18/08 save to DVD folder 09- as file 1806-The Battle of Blaauwberg.doc ( highlight and copy to a Word file)
The Battle of Blaauwberg
By Tim Couzens, from his book, “Battles of South Africa ”
On a summer’s day in January, hot, torpid, bright, one of the best places to be for breakfast is the Big Blue Cafe in Melkbosstrand on the West Coast. You get a generous helping of bacon, eggs, sausage, tomatoes, banana, apple, fried onions and mushrooms, all at a reasonable price.
Over the steam of your tea, over the spray of the breakers, over the haze of the waves, over the distance of 200 years you can let yourself imagine a huge fleet with sails and pennants and figureheads imperiously moving into sight and taking up position offshore. One large 64 gun man-o-war (Diadem), one 32 gun ship (Leda) and two brigs (Encounter and Protector) dropped anchor as close to land as possible in order to cover the landing-place with their heavy cannons. Over to the left is the most distinctive feature of the bay – a jagged reef of sharp rocks that provides the shoreline a measure of protection from heavy swells. A small ship was run aground there to form a breakwater for the invasion about to come.
You can imagine, behind you, the few skirmishers the Dutch had sent to watch. You can imagine what went on in their minds as they realised that this was to be one of the largest seaborne invasions Britain had ever undertaken. It was 6 January 1806 .
The Cape had once more become strategically important when Britain declared war on France in May 1803 after it had been returned to the Dutch earlier that year.
This time the Dutch were unavoidably attached to the French cause since the French, following their 1794 to 1795 invasion, had set up the Batavian Republic in 1798. In 1806 what was now the Batavian Commonwealth was represented at the Cape by Lieutenant-General Janssens.
Janssens’ situation was unenviable. His best regiment had been ordered to Batavia itself so that his military strength, never sufficient, was now dangerously depleted.
The overall population of the Cape at the time consisted of about 25 000 whites, some 20 000 ‘Hottentots’ in service and 29 000 slaves. Under arms Janssens could call on a coloured (so-called Hottentot) regiment of between 500 and 600 strong under Lieutenant-Colonel Frans le Sueur; the 5th Waldeck Battalion consisting of about 400 German and Hungarian mercenaries; the 9th Battalion of jaegers (infantrymen, often hunters or game wardens renowned for their marksmanship) some 200 strong, recruited from all over Europe; and an odd assortment of Batavian marines, dragoons and mounted burghers. From the French ships Atalante andNapoleon came 240 marines under Colonel Guadin Beauchene who was the marines’ commander on the latter ship. He had some 16 field guns manned by 54 Javanese artillerymen called Mardykers (a name derived from Campon-Mared, an area in the East Indies ). One hundred slaves also helped in the moving of the artillery.
Given the strategic importance of the Cape as the only sea route to the East, Janssens had every reason to expect some form of intervention from the British.
When war had been declared Napoleon had prepared to invade his island enemy with some considerable intent. He brought hisGrande Armee to Boulogne and assembled some 2 000 ships between Brest and Antwerp for the invasion of the island. He needed to control the Channel for just a brief while but the British fleet kept him at bay. Even an alliance with Spain and the entry of the Spanish fleet on the French side failed to correct the imbalance. Nevertheless the British felt that the Cape must be secured.
Quietly, with considerable subterfuge, they assembled a very large army and a fleet of over 60 ships. In July 1805 at Falmouth , the 59th Infantry Regiment, the 20th Light Dragoons, 320 artillerymen and assorted recruits embarked in transports under the protection of the brigs Espoir, Encounter and Protector, supposedly destined for the East Indies . Not long thereafter the 24th, 38th, 71st, 83rd and 93rd infantry regiments boarded more transports at Cork . They were escorted by Diadem, Raisonable and Belliqueux (all 64 guns), Diomede (50 guns), and the frigates Narcissus and Leda (32 guns).
