Chapter 12.00: The Denmark Letters

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting.  Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.


The Denmark Letters

An iconic photo of Oscar, Eben, and Jeppe at the Cavern Club in Liverpool (Jeppe is Danish and worked as a big projects man for Tulip in the UK on bacon factories) taken on 2012/03/18.

I arrived in Denmark (1) in February 1891 after a tiring journey through Hull in England on the Steamship Salmo (2). It was a homecoming of sorts. My ancestors hail from the Danish city, Tønder (German: Tondern or Tuner).

Three brothers came to South Africa from this small border town. Adolph (Adolf), the oldest, was born in 1674, Andres Cornelsen was born in 1676, and Johannes was born around 1706. Their father, Albert Cornelsen, was a peasant from the Danish/German border town Tønder.

Tønder is a farming community surrounded by unspoiled lowlands and marshland that became famous for its lace industry. Andres Cornelsen was not the oldest but took the lead in going to Cape Town. He had an unusual mix of courage and an appreciation for adventure and leadership.

He joined the VOC in Amsterdam, probably solely motivated by economic hardship. He was employed on the VOC ship, “Huis te Bijweg,” bound for the Cape of Good Hope. He was listed as “Andres Cornelsen from Tonder”, and at the Cape, he adopted the surname “Van Tonder.” (3)

He sailed from Amsterdam on May 9, 1699, and arrived at the Cape of Good Hope on October 21, 1699.  Shortly after his arrival, he was released from his employment with the company and allowed to choose between the life of a farmer or an apprenticeship. He wisely chose the latter. Being a free farmer was an extremely hard life.

Vrijburgers (free citizens) were given contracts to farm along the Liesbeeck River. Here, they ‘put forth their hands to work’ under unimaginably harsh conditions. They were mostly illiterate, with little or no knowledge of farming. They were to plant clops ‘without delay’ along with the odd vine cutting that Van Riebeeck, the Dutch Governor, forced on them. The crops they planted had to be different from the company’s already under cultivation.

High on their agenda would have been urgently building shelter for protection against the elements and lions, leopards, and other predators. The Khoi were also taking up arms, rightfully angry at being pushed off their traditional grazing lands.

The VOC paid the vrijburghers barely enough for them to settle their ‘start-up loans’, let alone make any profit. Almost 190 men were given their Letters of Freedom over five years by Jan van Riebeeck, and of these, fewer than three were left by May 1662. Some passed away, some ran away, and many opted to re-apply for employment with the VOC. These burgers all discovered that ‘freedom’ meant living in abject poverty. Cleverly, Andres Cornelsen became a miller instead (3), avoiding many hardships.

His brothers soon followed him to the Cape and became the clan heads of the Van Tonders of South Africa. So, my voyage to Denmark became a journey back to the land of my forefathers.

It was deeply meaningful that I returned to their land to gain knowledge that they developed, and we now need our new home at the tip of Africa to sustain ourselves and ensure our survival. I did not know how they would help us learn an English bacon-curing technique, but I decided to trust my new hosts.

Arriving at Copenhagen’s free harbour was impressive. There were enormous cranes and every conceivable equipment for the handling of goods. Commodities were loaded and offloaded. Cotton, petroleum, and corn are from New York, and pork is from Chicago. (4)

They tell me that 35,000 sailing vessels and steamers land at this harbour yearly. The day we arrived in Copenhagen, there were steamers worldwide. Many were from Russia, three from England, three from Germany, one from the West Indies, one from South America, and one was leaving port for Greenland. (4)

The number of people milling around on the peer intimidated me. It felt like there were more people than the total number living in Cape Town. I stood a bit sheepishly aside, observing the commotion. Soon, most of the just over two hundred passengers and their welcoming parties left, leaving the crew and dock workers to get stuck into the task of offloading the steamer.

A tall, slender man in his early thirties was leaning against a lamp pole close to the ramp onto the ship, smoking a cigarette. He was well dressed in a brown sports jacket, light pants, leather shoes, and a light cap. He was looking very disinterested as workers hustled to and fro. I approached him. Tentatively, I asked, “Andreas Østergaard?”

While taking another puff from his cigarette, he answered, “Yeah, and you must be Eben! Welcome to Denmark.” He stretched out his hand and greeted me. Before I could let go of his hand, he started walking down the pier towards the harbour gate. “Come, let’s go!”

Andreas was the young friend of the spice trader whom Oscar and I met at the Mount Bay Hotel on Pritchard Street in Johannesburg. Soon, we were travelling on the city tram and then by train to his home on the outskirts of Copenhagen.

