Love is complicated. We all know that. Poets and novelists, songwriters and pop stars all write about this thing of being in and out of love. The past, it seems, was no different and Solms-Delta has had its fair share of romance and heartache in the pages of time.
We’ve all heard the old adage ‘Love is blind’ and Solms-Delta proudly bears witness to some of the earliest mixed relationships and marriages in the Cape. Our first owner, Hans Silverbag from Germany was married to a freed slave, Ansela van de Caab. Our second owner, Christoffel Snyman (the progenitor of the Snyman family), was similarly descended from a German soldier who had an affair with an Indian slave. She also happened to be the first woman convict at the Cape. Christoffel ended up marrying the daughter of one of the wealthiest Huguenots, Marguerite Thérèse de Savoije.
Not that all our stories of love have such happy endings. Some are of the Romeo and Juliet variety. In 1720 Marguerite Thérèse (by then a widow) was involved in a court case in which a slave she had owned for nearly 20 years was condemned to suffer a gruesome death. Adolf van Madagascar was sentenced ‘to be tied to a stake and then strangled and scorched until death follows, after which his dead body was to be dragged through the Honour’s streets to the outer place of execution, and there to be placed upon a wheel to remain for as long until being consumed by the air and the birds of heaven …’. What crime could deserve so savage a punishment? Arson. No mercy was shown for slaves who tried to burn down settler property, as the crime was deemed intentional and violent. In this case the punishment was specifically designed to fit the crime, and Adolph was burned at the stake.
Apologies, this does seem a rather grisly story for Valentine’s Day, you might wonder where is the love in all of this? I’ll get to that. In the meantime according to the court records, Adolph had attempted to set alight the homestead on Delta by stoking up a burning flue in the corner of the roof, after which he alerted the farm by shouting: ‘fire, fire’. He then set out directly for the kitchen where he hit a slave woman, named Eva. The fire was extinguished by Marguerite’s daughter Susanna, with the help of four slaves. Once the greater part of the fire was put out, Adolph continued to mask his culpability by carrying two buckets of water to the scene of the crime. Members of the household had their suspicions, and when ‘other circumstantial evidence’ surfaced, they accused him of being the instigator of the fire and tied him to a ladder, a strategy which eventually prompted a confession. They did not fasten him tightly enough, however, and he subsequently escaped and went on the run.
This is where it starts to remind one of Bonnie and Clyde, only no Bonnie on the scene, as yet. Two weeks later he was discovered in the night at a farm lying along the Klip River belonging to Jan Harmensz Potgieter, who decided to tie him up until morning. Adolph escaped again, but this time his freedom was short-lived and he was apprehended on a farm situated in Franschhoek. He was handed over to his masters to whom he gave ‘an unconditional confession’, professing himself to be the culprit who started the fire. The rationale he gave for committing such a crime was that he had lost the slave woman Eva to another lover.
Slaves faced many obstacles in forming stable relationships, couples could be separated by sale at any time. Gender imbalances meant that there was a chronic shortage of female partners, especially in the rural agricultural districts. Slave marriage was not made legal until 1823, and only slaves who had been baptised were permitted to marry. Muslim marriage conferred a measure of dignity on practising slaves, but their unions were not recognised by law. Nevertheless, many slaves managed to find intimate companions, and there was much heartache when outside influences caused the break-up of their relationships.
Adolph’s intense grief over Eva’s decision to end their relationship could only be expressed by a dramatic gesture – in his case, setting fire to his mistress’s homestead. His misery was probably compounded by jealousy and the fear that he would not be able to find another partner.
Valentine’s Day itself does not have such a happy tale either. A man named Valentinus was martyred on February 14 late in the third century A.D. There are many theories of who this man was, but perhaps the nicest version comes from one account in the 1400s which describes Valentine as a temple priest who was beheaded near Rome by the emperor Claudius II for helping Christian couples wed. Well, as nice as a beheading can be.
In fact, our current associations of St. Valentine’s Day might very well have been invented by the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. He was known to often take liberties with history, placing his poetic characters into fictitious historical contexts that he represented as real. No record exists of romantic celebrations on Valentine’s Day prior to a poem Chaucer wrote around 1375. In his work “Parliament of Foules,” he links a tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St. Valentine’s feast day – an association that didn’t exist until after his poem received widespread attention. The poem refers to February 14 as the day birds (and humans) come together to find a mate. When Chaucer wrote, “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate,” he may have invented the holiday we know today.
Whatever its origin, and to make this tale more palatable for romantic fuzzy feelings, we happily continue to celebrate Valentine’s Day on Solms-Delta by hosting many smitten couples who seek out the romance of our picnics set in an enchanting riverside forest.
Subscribe to RSS Feed