The fleet was under the overall command of Commodore Sir Home Popham, the army (over 6,500 troops) under Major-General David Baird. Word was spread that they were headed for the Mediterranean . Since the threat of invasion from Boulogne was still real this force seemed a sideshow of relatively little importance.
In fact, while they were at sea events of crucial import occurred to affect the course of the war in Europe . On 21 October 1805 Admiral Nelson caught Villeneuve’s French fleet off Cape Trafalgar and dispelled once and for all- at the cost of his life – the fear of invasion. But even before this, Napoleon, (like Hitler in the following century) had turned his attention to the east, crushing the Austrian at UIm in October and capturing Vienna in November. Then in December he won a crushing victory over the Russians and Austrians at Austerlitz .
None of this was known to the British fleet headed for the Cape . They reprovisioned at Madeira and St Salvador (where they bought horses for the dragoons) and ran into trouble off Brazil where two transports were wrecked with the loss of Brigadier-General York. The frigate Narcissus and the brig Espoir were sent ahead on separate missions to gather information. The latter managed to glean details from a neutral merchantman about the strength and disposition of the Cape garrison.
General Baird had had an exciting and distinguished career, much of it in India . In 1780 he was wounded at Perambaukum and held a prisoner in irons until his release in 1784. He was promoted to lieutenant-colonel of the 71st Regiment in 1790 and took part in the second war against Tippoo Sahib which ended in 1792. In 1799 in the third war against the Sultan of Mysore, at the head of the Highland Brigade, he led the attack which stormed the defences of Seringapatam where Sahib himself was killed in the breach. In 1801 Baird and his army landed on the Egyptian shore of the Red Sea and marched across the desert to the Nile . They the converged on Alexandria , but the port had fallen before he arrived.
There was something else in his favour – he had spent a year at the Cape during the first British occupation and had first-hand knowledge of its defences and its terrain.
Ironically, these defences had been strengthened by the British as soon as they had taken over Cape Town in 1795. General Craig had learnt from his own success The French Lines had not been carried through to the slopes of Devil’s Peak so he constructed three blockhouses (called the ‘York’, ‘King’s’ and ‘Prince of Wales’) to remedy the deficiency. The King’s Blockhouse was located high up on Mowbray with an excellent view of both Table and False bays. It is easily visible from many parts of the city’s suburbs.
Between Fort Knokke and Salt River the rather feeble Nieuwe Battery was replaced with a stout square blockhouse from which an old cannon and five 24 pounders could cover the sea and the land. It was known as Craig’s Tower. Since the British had built it they had a healthy respect for it. Baird had no doubt seen it and admired it; now it stood in his way and he might have to knock it out!
Baird had the option of landing in False Bay or Table Bay . In fact it was no real option at all. Since the strengthening of the defences, Simon’s Town and Muizenberg would be an even more difficult approach. Table Bay it would have to be.
Janssens was on tenterhooks. Intelligence at sea was, of course, very slow in those days. But on Christmas Day his worst fears were confirmed.
A French privateer, the Napoleon, ran itself aground on the coast south of Hout Bay . The day before, she had been spotted byNarcissus which had immediately given chase. Being run ashore was the only alternative to capture or sinking. Where there was one British warship there were likely to be more. This was almost immediately confirmed by the arrival of another ship which reported that it had passed a large convoy on its way south. On the 28th came a further account of a large British fleet sailing from Madeira on 3 October. On 4 January 1806 the wait was over. Sentries on Signal Hill saw the horizon begin to fill with sails and by afternoon the enemy fleet, awesome in its magnitude, had moved into Table Bay and taken up position between Robben Island and Blaauwberg.
Signal guns sited on a line of hills relayed the news of the British arrival so that within eight hours of the first sighting the burghers of Swellendam had been alerted. But the journey was long, the heat during the day intense and the farmers reluctant to leave their ripening crops. They would not play a significant part in the coming battle.
