French Huguenot Memorial – The French Influence in South Africa

Though a large number of the white population in South Africa are descendants of the French Huguenot’s who arrived in South Africa in the late 17th century, few know much about them or why they chose South Africa instead of their home country. However these intelligent and pioneering people contributed greatly to the development of the country and the French Huguenot Memorial museum in Franschhoek along the West Coast is probably the best place for South African’s to learn more about them.

The history of the Huguenots started in 1517 when Martin Luther published his 95 theses against the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. Many people felt that what Luther had said was true and he soon had a large following who came to be known as ‘Protestants’. By 1536, a number of protestants could be found in Switzerland, France, the Netherlands and Scotland. These people later came to be known as Huguenots. The Catholic Church was the only official Christian church in Europe at that time and they had the backing of the governing authorities. Despite the fact that Protestantism had become embraced on a virtually world wide scale, the Roman Catholic Monarchy pushed for abolishment of this ‘threat’. More than a century of mostly fierce persecution ensued, resulting in widespread wars and other atrocities.

The Huguenots won their right to free worship, then lost it again repeatedly. By the time King Louis XIV began his reign in 1661, conditions hadn’t changed much. Louis pushed for the conversion of Protestants to Roman Catholicism and, when the Huguenots refused to follow suit, he reverted to more extreme methods of oppression and persecution to get what he wanted. This time, instead of staying to fight, many Huguenots fled to other countries such as Europe, England and America. Some of those who fled to the Netherlands ended up setting sale for the Cape Colonies in South Africa.

The voyage took between two and four months and the ships were designed to carry cargo, not passengers. Scurvy, hunger and boredom were just some of the things that those brave travelers had to face. Amongst them, three pregnant women struggled for survival. Yet somehow, despite all this, they made the trip and before long, were walking on African soil. Here was a country where they were free to worship as they wanted and where they could build homes for their families and feel secure. Being pioneers they built simple farmhouses in the Cape Dutch style which were later expanded as the family prospered. The French Huguenots brought with them strong traditions, morals, beliefs and a culture of wine-farming that still prevails in the Cape today. Their contribution to society, as well as the many difficulties they encountered, is well documented at the French Huguenot Memorial Museum. While one cannot begin to understand what it was like to survive such trying times, their story is one that continues to inspire many who visit the museum today. Make the French Huguenot Memorial Museum a part of your trip to the West Coast and feel inspired to take on whatever challenges life throws at you.

back to West Coast