Book Review – Wine, Women and Good Hope: A history of scandalous behaviour in the Cape

February 23rd, 2016 § 2 comments

Of all the books I’ve read on Cape history, this is the first to focus solely on booze, whoring and fraud. I was tickled to read that author June McKinnon is a granny, and less surprised that she holds a Masters degree in history.  She recounts the ins-and-outs of the Cape’s raucous citizens with detached empathy, while extracting valuable historical nuggets from the social swill.

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Starting with Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival in 1652, McKinnon runs through three centuries of high jinx and low blows, and if she sounds slightly exasperated towards the late 1800s, it’s entirely understandable.

A childhood obession with Versailles and the French Revolution taught me that 17th century Europeans could be – despite the nobility’s finery – remarkably dirty, debauched and uneducated. A group of Europeans – deposited on a foreign shore with minimal state and church interference, and emboldened by an abundance of rough, local liquor – was no operetta.

Although Jan found the first wine cultivated from his own grapes in 1659 to be “good and sweet”, his son Abraham visited in 1676 and was considerably less impressed, declaring “Cape wine tasted like the vinegar used to scour out the vats that stored the wine”.

Owner of the Cape's first microbrewery

Owner of the Cape’s first microbrewery

The book concerns itself with consumption, rather than production. From high-ranking VOC officers to slaves, farmers and an alcoholic missionary who trekked with the Voortrekkers (because none of the sober properly ordained Dutch ministers would) only to return to Stellenbosch where the vain opulence and wine consumption of the farming community lead his pious wife, Susanna Smit, to suffer a temporary loss of faith. Almost 200 years later, the affluence and excess of the Stellenbosch set would still offend Susanna’s puritan soul, although the number of drunk organists may have declined.

If you need more proof that Cecil John Rhodes was a mean bastard, McKinnon obliges. Not only did Rhodes dislike women, he “blocked every prospective law which could protect them or give them equal rights with men”. He campaigned vigorously against raising the Age of Consent Law in 1893. ” Under this law, if a girl over the age of thirteen was raped, she was deemed to have given her consent to the act, no matter how brutal.” NO MATTER HOW BRUTAL.

Rhodes refused that the age be raised to 18, declaring that “every servant girl in the country would start laying false charges against her master for rape.” Rhodes himself may have had no interest in young girls, but he very generously made allowance for his peers to use and abuse as they pleased.

Olive Schreiner stood her ground with Rhodes. “By 1892 Schreiner chose not to see Rhodes ever again because of his refusal to stop the enforcement of the Strop Bill, which would legalise the flogging of coloured servants for any number of ‘offences’, including the neglect of their duties to their employers.”

McKinnon does credit Rhodes for his attempt to abolish the tot system, albeit unsuccessfully. This she attributes to the terrible example set by Rhodes, who drank vast and varied amounts of alochol on a daily basis. Pitted against other famous drinkers, it seems Rhodes would slot in somewhere between Churchill and Stalin. Greatness, indeed.

McKinnon manages to unreel three hundred years of debauchery without sounding repetitive and very seldom resorts to judging her subjects. Rhodes being an exception, but it doesn’t bother in the least as he was such a nasty piece of work. She does not shy away from the brutal role alcohol played in the debasement and control of the Cape’s original inhabitants, which – given your ancestry – could either enrage or shame you, conscience-permitting. But Wine, Women and Good Hope also shows how mixed, mad and jolly the Cape was, veral toe die Kaap nog Hollands was (especially when the Cape was still Dutch).

Wine, Women and Good Hope: A history of scandalous behaviour in the Cape by June McKinnon is available on Kindle and at all good bookstores in SA. Also by the same author and on my reading list,  A Tapestry of Lives: Women of the Cape in the 17th Century.




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§ 2 Responses to Book Review – Wine, Women and Good Hope: A history of scandalous behaviour in the Cape"

  • Sonja Smitj says:

    Well done June McKinnon! A wonderful read. All that research. Good to read about history in a more “fun” way. Looking forward to many more works from your pen. XX

    • Bianca says:

      I think people absorb more when they enjoy reading, so this is one of my favourite collections of historical anecdotes. Glad you enjoyed!

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