Signatures of some of the French Huguenot migrants to South Africa. Source.

As I write this in my cozy hotel room, I hear lions growl in the background. Next to my window, guinea fowl do what they do best: squeal with a voice that evolution would find difficult to explain. Somewhere a donkey hee-haws its own contribution to the cacophony. At 5am it’s still supposed to be silent night. But not in Pretoria. The sun is rising. Welcome to Africa.

Pretoria is a different country, and so is the past. I recently read Elsa Joubert’s The Hunchback Missionary, a book of historical fiction first published in Afrikaans in 1989 about a Dutch missionary traveling to the Cape around the year 1800 with the purpose to bring Christianity to an uncivilized world. In the end, it’s Aart Anthonij van der Lingen, the hunchback missionary, whose worldview is challenged by what he sees and experiences in the wilderness of the Northern Cape and the Eastern Frontier. It’s a world we would find difficult to imagine: months of painfully  slow travel, constant threats from wild animals and unknown peoples, and utter, deadly loneliness. The Business Day reviews it here. I would recommend the book if only for one scene that is inexplicably sad and shocking and unexpected and vivid that I am unable to banish it from my memory. You’ll know which one it is when you read the book.

What historical fiction books like these do for me is to contextualize the often dry economic history I investigate. Consider the French Huguenots. When the Huguenots fled France in 1685 following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, they settled across the Western world. Many moved across the English Channel and settled in London. Others moved to similarly familiar places like Switzerland and Germany. Here they continued to make telling contributions to the local economy. A recent paper by Erik Hornung published in the American Economic Review shows, for example, how Huguenot migrants stimulated textile production in German, then known as Prussia.

But others, far fewer in number, decided to move to the Cape. What could they have possibly known about this small colony at the bottom tip of the massive African continent? What made them come to the Cape than to England or Europe or even America, where there were at least a large number of European settlers already? (At the Cape in 1685, there were about 400 settler families.) We don’t know, although we do know what they did when they got here: most founded farms in the Drakenstein region and began planting wheat and barley. Some planted vines. The Huguenot memorial in Franschhoek documents their arrival and early struggles and eventual contribution to South African society. (They continue to have: consider, for example, the current captain of the Proteas cricket team and Springbok rugby team.) But even though we know much about their social and cultural activities, there has been little attempt to quantify the economic impact of the 150 or so French Huguenots that arrived in the Cape Colony in 1688. In 2009 when I just started my PhD, Dieter von Fintel and I decided to see whether we could somehow find a way to identify whether the Huguenots were somehow different than their settler counterparts. We used eighteenth-century tax censuses to estimate the productivity of the French settlers and their descendants. The results of these investigations were published in the December issue of the Economic History Review. (An older working paper version is available here.)

We follow a novel approach to identify not only how much more productive French Huguenots were in making wine, but why they were so productive. We do this by tracing the origin district of each French family that arrived at the Cape, which allow them to split the sample between those that arrive from wine-producing regions and those that arrived from wheat-producing regions. We then show that those from wine-producing regions were more productive winemakers at the Cape than their counterpart Huguenots that originated from wheat-producing regions.

What is even more surprising is that this productivity bonus persisted for at least 80 years, in other words, for more than two generations. One would expect that those families with some skills in making wine would have an initial advantage, but that this would disappear as other families learn from them or intermarry. Yet we find the exact opposite result: the gap between the descendants of Huguenots who originally came from wine-producing regions and those who originally came from wheat-producing regions widened.

The reason, we suggest, is because families protected the knowledge of making good quality wine. Eighteenth century wine was typically bad tasting, so ‘good quality’ here simply refers to wine that would last several months, long enough for a ship to sail to India. OF Mentzel, a traveller in the 1730s, explained it thus: “There is no doubt that many colonists at the Cape do indeed know the secret of preparing good wine and therefore wines are made which stand the test, and grow mellower with age: but they are not such fools as to give away their secret and thus make the good wines more common.”

So what was the economic impact of the Huguenots? Their greater productivity in wine-making meant that wine production expanded significantly a few years after their arrival. Different to stock and wheat farming, though, viticulture required (and still requires, although mechanisation is finally changing this requirement) large numbers of labourers during harvest season. There was a shortage of labour at the Cape, and so the expansion in viticulture forced the Company to import more slaves from modern-day Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Madagascar and, later, Mozambique. The fruit of the vine, we argue, was the beginning of South African (racial) inequality.
It’s 6am. The sun is already high. For some reason the lions, guinea fowl and lone donkey have fallen silent. Time for this Huguenot-descendant and missionary of the African economic history gospel to get to work.