After an abortive attempt to put part of his force ashore at Camps Bay , General Baird’s plan was to land his troops next morning on the beach of what was then called Losperd’s Bay (now Melkbosstrand). It was sufficiently far from Cape Town for him to expect a relatively unopposed, at worst a lightly opposed, landing and a 26-kilometre march to the town. But the plan was thrown into confusion when a south-easterly gale blew up overnight and heavy surf next morning made a landing too hazardous.
Instead he decided to send part of his army north to the more sheltered haven of Saldanha Bay , intending to follow with his main force. So with Espoir in the lead, transports carrying the 38th regiment, the dragoons and part of the artillery headed north during the night of the 5th under the command of Brigadier General Beresford and under the protection of Diomede. Baird was not happy with this scenario: Saldanha Bay was further away and the march south would be even harder and hotter with little water on the way.
On the morning of the 6th, however, the wind, though still stiff, had subsided sufficiently to make a landing at Losperd’s Bay possible, if risky. The fleet took up its position accordingly.
At around noon the Highland Brigade, commanded by Brigadier-General Ferguson, and consisting of the 71st, 72nd and 93rd regiments, making up the first wave, assembled in their boats and headed for the shore. Ferguson had already gone ahead to scout the beach and pronounced it free of defences.
The morning, a Monday, was hot and assured of getting hotter. The Highlanders were in full uniform with heavy loads of equipment. Colonel John Graham of the 93rd (the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) was one of the invading parties and described some of the confusion which accompanied it: ‘ The boats unavoidably got into such a crowd that many of the turning boats could make no use of their oars. We were then not a half a common shot from the beach or sand hills. One of the boats of the Charlotte had been unable to push to windward of the rock; she touched it, instantly turned bottom up, and down went 36 of our brave fellows, cheering as they sank. Only three bodies were thrown up on the shore, or ever seen again. ‘ What exactly they were cheering about Graham did not explain.
As the other boats approached the shore they were fired upon by the muskets of a small patrol of coloured soldiers under Colonel le Sueur sent by Janssens to harass the landing. They were kept at bay by the heavy guns of the warships and the landing was affected with the loss of one Highlander (probably James Conrie who died of his wounds the following month) and the wounding of two officers and three men. Le Sueur also had two men killed and three wounded.
But the wind had strengthened again, making further boat trips too dangerous. This left the Highlanders in a precarious position that night. If the weather worsened and they were not provisioned and reinforced they would be vulnerable to attack. There must have been some pinched and taut nerves amongst them on this foreign shore that night.
Next day, however, was kind to them, stores were got ashore and the 83rd regiment, the 1st battalion of the 24th and a battalion of the 59th joined them. Lieutenant-Colonel Baird, brother of the general, was in command. By nightfall the whole army was ready to move.
Janssens was presented with a dilemma. Many expected him to play a waiting game, marshalling his defence on the line of forts constructed for just such an attack. Instead he pushed northwards with about 2 000 men (one source has 3 000) to confront his enemy. He spent the night of the 7th at Rietvlei.
Few reasons have been suggested for this strategy. Janssens might have wanted to catch the British before they consolidated and somehow pick them off in scattered groups. In fact, had he arrived a day earlier he might have been able to attack the Highlanders while the rest of the army looked on from the ships.
For the British the most distinctive feature in their immediate sights was Blaauwberg mountain. It is 231 metres high. To the south it was joined to a smaller hill called Kleinberg; to the east a not very formidable ridge ran away towards a great plain. As they moved south the British would have to circumvent Blaauwberg either to the left or the right. The coastal route to the right was probably considerably less suitable, as the sand dunes and short but thick fynbos was not suitable for columns to march through, nor the soft sand easy to drag cannons over. So the army headed for the ridge to the left, sailors having to haul the artillery (consisting of two howitzers and six field guns) over the heavy terrain and up the ridge. Several of the sailors were to die of heat exhaustion during the course of the sweltering day. They started their advance at three o’clock in the morning of the 8th.