My first impression of Copenhagen was that it was clean and very orderly. Andreas tells me that almost 500,000 people live here. I was mesmerised by the magnificently constructed buildings. I learned later from people who travel a lot that not even in Amsterdam are such beautiful buildings. (4)

They solved the problem of keeping the city clean by employing the poor as teams of able-bodied paupers wearing black clothes and wooden shoes who cleaned the many city squares. Each man carries a watering can and a huge broom. Regiments of these men perform this function at regular intervals. (4)

The city is different to what I am used to in many ways.  Size changes everything. Businesses are bigger and oddly arranged. Shops are located on the second story of buildings lining the streets of the city centre. Huge factories all lay on the outskirts. (4)

We stopped at a pub. Andreas wanted to learn about our plan. He ordered a beer, and I asked for wine. Everybody in the pub looked up. The bar lady was slightly thrown off. “Wine!” she gasped, “I am sure we have a bottle somewhere!” She disappeared into the back and emerged with a bottle in hand with not a small air of satisfaction. (5)

Andreas was not surprised that there was no company in Cape Town curing large quantities of good quality bacon. He asked me many questions that I could not answer. I knew how to do dry-cured bacon and my dad’s molasses bacon but knew nothing about the chemical process of bacon curing or its modern techniques.

Bacon was a prized dish at the Cape of Good Hope from the earliest times. Local bacon was generally over-salted, and one could only eat it after soaking it in fresh water. It was typically made with the old recipe we used as a family. The problem was that every butcher and farmer did it differently, and many took shortcuts, trying to get to the final product without waiting for the month it needed to cure. Pork was, in many ways, a staple meat for sailors in the days before refrigeration.

It was one of the easiest animals to take alive on the ship for slaughter during the voyage. This practice led to a brilliant idea for ships to set pigs free on uninhabited islands to provide food for shipwrecked sailors. (6) When the Dutch East Indian Company set up their refreshment station at the Cape in 1652, they did it for a similar reason as pigs were left on islands, namely to ensure the supply of fresh meat along with the obvious supply of fresh water for ships travelling to the East. The Dutch brought domesticated European pigs on the three ships which arrived in Table Bay Harbour in 1652. These died within months of landing, and piglets did not live longer than a few days. Later on, two varieties of pigs were found at the Cape. A Dutch breed and a Chinese breed that had dainty meat and claws like dogs. (7)

The earliest bacon found at the Cape was so heavily salted that it could be left in the storeroom for over a year without spoiling, and even seawater could be used to draw out the salt. In the early days at the Cape, bacon was the meat that was most often dispatched to outposts such as Land van Waveren, Hottentots Holland, and Outpost 1 at Saldanha Bay, making it an essential commodity at the Cape.  (7)

Much has changed by the mid-1800s. The imported bacon was far less salty, but local bacon still had to be left in freshwater for a few hours (up to 16 hours). The butchery trade at the Cape was well established by early German and Swiss immigrants and stood on the shoulders of a very tentative pig breeding industry. Techniques used by butchers were slow, and all the butchers in Cape Town, put together, found it hard to supply bacon to the booming Cape Colony.

When I left the Cape, the last thing my dad told me was, “Become number one!  Learn how to be the best!” I smiled when he said this, thinking, “Yes, Dad, that is the plan.” Looking back, I realised I did not know what those words meant.

For the following 12 months, I lived with Andreas and his parents in Copenhagen while working at a local bacon-curing company owned by farmers in a cooperative scheme unique to Denmark. It was managed by a bacon legend, Hendrik Jeppesen. During the day, as we called him, Uncle Jeppe trained me, including lectures during lunch breaks on Tuesdays and Thursdays. In the evenings, after supper, Andreas’ dad read us from a book called Foods, written by an Englishman, and afterwards, we would discuss it. This discussion after supper was a Danish tradition.

Copenhagen was an important city for men from science and industry to visit, and the following year, Uncle Jeppe and Andreas ensured that I met many of these men. I always had a notebook with me to jot down new information. I wrote letters back home to my kids, my parents, Oscar and Minette. I did it because I wanted to record what I learned as a backup in case I lost my notebook or if it was destroyed by whatever means. I wanted my kids to have it, even if they would appreciate it only in later years. Importantly, it became a way to give investors a picture of what their money was being used for. More than this, it was the story of a great adventure.

My collection of Danish letters written between 1891 and 1892 from Copenhagen follows. I present them in date sequence. Generally, my goal was to write one letter every month.

There was one other reason I wrote. It was because I missed my kids, family, and friends. There were days when I rushed home after work and could not wait to share what I had learned. Sometimes, I met people who gave me such a clear vision for the future that I could fly back to Cape Town on mythical wings and strategize with Oscar – I did the flying when I wrote these letters.

