Joshua Penny and Khoikhoi Fermentation Technology at the Cape of Good Hope

Joshua Penny and Khoikhoi Fermentation Technology at the Cape of Good Hope
By Eben van Tonder
10 March 2018

Cave on Table Mountain.jpg


Fermentation is used to produce alcohol and preserve meat.   My interest in its history first came to me when I read the sixty-page pamphlet titled, “The life and adventures of Joshua Penny,” published in 1815.  He is “arguably the most fascinating character to have lived like a Robinson Crusoe in the caves of Table Mountain, allegedly for 14 months.”  (geocaching)  I am a passionate student of food and food science.  Penny’s account of his adventures offers intriguing glimpses into ancient foods and food science employed at the Cape of Good Hope, as it was done around the world.

Joshua Penny was American, born from a poor family at Long Island, New York on 12 September 1773 who started out as a youngster trying his fortune at sea, but his independence was cruelly terminated when he was “impressed” into the British Navy. Impressment was an unpopular and harsh system of forced recruitment that allowed the Royal Navy to compel able-bodied men, including American seamen, to work as crew on British warships. The system was justified and maintained at the time as a necessary means to ensure the strength of the British navy and the survival of the British Empire.” (geocaching)

“He soon developed an enduring hatred for the British. In June 1795, as an impressed sailor, the unhappy Joshua became an incidental participant in the first British occupation of the Cape. Soon after landing he and others succeeded in escaping from the Brits. The Dutch defenders of the Cape welcomed them “with Constantia wine and Mutton tails of the best quality.”  (geocaching)   When asked why they deserted they answered that they were impressed into service and wish to return home.  After a royal time at the Cape of Good Hope, while the Dutch were still in control, the governor gave them advance warning of his intention to surrender to the British with newly arrived reinforcements.  They left the Cape, well stocked with supplies, courtesy of the governor.  They moved from farmhouse to farmhouse.

Calabashes to store water and brandy for visitors

Penny gives the first important clue as to the technology of the local people when he writes, “water was so rarely found, that we took that in calabashes.”  (Penny, 1815: 18)  He also mentions that whenever they knocked on farmhouse doors, the occupants came to the door with wine or brandy, even though they did not dare entertain them.  This is, of course, the first mention, of what I believe was technology common at the Cape.  The Europeans brought the technology to make wine and brandy but soon we would learn about local indigenous technology to produce something similar.

Penny and his mates arrived at a location described as being 100 miles from the Cape at the head of the Klanvis River, 50 miles from where it reaches the sea.  After doing some work for a farmer, news arrived from the Cape that “the English had possession of the district, and that if any inhabitant while under English laws, should entertain a deserter, he should be transported to Botany Bay for life.  The farmer told Vanderwiet and Penny, that he was in such dread of the British tyrannical laws, he dared not entertain them any longer, but advised them to travel into the interior, as long as inhabitants were to be found.” (Penny, 1815: 20)

The Peoples of the Cape

Penny’s tale now becomes enlightening as far as the technology of the indigenous people is concerned.  He encounters two groups at the Cape.  One is the San (Bushman) and the other is the Khoikhoi (Hottentot).  The San or the Bushman is the famous nomadic hunter/ gatherers from Southern Africa and the Khoikhoi or Hottentot migrated south from as far north as Zambia or some suggest, even East Africa with their herds of fat tale sheep.  Some scholars maintain a single ancestry for the two peoples and their footprints can be seen across the Southern African region dating back many thousands of years.  Their dietary practices would become an important glips into prehistoric food.

Penny’s tale where he introduces these people is a shocking glimpse into frontier life but is a subject for a different discussion on a separate forum.  He writes that” the Bosjesmen (Bushman) was at that time making inroads on the frontiers, and Penny’s small company was very acceptable to the Dutch party who were forming to act on the defensive, at Cold Bokkeveld.  People at this place very willingly entertained them and joined them on their march to attack the enemy’s camp”, i.e. the Bushmen.  The Bushmen murdered a woman and their children and in turn, the frontier farmers along with some 40 or 50 Khoikhoi hunted the Bushman down, killed the men and woman and kidnapped the children.  Penny said that during their pursuit of the Bushman, they followed old game paths for about three weeks.  He described the Khoikhoi as people who “rode on bullocks and subsisted on flour conveyed in sacks, wild honey, and roots resembling American ground nuts.”

Ground Nuts

This gives us the first interesting glimpse into the dietary habits of the Khoikhoi (Hottentot).  Neil Rusch, an expert in matters pertaining to archaeology, literature and a mead producer extraordinaire, offers the following insights on the possible identity of the nuts.  He writes, ““the roots resembling American groundnuts” are likely to be an assortment of geophytes of the iris, or iridaceae family. Residues of these plants, corm casings and stems particularly, are found in archaeological contexts suggesting that they provided a significant source of carbohydrate.”  (personal correspondence with Neil)

Penny eventually returns to Cape Town, only to be imprisoned on the suspicion of being a mutineer.  Fearing the penalty of death, he steadfastly denies all such charges, claiming to be Jonas Inglesburg.  Eventually the Fiscal is ordered by the admiral to ship those who did not confess on board the first merchant ship to arrive.