Janssens had arrived at Rietvlei at six o’clock in the evening of the 6th. There he made his camp. In late afternoon of the 7th several warships began a bombardment of the camp from the sea which they kept up for several hours. But Janssens had already left, moving some kilometres to the north, where he took up a position on the plain east of Kleinberg. On Blaauwberg itself he posted a small piquet to observe the movements of the British and on Kleinberg he established small force of mounted burghers and a cannon as a cover for this left flank. At three o’clock on the 8th he roused his troops. The two armies began to converge for a battle which was now inevitable.
Benign from a hearty breakfast in Melkbosstrand the satisfied battlefield tourist can take two routes south – both pass to the west of Blaauwberg mountain. The more inland route gives a fine view of the approach to the mountain and the ridge from the British perspective but the coastal route is prettier and gives a better feel for the difficulties of the terrain on the west side of the mountain.
Either road gives easy access to the twin boroughs of Bloubergstrand and Table View and on the seashore you will find an excellent information centre run by the friendly, energetic and imaginative Pat Gee who can fire your enthusiasm for the many and varied local attractions. Through her I came to know Pat Matejek who is equally passionate about each and every plant and animal in the area.
The next place to visit in one’s search for the battle of Blaauwberg is Rietvlei, where Janssens camped on the night of the 6th. This you can find by taking the Blaauwberg road – the main road through Table View town leading off from Marine Drive . Within a few hundred metres turn into Pentz Drive and follow this till you come to the world-famous South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) – renowned most recently for its vast effort to rescue and restore to health thousands of oiled penguins.
In the car park outside SANCCOB you will see an interesting plaque on a wall opposite. On this spot, the site of a late Stone Age settlement, a dairy was operated on behalf of the governors of the Dutch East India Company by, amongst others, Wolraad Woltemaade, the man who, repeatedly plunging into the sea on his horse, saved so many lives when the J onge Thomas went aground in a storm in 1773 and eventually lost his own life in the process. This is the general area where Janssens’ camp was located and a few metres walk down towards the vlei you will find a beautiful spring (somewhat overgrown with reeds but alive with birds) which was probably the reason why the Batavian army paused there.
On the 7th Janssens moved his forces about 14 kilometres north to Blaauwbergvlei to the east of Kleinberg with his left flank on its slopes. Why did he take up this position? There were probably two reasons. Firstly, he now straddled the wagon road leading to Cape Town down which he might have expected the
British to march. Secondly, there was another natural spring there which he would have wanted to deny to his enemy. It is possible to visit this spot but it is on private property and can be done only with prior permission.
The best place to view the whole battlefield is on top of Blaauwberg itself but it is not accessible to ordinary cars and again permission is needed. The two Pats went out of their way to arrange this for me and Pete Reinders volunteered to take me. It is typical of the friendly nature of the Table View/Bloubergstrand community that Pete’s initial kind offer was soon joined by others so that late afternoon saw a small fleet of 4 x 4s battle its way up Kleinberg and onto the top of Blaauwberg itself. Gin and wine and champagne flowed, snacks and exotic breads and chicken were produced. This festive gathering in no way detracted from or undermined the fantastic vantage point this spot provided to view the whole battlefield and the vulture’s eye-view it gives.
To the north is Losperd’s Bay (Melkbosstrand) and in the distance is Koeberg nuclear plant. To the south is Table Mountain and the objective of the British advance, Cape Town . To the north-east lies Koeberg Hill and at a distance to the south-east is the line of the Tygerberg Hills. Down below, on the eastern side, lies a large and beautiful plain stretching all the way to the city. It was here on the eastern side of Blaauwberg, on the plain, that the main battle actually occurred.
Janssens drew up his force on a front of some 1 600 metres, with the mounted burghers and some artillery on Kleinberg and its slopes on the west. Next to them was the coloured infantry regiment, barefooted and dressed in white pantaloons and short blue tunics and high glazed black hats, ringed with white leather straps, pipeclayed and embellished with white feathers. Then came the Waldeck jaeger battalion. Next to them in the centre was the 5th Waldeck infantry regiment, then the French marines and on the right the 22nd Batavian infantry and the 9th Batavian jaeger infantry and more artillery manned by the Mardykers covering the flank.
