Thursday, May 15, 2014

Short battle - long impact

Annamaria’s delightful blog on Monday reminded me of another battle on African soil that was almost as short but probably had far greater significance.

The Cape of Good Hope was settled by Europeans in 1652 to create a vegetable garden to supply Dutch East India Company (DEIC) ships sailing to and from the spice-rich East Indies.  At the time the only inhabitants of the area were KhoiSan – sometimes called Bushmen or Hottentots.

The Dutch settlers never had any intention of colonizing the area and remained fairly close to Cape Town.

However, matters in Europe were to have a big impact on the Cape because of its strategic position.  Of course, the Suez Canal had not yet been built, so all shipping to the East had to go around the Cape. 

During the Napoleonic Wars, the British were able to put pressure on the Dutch to let them station a garrison at the Cape in case the French tried to take it over.  So in 1795, a British force landed in False Bay.  Many of the locals, not in government service, didn't want the British in the Cape and tried to resist.  However it was fruitless and for eight years the British ruled the Cape.  In December 1802, as a result of the Treaty of Amiens, they gave it back to the Dutch, then called the Batavian Republic.

The governor of the Cape at the time was Lieutenant General JW Janssens.  He and his colleagues brought an enlightened rule – all people regardless of race were to have the vote, slavery was to be abolished, education was improved, anyone could trade with passing ships, and so on.  In addition, despite Islam not being officially allowed at the Cape, Janssens did nothing to enforce the ban and, in fact, allowed freedom of religion.

Governor Janssens

However, France and Britain were still at war, and the British decided to take the Cape again, sending a huge flotilla of 60 ships and six thousand soldiers.  They arrived at the Cape on Christmas eve 1805.

A couple of weeks later, on January 6th and 7th, the British landed their five thousand troops on a beach north of Cape Town called Blaawberg – Blue Mountain.  Governor Janssens had mustered a rag-tag force comprising mercenaries from Batavia - the Waldeckers, local farmers, a battalion of KhoiSan, a few platoons of Javanese men, a number of French sailors who happened to be in town, and some local troops.

Historic photo of British troops landing on Blaauwberg beach

They marched north and camped near to Blaauwberg, straddling the only wagon trail into the town.

In the wee hours of January 8th, the British and Cape forces engaged, with heavy artillery.  The British advanced, led by the Highlanders supported by bagpipes.  Before they were within musket distance, the Waldeckers turned and ran.  A bayonet charge by the Highanders and successful flanking movements by the British sent the Cape force into retreat after only two hours of fighting.

Area of Blaauwberg battle

British attacking

Janssens trying to rally his fleeing Waldecker mercenaries

And that was that.  The battle was over.

But the consequences were great.

The British negotiated a remarkably reasonable treaty.  The British commander, Admiral Sir Home Riggs Popham, during the battle couldn’t understand why the Javanese fought so valiantly in support of Janssens.  When he learnt that Janssens had allowed Islam to exist without persecution at the Cape, he extended the same privileges in the treaty.  Soon after, the first mosque was built.  Today there is a thriving Muslim community in South Africa.

Admiral Sir Home Riggs Popham

In addition, the treaty basically said that everything was to continue as it had been.  No property was confiscated, no punishment was given to those who fought against the British, French citizens were repatriated at British expense, Batavian troops were sent back to Holland at British expense, and so on.

But this two-hour war had three other long-reaching consequences.  

First, it took another twenty or so years before the British formally abolished slavery at the Cape, leading to the exodus of hundreds of Dutch-speaking farmers, who wanted to keep their slaves – this was called the Great Trek.

Second, and more important, the Cape transitioned from being a place to provision ships to being the launching point of British colonialism below the equator in Africa.  And that led to the Frontier Wars, the Zulu Wars, the first and second Boer Wars, the Rhodesian Civil War, and so on.    

This colonial passion was so strong that the British wanted to paint a red road from Cape to Cairo – on maps of the time all British possessions were shown in red.  And they nearly succeeded.

And third, it led to the continuation of the racism that Janssens was successfully countering.  To all intents that lasted until the first free elections in South Africa 20 years ago.  

I’m sure no one at the Battle of Blaauwberg had any notion of how important its outcome was to be, but it changed the future of much of southern Africa for two hundred years.


  1. I quote Hilaire Belloc: "Whatever happens, we have got
    The Maxim gun, and they have not."
    Though your story says what we both know--might makes wrong, I am pleased to have inspired this, Stan. You have been my inspiration so often.

  2. What I often find most interesting in the stories of history is how human society will resist change like a granite boulder sitting in the midst of a quiet little brook, and then with very little effort that boulder will roll downstream when "the moment is right," when various forces all align in a given direction. In retrospect, those moments of change seem almost inevitable, yet seeing them approaching seems almost impossible.

  3. I believe one of the early Afrikaans books was a translation of the Quran.

    I do want to take issue with your point that the Dutch never intended to colonize South Africa. That may have been true when Jan van Riebeeck first landed there in 1652. But by the time Simon van der Steel became commander of the Cape in 1679, land grants to independent farmers expanded dramatically. Before the British ever showed up, the Dutch colony had expanded to the Great Fish River. And farmers, upset with the DEIC, rebelled in Swellendam and Graaf Reinet and established independent governments there. So the Dutch were there to stay.

    1. Yes, Michael. One of the people fighting for the Cape was someone who could recite the whole Quran by heart! As to the colonization issue, our disagreement may be semantic. My point is that the Dutch had no intention of taking over the interior of the continent. As the number of people increased and they realised it was good farming land, they people took over more land. It wasn't the government that did. The farmers expanded to Swellendam and Graaf Reinet for themselves, not for the Dutch.

    2. You are right, it's semantic. The Dutch weren't expansionist in the way the British were. Once diamonds and gold were added to the equation, all bets were off.

  4. I'll give you my comments in the bar. Bottom line: Two hours led to two-hundred years.

    1. Boohoohoohoohohoooooooo. Shiffle. Moan. Groan. Sigh. Sniff!!!