He ends up serving on various warships and in various campaigns, always looking for an escape back to land again.  He became a crewman on the HMS Sceptre. “Historical records show that the Sceptre entered Table Bay during October 1799. This means that Penny was 26 years old at this time.”  (geocaching) Here he picked a fight with a bully when the American crewmen celebrate their 4th of July independence day.  He saw a perfect opportunity to faint injury to make it to land and escape, which is exactly what he did.  He escapes to Table Mountain where he lived in several caves and became one of the people in history to have survived longest on this inhospitable mountain without apparent support from the Cape Town community.  There is an account in records of the Mountain Club of South Africa of slaves who wandered around at the top for a while before returning due to the lack of food.  There were many accounts of slaves escaping to the mountain, but they all lived lower down and frequently made it back to town to get provisions, either stealing or being supplied by fellow slaves or well-doers.

Joshua “resolved that he would rather be “breakfast for a lion” than be taken on another floating dungeon. He mentions encountering goats, antelopes, hyenas, leopards, and baboons during his climb to the summit which took him more than four days. He then took up residence in view of the Western Ocean in a cavern near a spring of good water.” (geocaching)

Dried Meat and Honey Mead

Joshua was better equipped than most after the time he spent with the Khoikhoi who taught him their field craft.   Soon after his escape to the mountain, he discovered that wild honey was plentiful and the Khoikhoi taught him how to retrieve it.  He works out how to kill game by forcing them off a cliff.  The skin he uses to cover him; the meat he cut into thin strips and hangs on sticks which he put into “crevices in his habitation.”  This is a well-known bushman and I am sure, Khoikhoi way of drying meat.

The dried meat was first boiled again before it was consumed, something which seemed to have been the practice with dried meat early on.  I encountered this still being practiced to this day in Nepal.  He writes that “while among the Hottentots he had learned their method of making a very pleasant beverage resembling metheglin,” a spiced variety of mead.  He reports that he was “fortunate enough to find an old hollow tree, which he cut off with his knife, and seized a green hide on one end for a bottom.  Into this tub honey and water was put to stand twenty-four hours; then was added some pounded root to make it ferment.  This root, in use among the frontier Hottentots, does not resemble any of his acquaintances in America but makes an excellent drink in this preparation.”

It is at this point that Prof. Kevin Dunn’s Caveman Chemistry comes in handy to explain what the technology involved.  He writes that “honey is a complex, concentrated solution of sugars, mostly glucose and fructose, the solutes, which add colour, flavour, and aroma to the solvent in which they are dissolved” which, in the case of Joshua Penny, happens to be water.  Honey in its pure form does not spoil since if a solution is concentrated enough, microorganisms can generally speaking not live in it.  Honey is simply too concentrated to spoil.

Add some water to it and it begins to spoil as the microorganisms begin to eat the sugar.  “Most animals need air to live, and when they eat sugar, they excrete water and carbon dioxide.  Yeast, however, is able to live aerobically and anaerobically, or with or without oxygen.  “When there is plenty of air, they digest sugars aerobically as most other organisms do.  But in the absence of air, they are able to partially digest sugars in aqueous solutions, excreting carbon dioxide, as usual, but  (Caveman Chemistry, p. 54-56) instead of excreting water, they excrete ethanol (ethyl alcohol).  The resultant solution is called mead.

“The maturation of a mead depends in large part on the concentration of honey in the original solution which is called must or worth.  Let’s describe what is happening as follows. Joshua watered the honey down and placed it in his make-shift container which he left for 24 hours.  Let’s assume that he used a lot of water.  The yeast finds itself in yeast heaven with plenty of sugar to eat, but not so concentrated that they cannot thrive and plenty of oxygen to breath.  They produced carbon dioxide and water from the glucose and oxygen.  This allowed the yeast to multiply.  After a day, he sealed the container with some pounded root.  This cut off the oxygen supply.  What will happen now is that the oxygen, which the yeast continues to use, runs out before the sugar does and the yeast moves into anaerobic mode, consuming glucose (but not oxygen) and producing carbon dioxide and ethanol.  Carbon dioxide is a gas and the pressure builds in his make-shift vessel.  If there was a way to let the gas escape without allowing oxygen back in, a dry, non-sweet mead is produced since the sugar is effectively all used up in the process.