Baird believed Janssens had about 5 000 men available to him at the Cape so he considered the odds to be even. But he must also have known that the real difference lay between the mixed and debatable training of his opponents and the hard-bitten discipline of his own troops.
Baird divided his force into two brigades which marched side-by-side over the ridge and descended into the plain. On his right up against the mountain the first brigade commanded by his brother consisted of the 83rd, 24th and 59th regiments; on the left was the Highland brigade under Brigadier Ferguson comprising the 71st (City of Glasgow regiment), 72nd (the Seaforth Highlanders) and 93rd. Baird’s first action was to dislodge the observer scouts from Blaauwberg itself.
Janssens rode up and down the line encouraging his troops, cheered by all except the Waldeck battalion, cynical mercenaries that they were.
Action started when grenadiers of the 24th were sent to dislodge the Dutch right flank on Kleinberg. This they did with the loss of Captain Foster and three other men while sixteen were wounded and three went missing. These were the first losses the 24th took on South African soil: they were to lose many more in the future.
Then the Highland Brigade extended its line to face the whole of the Batavian front, pushing the first brigade into reserve. They were an impressive sight – shoes, not boots; red and white hose; small bonnets with feathers; large sporrans; red coats with buff or yellow facings; kilts of MacLeod, McKenzie or Sutherland tartan; black cartouches in the middle of their backs with 50 musket balls for the unrifled Brown Bess flintlocks. The artillery on both sides, which were now some 1 800 paces apart, was beginning to get uncomfortably close.
Captain Carmichael noted that at this time the Highlanders ‘ continued to advance over a tract of ground where we were buried up to the middle in heath and prickly shrub ‘. Their first volley of musketry was, however, fired at too great a range. They then fixed bayonets (and their bagpipes) for a charge!
Janssens may have placed the Waldeck battalion in the centre because he regarded them as the toughest and most experienced. He intended to hold fire until the Highlanders had discharged their muskets. Ironically, when a few cannon balls kicked up dust amongst them, the Waldeckers were the first to give ground in spite of Janssens’ personal pleas and exhortations to consider the honour of their native land, Germany. On their left the coloured soldiers stood firm, as did the French sailors on their right, and-the Malay gunners bravely kept up their fire. But when the Waldeckers saw the Highlanders charging towards them they turned in confusion and fled. Then the 22nd Batavians also began to buckle.
The marines tried valiantly to plug the gap but Janssens saw it was futile and ordered a general retreat. Adjutant -General Rancke and Colonel Henry were despatched to try to rally the fleeing troops at Rietvlei. A company of mounted artillery under Lieutenant Pelegrini carried on firing to the end and were the last to leave the battlefield. The governor was so impressed that he promoted the lieutenant to captain there and then.
Possibly it was the 71st and 72nd on the British side that led the charge and took the brunt of the fire because, according to a list of casualties, the former suffered 16 dead and the latter 6, but the 93rd, which had had 36 drowned two days before, lost only 3 on the day of the battle.
Janssens’ shattered army collected together at Rietvlei. His losses were 110 of the (French) marines, 188 of the regular soldiers, 4 burghers, 17 coloureds, 10 Malays and 8 slaves. Not all of these were killed – some may have fled, never to be seen again. Janssens had well before the battle made a contingency plan to retire to the Hottentots-Holland mountains where he had arranged a reserve of provisions. He sent the disgraced Waldeck regiment back to Cape Town. One company which had conducted itself with honour in another part of the line he offered the choice of accompanying him, which they accepted. The gallant French he was reluctant to part with but Colonel Beauchene suggested that they had little practical future at the Cape.
Janssens also sent instructions to Major Horn at Simon’s Town to scuttle the warship Bato, spike the guns in the town and join him in the mountains. He himself followed the remnants of his army which rapidly made its way to the Hottentots-Holland via Rooseboom. That evening the British occupied Rietvlei, spending the night under the stars.
