in the cellar, and no viticultural equipment, suggesting that winegrowing at Groot Constantia had all but ceased during this time.

Fortunately exciting things were happening at neighbouring Klein Constantia – not ‘our’ Klein Constantia (sub-divided from Groot Constantia in 1823) but the relatively small property that was later renamed Hoop op Constantia, whose homestead was (still is) a short walk down the hill from the Groot Constantia homestead.

In 1716, this original Klein Constantia was acquired by Johan Jurgen Kotze, who died soon thereafter, leaving it to his widow, Elsabe/Elsje van Hoff, granddaughter of the slave Lijsbeth of Bengal. Elsje was already a wealthy woman, having inherited a fortune from her aunt, Maria Hendricks, whose husband had been the holder of the liquor monopoly, Johann Pfeiffer.

Needless to say, it wasn’t long before the extremely eligible Elsje acquired a new husband. The marriage took place on 1 May 1718 and the groom was Johannes Colijn, the man who would truly make Constantia wine internationally famous after negotiating with the Dutch East India Company to send his red and white Constantia wine to Europe on an annual basis, starting in 1726.

Following Anna de Koningh’s death in 1734, Colijn also secured a loan (including some of his own money) for his sister Johanna’s husband, Carl Georg Wieser, to purchase Groot Constantia. Thus, Johannes and Johanna Colijn became master and mistress, respectively, of what would be the two ‘celebrated’ vineyards of Constantia – and what’s most remarkable of all is that they were the children of a black woman, a freed slave of West African descent (parents Evert & Anna of Guinea), who was known as Swart Maria Everts.

Although Maria has been dismissed in the history books as the ‘concubine’ of Bastiaen Colijn, a free burgher originally from ’s-Gravenzande in the Netherlands, it appears she ‘wore the pants’ in the relationship. For example, the Opgaafrolle (taxation list) reveals that in 1709 she owned 24 cows and 300 sheep (not to mention 10 slaves) while her 6000 vines produced two leaguers of wine. In dramatic contrast, Bastiaan possessed nothing but a flintlock, sword and pistol.

And when Maria died during the 1713 smallpox epidemic, her will stipulated that her older children should provide Bastiaan ‘with food, drink and clothing as necessary’ – rather slim pickings in an estate that included Agter de Kloof (now the prestigious Cape Town suburb of Camps Bay) as well as the farms De Mosselbank at Klipheuwel and Klawervlei at Darling!

Sadly Johanna died in 1737, followed by Johannes a few years later, but Colijns/Colyns would continue farming at Klein/Hoop op Constantia for several more generations until 1857, their wines enjoyed in the most prestigious circles, savoured by the likes of Frederick the Great, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and George Washington – and that’s before sweet Constantia had even reached the height of its fame!

With our current release of Vin de Constance, from the 2013 vintage, we raise a toast to Maria Everts, largely and probably deliberately forgotten during the Apartheid era, but arguably – through her children – the mother of Constantia.

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