Wining and mining in the early Cape Colony

2nd May 2014 By: Jade Davenport - Creamer Media Correspondent

One thing you would not associate with mining is the craft of winemaking. However, in a country that has been so completely dominated by that extractive industry, it is not entirely surprising that even certain South African wine-producing regions and a few wine estates have some kind of historical link with mining activities.

As has been elaborated in previous instalments of this column, one sideline activity that was sporadically pursued by the early Dutch settlers was the search for payable deposits of gold and silver. At first, prospectors concentrated their efforts solely on the Cape Peninsula but, having little luck, the search for precious metals inevitably widened with the expansion of the trading settlement into the fertile plains and valleys further inland over the decades.

By the end of the seventeenth century, the migration of white settlers had reached as far as the foot of the Groot Drakenstein mountains, roughly 80 km east of Cape Town. This area, which was christened Franschhoek, or the ‘French corner’, was predominantly settled by French Huguenots, who brought with them the age-old viticulture and winemaking experience from their home country.

While the French Huguenots were settling into their corner and establishing what was to become one of the world’s top wine-producing regions, prospectors began to explore this new area for signs of mineral wealth. These prospectors predominantly concentrated their fossicking activities on the slopes of the Groot Drakenstein and Hottentots Holland mountains, which towered over the new agricultural settlement.

While most prospectors had very little luck discovering any mineral or metal of any significant economic value, one man, Frans Diederik Muller, did cause considerable excitement when, in 1740, he claimed to have discovered a rich deposit of silver on the eastern slopes of the Simonsberg mountain. (The Simonsberg is a majestic 1 399-m-high mountain that towers over the fertile Banghoek Valley, situated between the towns of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl.)

The details of the discovery provided by Muller proved so exciting that he had little difficulty in finding a partner to finance the project and, within a few months, he had set up a mining company, Octroojeerde Society der Mynwerken aan de Simonsberg, with the backing of reputable local businessperson Olaf de Wet. Significantly, this venture also had the official support of the Dutch East India Company, which was desirous to increase its stock of silver, a metal on which many European economies of the time were based.

Muller, who was appointed the company’s master miner, or bergmeester, subsequently set about securing a mining right, procuring the necessary equipment and hiring soldiers, sailors and some slaves in view of the complete lack of actual miners resident at the Cape of Good Hope. With all preparations complete in 1743, the company began the arduous task of digging long tunnels into the side of the Simonsberg at different levels and sinking shafts measuring between 50 ft and 100 ft to connect those tunnels.

For the next several years, ‘mining’ activities continued largely unabated on the Simonsberg but, rather suspiciously, there was nothing to show for such efforts. However, Muller continued to demand more capital to finance his mining operation, assuring the company’s investors that rich veins of silver and, later, copper and even gold, lay just ahead of their current workings. Inevitably, the company directors became suspicious of Mullers’ failure to provide any results so they ordered a sample of ore from the mine to be sent to Amsterdam for analysis. When the assay revealed that there was no silver, copper or gold content in that rock, Muller was exposed for the fraud he was.

Having given the project its support, the Dutch East India Company was particularly embarrassed by the exposure of the scam and, as fitting punishment, the company offi-cials banished Muller to the Dutch colony of Batavia, in the East.

This particular episode is perhaps one of the earliest incidents of white collar crime in South Africa

Although the site has been abandoned for more than 250 years, the Simonsberg silver mine remains intact, and on the farm Goede Hoop, in the Banghoek Valley, one can still see the ruins of various structures that are believed to have once been part of that mining operation.

While the search for precious metals died a natural death, viticulture endured in these parts and the area now boasts a multitude of award-winning wineries. One such winery, Zorgvliet Wine Estate, has paid a fitting tribute to this unusual historical episode by naming its range of entry-level wines after Muller’s silver mine. Zorgvliet’s Silvermyn range is the estate’s third tier and is based on the varieties of the Bordeaux region. Included in this range are the Silvermyn Sauvignon Blanc, the Silvermyn Cabernet Franc Rosé and the Silvermyn Argentum.