Baird’s total loss had been 1 officer and 14 other ranks killed, 9 officers and 180 other ranks wounded and 8 ORs missing: not heavy enough to stop his advance on Cape Town the next morning. The fleet, too, moved from around Robben Island to anchorage just opposite the Castle, and put ashore a battery train which joined Baird at Salt River .
Lieutenant-Colonel van Prophalow, who had been left with a force of burghers and soldiers to man the forts and protect Cape Town , had no stomach for a fight, however, and sent a flag of truce to plead for cessation of hostilities for 48 hours while he prepared to capitulate. Baird gave him only 36 hours and insisted Craig’s Tower (for which the British had such a healthy respect), Fort Knokke and the defensive lines be given up within six hours. Beresford and his force from Saldanha, after a gruelling march of some 150 kilometres in wasting heat, arrived at Salt River sometime after the 59th regiment moved into Fort Knokke . A march in vain!
On 10 January at 4 o’clock in the afternoon the capitulation was signed under a tree in Woodstock .
Baird moved quickly in the next few days to occupy Stellenbosch and sent the 83rd regiment by sea to take Mossel Bay . Janssens had considered denying the British access to the eastern districts and to try to sit things out in the hope that the French might send a relief expedition. (Indeed, on the 13th a French frigate, La Volontaire, sailed into Table Bay and was deceived into being captured by the British showing false French and Batavian colours.) But he soon realised the futility of this and on 18 January he signed the whole settlement over to the British. By the end he only had 659 soldiers and a few officers with him and these were allowed to sail for Holland . On the other hand many of the coloureds were induced to join the British and this became the nucleus of the Cape Regiment , and some of the Waldeckers also joined the British.
Janssens himself, with some of his government officials, sailed for Holland on the transport Bellona on 6 March.
Commodore Popham sailed off to attack Spanish interests in South America . This turned into a complete disaster and he was court-martialled.
The view from the top of Blaauwberg is stunning. Late in the afternoon we who were lucky enough to be there could see clearly the long plain stretching towards the city. Already in the distance the front line of houses is beginning to encroach on the plain with that relentless greed that characterises urban life. Human habitation oozes up the plain like an oil slick in a celestial sea or a pestilential weed in an enchanted garden. This heritage site with its buck and its birds, its mongooses and tortoises will soon be lost and the view vandalised by those too short-sighted to appreciate it. Pat Matajek is particularly concerned for the hundreds of tortoises which die every time that line inches forward. The site of the battlefield is in real danger from this and from the thoughtlessness of developers – the site of one of the most important battles in South African history. See it while you still can for soon it, too, will be just a memory.
In an ideal world it should be preserved as a tourist delight. There can be few battlefields in the world where the site is so clear and the view so stunning. The top of Blaauwberg provides a real-life panorama, a gem of a battle scene: the ridge over which the British made their way; Kleinberg; the plain where the Dutch drew up their line and from which the 24 th dislodged them; and the rough terrain from where the Highlanders made their decisive charge. Somewhere down there, in a site unknown, are buried in their uniforms where they fell some of the British dead. A European battle, fought by 13 different nationalities!
For our party, mellow from the food and drink, the light began to fade. To the west thin, low cloud, swirling mist, like a duvet, obscured Melkbosstrand and Koeberg nuclear power station in the distance and rendered Robben Island a barely distinguishable outline. But the summit of Blaauwberg stood in clear sky above the cloud like one of those American movie sets portraying heaven. To the south Table Mountain was sharp and clear and below it the city lights were bright. The view from Blaauwberg provides the best of one of the most beautiful sights in the world.
On our way down in the darkness we got lost in the maze of tracks and half-expected to come across the wandering figures of those three soldiers who went forever missing from the 24 th .
The text in this article was transcribed verbatim from the book “Battles of South Africa”, by Tim Couzens and published by David Philip Publishers.
First published in 2004 in Southern Africa by David Philips Publishers, an imprint of New Africa Books (Pty) Ltd, 99 Garfield Road , Claremont , 7700, South Africa .