On 5 May 1821 – two hundred years ago – Napoléon died on the volcanic island Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean. Much has been said about the Constantia wine provided for his exclusive use whilst in exile and many theories have surfaced over claims as to who and where this wine was made and who provided it.
The assumption that Napoléon tasted Constantia wine for the first time during his banishment on Saint Helena, is incorrect, considering that worldwide the wines produced at Groot Constantia and Hoop op Constantia (a subdivision of the original Constantia grant dating from 1715) were coveted throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century.
The wines were produced in two cellars on opposite banks of the steep Platteberg Valley on what is now the Groot Constantia wine estate. Both historic cellars are still in existence: The 1791 Cloete cellar behind the Groot Constantia homestead and the even older wine cellar of Hoop op Constantia built and used by the Colijns.
By the end of the eighteenth century Napoleon Bonaparte was one, if not the most, prominent European military and political leader: In 1793, at the age of twenty four, he was promoted to the rank of brigadier-general in the army, became First Consul of France in 1799 and, too impatient to wait for the Pope to do so, crowned himself Emperor of the French in December 1804. For him not to have tasted or given an opportunity to drink Constantia wine before he was exiled to Saint Helena in 1815 is improbable.
My contention is that Napoleon Bonaparte tasted Constantia wine as early as 1804, given that Constantia wine was shipped to Paris for this purpose. To support my opinion, some prodding into history is required:
The Batavian Republic (1795-1806) and Cape of Good Hope
Following the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780-84), the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands found itself in a serious economic crisis and the situation rapidly deteriorated. In early 1795 it came to a fall when the French Republic, who enjoyed widespread support from the Dutch population, intervened and the Batavian Republic, a so-called ‘sister-republic’ of the French, was established in the Netherlands. Political, economic and social reforms were introduced based on those of the Directory in France. The Nationale Vergadering was established in 1796 as the Parliament of the Batavian Republic. Though the successive governments of the Batavian Republic tried to maintain a degree of independence, it led to disputes with their French overlords, seeing several coup d’états taking place, new constitutions adopted and an elected executive, known as the Uitvoerend Bewind, appointed.
The turbulent political situation in Europe also had a profound influence on other parts of the world, including the Cape of Good Hope, where in 1795 the British had taken control of the Cape. The Treaty of Amiens of March 1802 temporarily ended the hostilities between France and the United Kingdom as well as the French Revolutionary Wars and saw Britain handing over the Cape to the Batavian Republic.
The Appointment of De Mist as Commissioner-General
Jacob Abraham de Mist was a member of the Raad der Asiatische Bezittingen en Etablissementen (a body appointed to manage the affairs of the former colonies of the bankrupt VOC) and former member of the Nationale Vergadering. In 1801 he was tasked to compile a report on the proposed administrative structure of the government of the Cape in anticipation of it being placed under the auspices of the Batavian Republic.
De Mist was assisted by Dr Jacobus van der Steege and Samuel Iperuszoon Wiselius. In drafting the report, De Mist also consulted the Cape burghers Olof Martini Bergh (a descendant of Captain Oloff Bergh and Anna de Koningh, former owners of Groot Constantia) and H A Vermaak, both residing in the Netherlands at the time. The result was De Mist’s Memorie over de Caab, dated 2 February 1802, which he submitted to the Staatsbewind (state authority of the Batavian Republic 1801-1805).
In it De Mist reported: ‘De Caabsche Druiven … leveren, behalven de alom geroemde Constantia wyn, verchillende soorten van zeer gezonde en smaaklyke Wynen…’ (The Cape grapes … produce, besides the universally famous Constantia wines, various other kinds of very healthy and delicious wines). The insight and skills displayed by De Mist in his recommendations in the Memorie led to his appointment as commissioner-general of the Cape, a position that he held from February 1803 until September 1804 whilst Lieutenant-General Jan Willem Janssens served as governor.
Within days of Janssens and De Mist taking office in The Castle in 1803, Hendrik Cloete the Younger of Groot Constantia and Lambertus Johannes Colijn of De Hoop op Constantia made representations to the Governor and the Council of the Cape of Good Hope to be accommodated with an advance payment for the 60 aums of Constantia wines which they had ready to deliver in terms of their 1793 wine delivery contracts with the former VOC, but which, given the intervening circumstances of the hostilities between Britain and France, could not be sent to Europe.
