Setting Sail for the Cape: The MESNARD Family (20 Mar 1688)

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.

Gable stone 't Schip China in Buiten Brouwersstraat, Amsterdam, Netherlands – Michiel2005

Gable stone ‘t Schip China in Buiten Brouwersstraat, Amsterdam, Netherlands – Michiel2005

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.

Research Notes

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.

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6 Responses to Setting Sail for the Cape: The MESNARD Family (20 Mar 1688)

  1. BetsC says:

    Had to be very difficult . . . my Clements line and my Lillard line are supposed to be Huguenot, too, but ended up American. I am amazed that any of those people lived past childhood (let alone to the great age some of them reached), given the conditions we read about! Most interesting to read about yours . . . – b

  2. Pingback: Decision to Publish: The MINNAAR-STEINHÖBEL Family | QUESNELL & POOLE Families in South Africa

  3. As a Mesnard whose family is doing a lot of ancestry research, I find all of this enlightening. There are pages of surnames of French Huguenots who fled to America in the late 17th century. To find US a topic of conversation is, well…’totally cool’. As an Historian I find it fascinating. I always wished, as a kid, that MY ancestors suffered and sacrificed like the Pilgrims did. Especially at Thanksgiving where I was inevitably made an American Indian instead of a Pilgrim in those plays we always had to give at school in the 50s (a redhead?) That was OK, though. I’m also an Anthropologist. Maybe that is why I have always felt strongly in support of all the Native peoples in this country.

    Well…Mesnards are alive and well in New York, Illinois, Colorado, California….all over this country and in Canada. I’m proud to have been a part of it. I wonder what Jean would think of all of us?

    • Mary Beth says:

      Oh my, yes, I remember those Thanksgiving plays and how little relation they bore to my prosaic farmer ancestors who arrived in America from Germany in the 19th century. Even when I started doing genealogy, it seemed that everyone except me was DAR or Mayflower or descended from some English king (although I also envied those with a criminal in the family). After years of research, I found that my French-Canadian ancestors were walking around Quebec with Samuel de Champlain in the 1620’s! But that’s a story for another blog. Despite our two seemingly divergent French ancestries, my husband and I are convinced that research will eventually relate us to each other.

      • Hey, Mary Beth… My husband is also of French-Canadian descent. As he researches his ancestry we get closer and closer in area through our ancestors. He asked me, “…wouldn’t it be great if we were related?” wow. “Not really….” I answered. SCARY, that’s what it would be. This world truly is smaller than most of us imagine……

  4. Zak says:

    I named my second son after Jean Mesnard. I did visit the Huguenot Memorial Museum yesterday at Franshoek – amazing. Rgds

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