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Celebrating the Fortitude of Huguenot Women

FLTR: Maria de la Queillerie, Titia Ballot, Marlene le Roux

National Women’s Day, celebrated on 9 August each year in South Africa, commemorates the day, 66 years ago, when roughly 200 000 South African women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest the introduction of pass laws in South Africa. The pass laws aimed to restrict the movement of black people living and working in urban areas.

International Women’s Day, celebrated on 8 March, likewise commemorates and acknowledges women’s achievements, which has bolstered women’s empowerment and strides towards gender parity.

Huguenot women were undoubtedly among the hardiest women, whose wilful and rebellious nature had led them to embark, as refugees, on the treacherous journey from France to South Africa. They were, moreover, women willing to risk their lives for the Protestant values and beliefs which had led to their persecution. Whether or not you are Protestant Christian, these women are worthy of our admiration for their bravery in the face of persecution and immense trauma, as well as their ability to re-establish a viable life for themselves in a foreign country where they were required to assimilate linguistically. This act we should hold in the greatest esteem. As a Franschhoek resident or visitor you can commemorate and appreciate women this August by meditating on the unlikely story of a Huguenot woman called Marie Mouton.

Marie Mouton’s story is unique in that she was the only white woman to be executed in the Cape Colony in the eighteenth century. Marie, then a resident of the Tulbagh area, had long felt aggrieved because of her mistreatment by her abusive and negligent husband. The fact that he had never purchased a new dress for her was not an insignificant factor either. When she conspired with her slave, Titus of Bengal, to murder her husband and bury him in the porcupine hole in the yard, she committed her first crime . The other, in the wake of her husband’s death, was her intimate relationship with Titus, which was regarded as an impropriety and a betrayal of her people.

Marie Mouton’s story, although a grisly testimony to her criminal culpability, demonstrates how women have – and often continue to be – considered second-rate citizens of the world. Although she may not be famous for activism, she exemplifies someone in whose being there resided a strong desire to transcend racial and class differences and who defied societal norms at the time. Gender-based violence perpetrated against women remains rife in South Africa and globally. This story is strikingly similar to our modern context, where the battle against the brutalization of women continues. If women are better able to voice their pain – and are supported by men in their resistance to infringements of fundamental rights to freedom, integrity, and security – we may make further strides in honouring and protecting women.

If you visit the Huguenot Memorial Museum – and you really should – you will encounter several notable Huguenot women and their female descendants whose fortitude and influence are worthy of celebration this August. One of them is South Africa’s first Huguenot, Maria de la Queillerie, the wife of Commander Jan van Riebeeck who led the VOC settlement in the Cape in 1652. There is perhaps something serendipitous about this, especially considering that the Huguenots were fairly well-received in the Cape, as their Calvinist beliefs lined up with those of the Dutch settlers in the Cape.

Here is what Nelson Mandela had to say about Huguenot heritage: “Amongst the colours of our Rainbow Nation, is one that is French. The Huguenots, who came to South Africa as part of the colonisation process, have contributed greatly to our country’s economic development. That is evident above all in the French legacy of viniculture, especially in the Western Cape. Today that legacy is a vital part of the heritage of a nation that is united in its diversity. Today, too, our democratic constitution guarantees to all South Africans the religious freedom which the Huguenots sought.”

Consider some notable women who are descendants of Huguenot refugees. Marlene le Roux is, for example, a notable art promoter, and disability and women’s rights activist. Titia Ballot is another South African artist and cultural icon of Huguenot descent.

The Huguenot Memorial Museum is a rich source of information about Huguenot heritage in South Africa. Visit them to dig a bit deeper into the stories of Huguenot women and how they resisted and survived persecution. Take the time this Women’s Day to consider the vital roles and influences of women in shaping our future in ways that promote “liberté, égalité, and fraternité”.

Text: Leila Shirley | Image: Wikimedia, Titia Ballot, Twitter