In 1657, a slave called Groote Catrijn arrived at the Cape to serve a life sentence for the murder of her lover in Batavia. This unlikely woman played a key role in early Cape colonial society, and her story forms one of the foundation stones of what is now the Solms-Delta wine estate. Not only was she the Cape of Good Hope’s first recorded female convict (or ‘bandiet’), she was also the mother of the well-known Snyman family..
Groote Catrijn’s story begins long before her banishment to the Cape. She was born around 1631 into an indigenous slave-owning society in Palicatta (present-day Pulicat, in India) - a VOC (Dutch East India Company) textile trading post situated on the Coromandel Coast. The VOC obtained textiles from there, such as indigo, cotton yarn and ‘Guinees lijnwaad’ (Guinea cloth), with which they traded in the Indian archipelago.
The VOC was one of the most successful global trading companies in history, whose power stretched across many lands and oceans. It was probably due to Pulicat’s global trade connections that Groote Catrijn ended up in Batavia (now Jakarta, in modern-day Java), the VOC’s eastern trading and governmental headquarters, working as a slave in the household of Maria Magdalena - a ‘vrije vrou’- who was probably a freed slave herself.
In 1656 Groote Catrijn was condemned to death: to be tied to a stake and garrotted (strangled) until dead, for the murder of her former lover Claes van Mallebaerse – also a slave, from the Coast of Malabar. But she was never to suffer execution. She was pardoned by the Governor-General of Batavia himself, who commuted her sentence to life banishment to the Cabo de Bona Esperança (The Cape of Good Hope). He decided that her killing of Claes was committed in self-defence. The two lovers had become involved in a physical struggle during which Claes assaulted Catrijn sexually. After being thrown to the ground, and fearing for her life, Catrijn grabbed a hay ladder and hit Claes violently in his lower stomach, causing his bladder to burst. He died four days later as a result of this injury. Catrijn was then banished to the Cape, to serve her life sentence as a Company slave of the VOC.
On 21 February 1657 she arrived at the Cape, after nearly three month’s journey from Batavia on board the ship Prins Willem. This was the average time it took to cross the 5,900 nautical miles to the Cape. Following her arrival, Groote Catrijn worked as a washerwoman at the fort - the precursor of the present castle (which was completed in 1674). If Catrijn was a washerwoman for the Commanders of the early Cape fort, then she certainly worked for Jan van Riebeek during his ten year period of rule from 1652 until 1662. After van Riebeeck’s departure a pattern of short-term commanders at the Cape started, lasting for the next 20 years. It was probably partly due to this disrupted rule that Groote Catrijn’s status as a convict and slave for life became blurred in official memory.
On her arrival in 1657 there were only 14 other women (whether freed or enslaved) living at the small Cape settlement. It is no wonder that Catrijn became involved in relationships with freed slave men, and European VOC sailors and soldiers, by whom she reportedly mothered 4 children.
One relationship that had interesting consequences for the genealogical line of many South Africans today was with the Company soldier Hans Christoffel Snijder (or Snijman) from Heidelberg, Germany. In 1667 Snijman was convicted for leaving his post as sentry at the fort “te slapen sijn ten wooonplaets an sekere bekende swarte meijt” (to sleep at the living place of a certain well known black servant girl). He was sentenced to live on Robben Island for two years, and to forfeit two months salary, as well as receiving physical punishment.
Groote Catrijn’s illegitimate son born of this relationship was baptised Christoffel on the 9 March 1669.Throughout his life he was identified by his father’s surname, as were his own children. This Christoffel, who was the progenitor of the South African Snyman family, was the second owner of what is now Delta farm (then called Zandvliet).
In 1671 Catrijn married Anthonij Jansz van Bengale, the first known ‘free black’ to purchase land and be a registered landowner at the Cape of Good Hope. Catrijn became a free woman when she was pardoned by the authorities so that she could marry this pioneering spirit.
By 1690 her son Christoffel was married to Marguerite Therese de Savoye, the daughter of the eminent French Huguenot, Jacques de Savoye. Jacques arrived at the Cape on the 25 April 1688 on board the Oosterland with his second wife, his mother-in-law, two daughters (one of them Marguerite) and his son.
Jacques was one of the wealthiest Huguenots that sought sanctuary at the Cape, as he did not require financial assistance from the government and even bought his servants with him. So how did the illegitimate son of a convict come to marry the daughter of one of the wealthiest, most prominent Huguenots at the Cape?
At the tender age of 13, Christoffel’s entire family suffered a tragedy (presumably due to smallpox) from which he was the only survivor. He might have gone into the care of his godmother - Mooij Ansela - and her husband Arnoldus Willemsz Basson (whose family owned the neighbouring properties called Eensaamheid and Meererust, across the river from Delta).
By 1701, Ansela’s family were the wealthiest property owners in the Drakenstein valley, owning over 300 morgen (or 625 acres) of property. Had Snyman been in the care of his godmother’s family until he married, it would have been a favourable match for Marguerite.
Through excavations at Solms-Delta, archaeologists have uncovered the ruins of a 17th century colonial dwelling - almost certainly the very structure that was inhabited by Snyman and Marguerite as they started a family together. It was most likely built by the farm’s first owners, their immediate predecessors: Hans Silverbag and Callus Laut. This was an extraordinary find, as very few such ruins have been excavated; it is the oldest intact floor plan ever found at the Cape.
The most unique element of this archaeological find lies in its connection to a prehistoric site lying alongside it. Thousands of late Stone-Age artefacts dating to between 4,000 and 6,000 years old were found less than one metre away from the 17th century ruin. Both indigenous hunter-gatherers and colonists chose to settle on this same site, a tranquil plateau overlooking the Dwars and Berg Rivers. From past to present, the history of Solms-Delta is connected to the ordinary people who inhabited the land; from its Stone Age beginnings to modern South Africa, the farm embodies our shared origins.