This, however, is not exactly what I suspect happened.  He had no access to fancy fermentation locks which is effectively a one-way valve which allows gas to escape, but no gas to return back into the container.  Joshua would not have been very liberal in the water he added which meant that “the yeast reproduced more slowly because the concentration of honey is higher.  As the sugar is consumed, the alcohol concentration rises, eventually to a level which is toxic even to yeast, which is, in effect, stewing in their own juices.    They die and fall to the bottom, and under these conditions, a sweet mead results because of the leftover sugar.  The sweet mead is more alcoholic than the dry mead because all the sugar that can be converted to alcohol will have been.”  (Caveman Chemistry, p. 56, 57)

Glia Roots

Penny’s mention of the pounded root used to seal the wine and water in and aid in the fermentation is fascinating.  I wondered what this could have been and will I be able to identify it.

After quite a bit of research, I was again finally put on the right track by Neil Rusch who introduced me to a Namaqua root called “bierwortel” which, according to Willem Steenkamp in his Land of the Thirst King, has a burning taste if taken raw but is a good stand-in for yeast.  (personal correspondence with Neil Rusch).  This lead me to the work of Skead (2009) who summarised the historical record of plants as mentioned by travelers.  In these lists, he has a section dedicated to people who traveled through Namaqualand between 1661 and 1877 and here he offers the solution to my question.  One of the roots he mentions was called “moerwortel.”  Its scientific name is Glia prolifera (Burm.f.) B. L. Burtt (as Peucedanum gummiferum (L.)Wijnands).  It is described in a 1794 record by C. P. Thunberg, as an umbelliferous plant, the root of which, dried and reduced to powder, they mix with cold water and honey in a trough, and after letting it ferment for the space of one night, obtain a species of Mead.”  (Skead, 2009: p59 and DSAE)  In the Khoisan language, it was called gli /ɡli(ː)/.

Gli Prolifera.png
Glia prolifera. (a, b) Stems of fruiting plants from Du Toit’s Kloof Pass, showing the variation in cauline leaves: glaucous and with irregular linear segments
(a) or the more usual yellowish green with shorter and broader segments (b); (c) flowering plant, one year after fire (note the cauline leaves and sparse inflorescences);
(d) basal (juvenile) leaf, showing the broad segments and minutely aristate teeth; (e) green but mature fruit, showing the broadly oblong shape. Voucher specimens:
(a, e) Van Wyk et al. 4209a; (b) Van Wyk 4209c; (d) Van Wyk et al. 4329. Photographs taken by B.-E. Van Wyk.

(Van Wyk, et al, 2009)

In 2009 it was shown that there are altogether three species of Glia.  Glia prolifera occurs on Table Mountain and is in all likelihood the root that Penny used in his honey fermentation.  The other one is Glia decidua, occurring in the Koue Bokkeveld but also to a lesser extent Glia prolifera.  The third one is Glia pilulosa, but it is only found much further to the east (Van Wyk, et al, 2009) and is probably not what Penny encountered.

Glia decidua. (a) Tuberous root, ca. 200 mm long and 80 mm in diameter (note the bright green basal leaves with broad segments); (b) basal part of a flowering
plant at the type locality, showing the radical leaves that are starting to wither (December); (c) fruiting plant at the type locality (note the large terminal umbels);
(d) green but mature fruit, showing the broadly oblong shape; (e) ripe fruit, showing distinct ribs. Voucher specimens: (b,c,d) B.-E. & M. van Wyk 4274; (e) Van Wyk
4360. Photographs taken by B.-E. Van Wyk except (a) by Mr J. Claassens.

(Van Wyk, et al, 2009)

“Bierwortel” of  Willem Steenkamp is nevertheless still a plant of interest, but I think we have nailed the exact plant used by Penny on Table Mountain.  All that remains now is some great fieldwork to go and find the plant for myself on Table Mountain.  I am planning to hike to the most likely caves where Penny made his abode and will be looking for Glia in the area of the caves.


Joshua Penny lived the most amazing existence for at least 14 months before returning to False Bay.  He learned that “a strong north-westerly gale hit Table Bay shortly after his escape and the Sceptre sank with terrible loss of life at Woodstock Beach on 5 November 1799.”  This extraordinary young man became one of  the first people to fire a torpedo back home in the 1812 British war with America.  Similarly to the shocking reality of frontier life, this is a discussion for another day.  🙂  For our purposes, the pictures he paints from his adventures introduced us to ancient meat preservation and the Khoikhoi technology to produce alcohol from honey.  Like Joshua Penny himself, this is legendary and inspires recipes and many of my own adventures.


Dunn, K. M..  2003.  Caveman Chemistry.  Universal Publishers.


Penny, J.  1815.  The Life and Times of Joshua Penny.  Published by the autor.

Skead, C. J..  2009.  Historical plant incidence in Southern Africa.  SANBI.

Van Wyk, B-E, Tilney, P.M., Magee, A.R..  2009.  A revision of the genus Glia (Apiaceae, tribe Heteromorpheae).  Department of Botany and Plant Biotechnology, University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg, South Africa, Received 20 August 2009; received in revised form 3 November 2009; accepted 4 November 2009.  South African Journal of Botany 76 (2010) 259–271.

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