There were days, however, when I would sit at a street cafe or in my room and as I wrote, tears would be in my eyes. The fact is that I missed these people so much. They are my entire world; everything I learn and experience, and every person I meet is meaningless without them. Family and friends give life meaning and purpose for the greatest adventures!

I was overcome by the excitement of the moment, and for a time, there were so many new things to learn that life took on a new meaning. Gone were the doubts about the temporary nature of our sojourning on earth, the mental world of culture, language, and religion, and my newfound love of science. I was surrounded by men and women, steeped in a deep understanding of the laws of our natural world, and it would be the education in these laws that would ultimately bring me full circle back to the human dilemma of having minds with which we perceive the eternal and the fixed while trapped in the temporal and the fleeting! The temporal and fleeting world I found myself in was all brand new, glittering, and exciting, which dulled the nagging questions born in the plains of Africa. The story of my Danish adventures and discoveries is in my letters.


(c) eben van tonder

Joun us on Faceboom


(1) Eben and Chris arrived in Copenhagen on Sunday, 9 October 2011.  It was the first destination on an extensive European and UK trip to investigate bacon production methods, ingredients, and equipment.  At the airport, they were welcomed by Andreas Østergaard.  Andreas spent almost two months with us when we opened our Kraaifontein factory, helping us start production.

(2)  Steamship Salmo.

  • Built. 1891 (IMO 5600223)
  • Yard. Lobnitz & Co
  • Class of Ship. Passenger steamship
  • Operator. DFDS 1891-1935
  • Route. Harwich – Esbjerg 1892-1904
  • Length. 209.5 ft.
  • Gross Tonnage. 1032
  • Passengers. 243
  • Speed. 11 Knots
  • Status. Scrapped 27/05/1935


(3)  First Considerations – the Van Tonder Family

(4)  The description of the free harbour and the city of Copenhagen is from an article in the Evening Star (Washington, District of Columbia), 10 October 1903, page 28, America in Denmark.

(5)  This is an exact account of what happened moments after we met Andreas.  I explained some of our plans to him during the ride in his car from the airport.  After the bar lady got me the wine, he sat briefly and asked me, “You guys want to do WHAT?”

(6)  There are many accounts that this happened in reality.  It was officially suggested in 1876 by the Saturday Review (London) to stock uninhabited islands with pigs and rabbits to provide for shipwrecked sailors.  (The New York Times, 1876)  In some cases, the suggestion was met with derision, but it was by all accounts a serious suggestion, and many lauded the plan. (Chicago Tribune, 1876)

(7)  See Heinrich, 2010, page 31 – 33


Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois), 30 April 1876, page 4.

Evening Star (Washington, District of Columbia), 10 October 1903, page 28, America in Denmark

Geldenhuys, P..  2015. Geldenhuys Genealogy,   Descendants of Albert Barends Gildenhuizen.  Peysoft Publishing.

Heinrich, Adam R.  2010.  A zooarcheaelogical investigation into the meat industry established at the Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch East Indian Company in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, The State University of New Jersey.

Linder, Adolphe. 1997.  The Swiss at the Cape of Good Hope. Creda Press (Pty) Ltd

“Nach der Volksabstimmung” (in German). Deutsches Historisches Museum.

The New York Times (New York, New York), 9 May 1876, page 6, A Benevolent Scheme.

Simons, Phillida Brooke. 2000. Ice Cold In Africa. Fernwood Press Wilson Line.

Jacobsen, N. K..  1960.  Agricultural Geography and Regional Planning in a Marine Foreland.  Geografisk Tidsskrift, Bind 59 (1960)

Patterson, G. M.. 2001.  Medieval History: 500 to 1450 CE Essentials.  REA.

Rasmussen, C. P..  2010.  “Innovative Feudalism. The development of dairy farming and Koppelwirtschaft on manors in Schleswig-Holstein in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,” Agricultural History Review (2010) 58#2 pp 172-190

Sundberg, K., Germundsson. T., Hansen, K..  2004.  Modernisation and Tradition: European Local and Manorial Societies 1500-1900.  Nordic Academic Press.

The University of Copenhagen, Unit for Name Research.

Weidling, T. ed.. 2000. Autocratic men in Norway: civilian central organs and officials from 1660 to 1814 . Director General, Oslo: In cooperation with Messel precursor.

Photo Credit:

Free Harbour, Copenhagen, 1903:  Evening Star (Washington, District of Colombia), 10 October 1903, page 28, America in Denmark

Steamship Salmo: Wilson Line.

10 thoughts on “Chapter 12.00: The Denmark Letters

Leave a Reply