The two wine producers offered to keep the wine till an opportunity avail itself to export the wine. Their request was approved and they were paid Rds. 50 per aum (although later British records reflect only 13 half aums of red and 9 half aums white wine being delivered in 1804).
De Mist’s main tasks as commissioner-general was to receive the Cape from the British authorities, install Dutch officials in key positions and make such regulations as he might find necessary. One of the choices he made on 12 April 1803 was to appoint Hendrik Cloete as ‘Inspecteur over ‘s Lands Domeinen en Bosschen’ (inspector of land and forests).
De Mist sent Constantia wine to Schummelpenninck in Paris
Whilst at the Cape, De Mist maintained regular contact with his friends and associates in Europe. Among these were a former fellow politician and member of the Nationale Vergadering, Rutger Jan Schimmelpenninck. The two men were well acquainted as during the last years of the eighteenth century they served in and consecutively chaired the Nationale Vergadering.
On 14 June 1798 Schimmelpenninck was appointed envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary of the Batavian Republic to Paris. Following the coup d’état against the Directory of France in November 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte was appointed First Consul of France.
It was during this period that Ambassador Schimmelpenninck gained the confidence of the First Consul. At the behest of Napoleon Bonaparte, Schimmelpenninck participated in the negotiations preceding the Treaty of Amiens in 1801 and in early in 1802 became one of the co-signatories of the Treaty, which included the provisions for the restoration of the Cape of Good Hope to the Batavian Republic. In December 1802 Schimmelpeninck was transferred to London to facilitate improved diplomatic relations between Britain and the Batavian Republic. However, when war once again erupted between Britain and France in 1803, Schimmelpenninck was transferred back to Paris as ambassador of the Batavian Republic, at the request of France.
Portrait of the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte. 1804. Oil on canvas. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867). Curtius Museum, Liège
On 23 May 1804 De Mist had ‘3 halve aamen witte en drie Roode Constantia’ (three half aumen each of white and red Constantia wine) shipped on board a French vessel to Ambassador Schimmelpenninck in Paris. In his accompanying letter, De Mist requested Schimmelpenninck to, on behalf of De Mist, ‘den Eersten Consul een proeve ervan te geven’ (to, on behalf of De Mist, offer a taste thereof to the First Consul): This is the earliest documented reference thus far uncovered of an opportunity enabling Napoleon Bonaparte to taste Constantia wine.
Napoléon’s banishment to Saint Helena Island
Following Napoléon’s banishment to Saint Helena Island in 1815, the agent of the English East India Company based in Cape Town at the time, Joseph Luson (1783-1822), was tasked by the British authorities to provisioned not only the French contingent at Longwood House, but also the civilian population, the garrison and the regiments stationed on the Island as well as the ships of the Royal Navy patrolling the waters around Saint Helena.
Joseph Luson bought the wine from the Cloete family of Groot Constantia. His business relations with the family changed significantly on 24 May 1817 when he married Catharina Maria (Mary) Cloete, the daughter of the wine merchant of Groot Constantia, Pieter Lourens Cloete and his wife, Maria Catharina van Reenen. Luson also appointed his brother-in-law, Daniel Jacob Cloete (1800-1879), as his confidential clerk in 1819. The names of ‘Den Heer J Luson‘ and ‘D J Cloete‘ are amongst the regular clients recorded in the Groot Constantia’s Wine Sales Register, fastidiously kept by the Cloetes from 1800-1860.
According to Napoléon’s wine steward, Montholon, one bottle of Constantia reserved for Napoléon per day “was more than was used’.
It therefore seems that ‘den Eersten Consul’ had his first taste of the white and red Constantia wine which De Mist shipped to Schimmelpenninck in Paris in 1804 and not at Saint Helena Island during his banishment from 1815 until his death in 1821.
30 August 2021
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To James Madison from Jacob Abraham Uitenhage de Mist (Abstrac … (archives.gov) (consulted on 8 April 2021)