South Africans with the surname MINNAAR in their family tree have cause to celebrate the 20th of March. On this day 325 years ago, Jean MESNARD, his wife and his six children set sail from Holland on China, a ship belonging to the Dutch East India Company (VOC). They were French Huguenots who had fled from France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes made Protestantism illegal.
The above rendering makes the China look like a sturdy, comfortable ship. However, according to Pieter Coertzen in The Huguenots of South Africa 1688–1988, the craft measured only 160 feet long. In addition to crew, cargo and supplies, it carried 175 passengers, 34 of whom were French refugees.
The shipboard food consisted mainly of salted meat, pickled fish and dried beans and peas.… Apart from the length of the voyage there were also various dangers threatening the crew and passengers: storms, shipwreck, fire, disease, death, capture by the ships of foreign powers, attacks by pirates, and so forth. The dreaded disease scurvy attacked both weak and strong, rich and poor, young and old.
Not only were conditions crowded and extremely uncomfortable, this particular voyage “was plagued by disasters: 19 people died, and when the ship arrived in Table Bay [on 4 Aug 1688] there were 50 sick people on board.”
It is not known if any members of the MESNARD family died during the voyage, but by 1690 Jean was a widower with four children. The next to last child, Philippe, six years old at the time of the voyage, was the “only one to marry and leave issue” according to Colin Graham Botha in The French Refugees at the Cape.
Such accounts make me profoundly grateful to the emigrants in our families who endured untold hardships during their quest for a better life. And, in the case of the MINNAAR family, I’m awed by the thin thread of chance that enabled just one of them to survive, thereby becoming the stamouer (progenitor) of a long line.
The ship is often referred to as the Berg China, although in correspondence of the time, its name is given as China. WikiRoux states: “The confusion might stem from the fact that the China was captained by a Pieter van den Berg on some of her voyages.”
Huguenots were French Calvinist Protestants. The Edict of Nantes, promulgated in 1598 by Henry IV, “granted the Calvinist Protestants of France (also known as Huguenots) substantial rights in a nation still considered essentially Catholic.… In October 1685, Louis XIV, the grandson of Henry IV, renounced the Edict and declared Protestantism illegal with the Edict of Fontainebleau.” (Wikipedia)
The number of French refugees on the China varies, depending on the source. A letter dated 23 Dec 1687 from the Chamber of Rotterdam [presumably to the Assembly of the Council of Seventeen who governed the Dutch East India Company] lists by name 34 persons “who presented themselves to take passage on the ship China, in order to settle (at the Cape) and cultivate land and plant vineyards.” Botha, The French Refugees at the Cape, p. 142.