Cape Wine History- A British Colony
The Cape of Good Hope was established as a refreshment station by the Dutch East India Company in 1652 and grew into an expanding Dutch Cape Colony, strategically positioned at the tip of Africa. In 1794 during the French Revolutionary wars, it was invaded and colonised by Britain but returned to the Dutch shortly after at the Peace of Amiens in 1802. Four years later during the Napoleonic wars, a 2nd British invasion took place. Thereafter the Cape was to remain part of the British Empire for the remainder of the century.
The Boers (Dutch farmers) were unhappy to find themselves under British rule once again. However, it did present greater trade opportunities especially as the English introduced heavy tariffs on French wines. More vineyards were planted and production increased and the standard of Cape wines improved making them more sought after for export. The dessert wines of Constantia were in particular extremely popular with European nobility during the 18th and 19th Centuries.
Since the arrival of the Dutch, slavery had formed the bedrock of Cape society and by the subsequent British occupation. Many wealthy wine and wheat farmers had built large estates and owned many slaves.The emancipation of slavery in 1834, was not welcomed by these farmers as they would now lose their labour force without compensation. This fuelled an already growing resentment towards the British and was a catalyst for the Great Trek, a mass migration of Boers who fled the Cape and established the Boer Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
The woes of the Cape wine farmer continued when tariffs against French wines were dropped and exports of Cape wine declined. This coupled with the phylloxera virus epidemic of the 1860’s, which destroyed South African vineyards, resulted in bankruptcy for many farmers. It took many years to replace the Cape’s vineyards, which had to be grafted onto resistant American rootstock. Heavy restrictions on imported vines were introduced as were stringent quarantine measures.
Wartime further exacerbated the hardships of the Cape wine farmer. The Anglo Boer wars around the end of the 19th century and the years during the First World War put a strain on exports and resulted in a large surplus of wine.
The Union of South Africa came into being in 1910. It unified the British colonies of the Cape, Natal, Transvaal and Orange River and the former Boer republics, which had been annexed by the British during the Boer war. The Union acted as a self-governing autonomous dominion of the British Empire until 1961 when South Africa became a Republic and left the Commonwealth.
Read the first part of this Cape Wine History series here- the Dutch settlement