Although many cannon batteries were built to defend the Cape - some by the Dutch and other by the French (the so-called "French Lines", which extended from the Castle to Woodstock and then up Devil's Peak) - the muzzle loading cannon at the Cape were only used in two battles - the Battle of Muizenberg (1795) and the Battle of Blaauwberg (1806) - both times against the British.
The Dutch reign over the Cape started with the establishment of a replenishment station for the Vereenigde Oostindische Companie (VOC) by Jan Van Riebeeck in 1652. This period ended when Britain took control from the Dutch in the Battle of Muizenberg, which took place at Muizenberg on 7 Augustus 1795. The aim of the battle was to secure the replenishment station at the Cape for British fleets en-route to the East. This step was necessitated by France's attack on Holland and the fleeing of the William V, the Prince of Orange to Britain.
Britain and France were enemies at the time because France supported the American colonials against Britain in the American Revolutionary War (1795 - 1785). The loyalty of the Dutch was divided between their fatherland and the French. Britain feared that the French influence in Holland would quickly spread to the Cape, which was under Dutch control at that time. (There were also a number French Huguenots living at the Cape at the time.) This would have prevented the British from using the Cape as a halfway station to the East, which would have had a bad economic impact on the British East India Company. Therefore a fleet of ships under the command of Admiral George Elphinstone was sent to the Cape to place it under British protection.
Admiral Elphinstone's fleet consisted of the following ships. (The number of the cannon they carried is indicated in brackets).
- HMS America (64)
- HMS Stately (64)
- HMS Ruby (64)
- HMS Echo (16)
- HMS Monarch (74)
- HMS Arrogant (74)
- HMS Victorious (74)
- HMS Sphynx (24)
- HMS Rattlesnake (16)
- Arniston (a merchant ship)
Admiral Elphinstone's fleet anchored in Simon's Bay (currently Simon's Town)
The Dutch governor of the Cape, Abraham Sluysken, didn't want to hand the command of the Cape over to the British, despite a letter from the Prince of Orange, in which he was asked to co-operate. Therefore Admiral Elphinstone's force of about 800 infantrymen and 1000 sailors started marching from Simon's Bay (currently Simon's Town) to Cape Town, while the HMS America, HMS Stately, HMS Echo and HMS Rattlesnake sailed alongside them with supporting cannon fire.The Battle of Muizenberg lasted for six hours. The skirmishes that followed continued for a further six weeks and reached a stale mate at Wynberg.
The main British fleet arrived on 3 September in Simon's Bay.
On 14 September they started marching on Cape Town and on 16 September governor Sluysken surrendered control over the Cape to the British. Shortly thereafter the Dutch military commander, Colonel Robert Gordon, committed suicide.
The Dutch had only three days to prepare for the Battle of Muizenberg. Their armament at the battle site at Muizenberg consisted of four 4-pounder field cannon (with ox wagon like wheels), a 13-inch mortar, a howitzer, a powder wagon and two 24-pounder cannon. The 24-pounder cannon were designed to to be used onboard ships and had to be fired from a sturdy platform. However, they arrived at the battle site without gun platforms.
Colonel Gordon's officers were not satisfied with the way in which the cannon were deployed with the 24-pounders facing the road, instead of the sea. However, upon inspecting, Colonel Gordon approved of their deployment, which caused a big problem when the battle commenced. The gunners then had to turn the 24-pounders - each weighing about three tons - through 90 degrees in order to fire at the British ships, which Admiral Elphinstone deployed alongside the Dutch redoubt.
With the first shots fired the wheels of the 24-pounder cannon dug into the soft sand, which made it impossible to aim the cannon. These cannon were designed to be used on a hard surface like a ship's deck or a gun platform, but they were brought to the battle site without any gun platforms - something which has been interpreted in later years as a deliberate attempt to fail, as they did arrive with spikes - iron nails used to block the vent holes in order to render the cannon inoperable when they had to be surrendered .
Within about half an hour, the Dutch decided to fall back, after taking a pounding of about 800 cannon balls fired from the HMS America, HMS Stately, HMS Echo and HMS Rattlesnake. During this bombardment the Dutch managed to score a direct hit on a cannon of the HMS America, which killed the gun crew.
Upon their withdrawal from the battle field the Dutch spiked the cannon by driving iron nails into their vent holes through which their charges would be ignited, leaving them inoperable for the British.
A total of 6 Dutch and 34 British soldiers died as a result of the Battle of Muizenberg. Of the 34 British casualties, eight died of their wounds and the rest of illness.
Even though the Battle of Muizenberg had a major impact on the future social and political development of South Africa, the battle was a mere skirmish in comparison with the battles fought in Europe at the time, where tens of thousands of troops died. The battle was also not concluded in one day, but continued in a series of small skirmishes as the British advanced on Cape Town, until a stale mate was reached in the region of Wynberg, where neither side had the firepower to push the other side back.
The Muizenberg battle site can still be visited today next to the coastal road between Muizenberg and Fish Hoek.
The Battle of Muizenberg
Admiral George Elphinstone
DID YOU KNOW?
Did you know that the town of Muizenberg got its name from Sergeant Wynand Willem Muys, who commanded a military outpost where the town is currently situated, and that the name originally was Muys zijn bergh, meaning Muys' mountain? After the Battle of Muizenberg, the name became anglicized to Muizenberg.
Did you know that the suburb of Retreat in Cape Town was so named because the Dutch retreated to that area when they were losing the Battle of Muizenberg?
Did you know that the coastal town of Arniston was named after the ship, Arniston, which sank there?
Did you know that the coastal town of Gordon's Bay was named after Colonel Robert Gordon, the Dutch military commander who was in charge of the Dutch defense force at the Cape during the Battle of Muizenberg?
Did you know that the coastal town of Gordon's Bay used to be called Fish Hoek - a name that is now associated with another coastal town across Table Bay?
Did you know that Colonel Robert Gordon also named the Gariep River to the Orange River in honour of the Prince of Orange?
Did you know that it is believed that Governor Sluysken and Colonel Gordon staged a mock defense against the British at Muizenberg - in other words, they handed over control of the Cape to the British, while keeping up appearances that they were still loyal to the Prince of Orange?
Colonel Robert Gordon
SOUTH AFRICAN CANNON ASSOCIATION
Prince William V of Orange
Prince William V of Orange
Prince Willem V of Orange