Count of Heyning

Digging into the depth of one’s ancestry one is likely to come across a good story or two.

Although the Heyning family has by now joined the ranks of the Dutch patriciate and according to every publication and website concerning Cape of Good Hope is counted as one of the old renowned Cape families, the social status of the descendants of this family was not always evidently clear to everyone in those days. It appears that Jacob Daniel Heyning(1783-1832) , who left the East for good to settle in Holland, in particular struggled with this uncertainty. In 19th-century Dutch society, much taken with rank and class, knowledge of one’s ancestral history was essential and unfortunately that was exactly what was lacking in Jacob Daniel’s case. But as a true Heyning, he did not allow this to get on top of him and decided to act.

On March 16, 1820 he addressed himself at great length in a letter to Mr Van der Lelie van Oudewater in Delft. He signed the letter, a copy of which is kept in the family archives, with Count Jacob Daniel of Heyning. In this letter he requested ‘some elucidation’ regarding his family’s coat of arms and he recounted how his great-grandfather had gone from Delft to Cape of Good Hope in his youth at the end of the 17th century.

He was at the time under guardianship as both his parents had passed away. Well into his old age he claimed to have descended from respectable ancestry and for a reason to have left his guardians and have changed his name by deleting the adjective ‘Of ‘. This and his coat of arms is all that his descendants in those far away regions will have known about him.

Jacob Daniel, as the only male in line, was not laying any claims on inheritance or titles. He had moved back permanently to Holland in the previous year and was obviously suffering under the notion that his social status was not immediately clear to everyone:

as I am under the impression that my forebears by being so far away from their homeland had lost sight of the advantages of knowing one’s roots and that I therefore find myself totally isolated ; it therefore seems to me that the obligation weighs on me to research these matters.

Jacob Daniel knew Dutch society well. As early as in 1780 at the age of only 7 he had been sent by his father from Bengal to Holland. There, under the wings of his aunt Isabella, he received an excellent education in Delft, Noordwijk and Amsterdam. Not until 1802, at the age of 18, had he returned to Bengalwhere, encouraged by his father, he started out as a merchant. Times were hard though and when on top of that he was taken in by one of his associates he lost most of his money within in a few years. In December 1817 Jacob Daniel decided to turn his back permanently on Bengal. He headed back to the homeland via Cape of Good Hope where he would stay for a year accompanied by his family. Once back in Amsterdamhe managed to rent a house with nine rooms in ‘one of the most pleasant standings of the city’ and to get himself appointed warden of the English Reformed Church. The aspired access to ‘the right Amsterdam circles’  did not progress so well. First and foremost this all cost a fair amount of money which was in limited supply , but as he wrote himself:

if one consorts with decent people of a certain standing, without wanting to jump too high and without a carriage, one spends in fact the same as with us in Chinsura.

More difficult was the complete lack of insight into his ancestry. In status-conscious Amsterdam, one’s ancestors and related family members were of the utmost importance. It took more than being church-warden of the English Reformed Church to be accepted by the Amsterdam elite.

The ‘Blauwe Boekje’ [Dutch Patriciate Records] did not exist in those days. Yet genealogical research into prominent families had been established for years. One of the people who played a leading role in this field was the secretary of the Council of the Nobility, jhr. mr. Jacob van der Lelie van Oudewater, scion of Delft descent, whose grandfather the 18th-century doctor Willem van der Lely had been an enthusiastic genealogist  who had published the pedigrees of many Delft magistrate families and all the appropiate coat of arms. The Heyning family – although originating from Delft – had not been included and Jacob Daniel will have seized this omission to plead for van der Lelie van Oudewater’s help.

His letter to the Council of the Nobility was initially answered by a ‘miss Hacker’ possibly an assistant at the Council. At her request he also sent a drawing of his coat of arms . This drawing which is kept in the van der Lelie van Oudewater archives at the Council of the Nobility, shows the coat of arms with dolphin, rings, sheaf of arrows and cross which corresponds with the coat of arms which we know belonged to Nicolaas Heijning as it appears in lacquer seals on various notarial deeds in the Cape Town archives. However, on Jacob Daniel’s drawing we find a special addition. The coat of arms is suddenly embellished by a crown of no less than 14 small pearls! [picture pg.24 Een Hollanse Familie Overzee] Nicolaas never used any such addition. His son Daniel (1714-1761) was the first to crown his coat of arms, as did many other Cape families at the time. Did he follow the example of his uncle by marriage, governor Maurits Paques de Chavonnes who wore a (count’s) crown of 9 pearls? Grandson Jacob Daniel firmly believed in this addition and had his nose so high in the air that he gave his crown 14 pearls and therefore even signed his letter to Van der Lelie van Oudewater with ‘Count of Heyning’! His connection to the illustrious Pasques de Chavonnes family has in all likelihood confirmed this belief. When upon Miss Hacker’s request he passed on the names of his ancestors he added next to his grandmother Maria Magdalena Pasques de Chavonnes: ‘who was indirectly related to de Coligny’.

All this to no avail. Although we do not know Van der Lelie van Oudewater’s answer it is clear that the use of the title count could not be claimed. An entry into Amsterdam society therefore did not seem likely. In the middle of 1825 Jacob Daniel wrote:

We are almost entirely isolated from society…


E. Heyning.

Edited by Katie Heyning and translated by Mariette Heyning – summer 2011

-Book of Letters  Jacob Daniel Heyning in National Archives, Heyning family archives.
-Letter dd March 16 1820 J.D. Heyning to mr van der Lelie van Oudewater, private archives

[all italics are loosely translated quotes from 19th-century Dutch documents]