DID YOU KNOW?
During the French Period of the Cape of Good Hope, False Bay was seen as the least viable place close to Cape Town for an enemy force to land, due to the poor condition of the road between Simon’s Bay and Muizenberg.
Due to the poor conditions of the roads, it would take troops between 6 to 7 hours to reach Cape Town from Hout Bay and about 10 hours from Muizenberg. A carriage took 7 hours to do the trip from Muizenberg to Cape Town.
A redoubt named after Colonel Conway of the Pondichery Regiment was erected at Constantia Neck. The Conway Redoubt still exists behind the restaurant which is currently in Constantia Neck, but access to the redoubt is denied to the public.
The so-called ‘French Fort’ or Conway Redoubt, was an important link in the early-warning signalling system that was devised to help alert the inhabitants of the Cape. On the approach of an enemy ship toward Hout Bay a horseman would ride up to the Neck from where a cannon shot would alert the people in Wynberg. A flag would be hoisted to give details. Wynberg would repeat the signal to Newlands and then on to Cape Town.
When the French troops were withdrawn from the Cape in 1783 the fortifications were neglected to the point where Rudolf Siegfried Alleman, who began his military career as a soldier and later became captain of the militia and commandant of the Castle wrote In 1784: "These fine batteries are most miserably manned and served’. One constable and one sub-constable, with ‘3 or 10 sailors, called ‘"boss-schieters”' who ‘all understand nothing further than how to load and fire a gun, are the only so-called artillerymen. Not one of them knows how to light the match, or strike the fuze of a bomb, much less how to load, elevate or depress and fire off a mortar. The trial of the quality of the powder and calculation of the quantity for the force measured according to the distance aimed at are to them mysterious and unknown secrets."
The French Period at the Cape of Good Hope
The French period at the Cape of Good Hope was inaugurated by the arrival of Colonel Conway and the Pondichery Regiment on 3 July 1781.
Britain declared war on the United Provinces of the Netherlands when they recognized the American War of Independence on 20 December 1780. News about this turn of events and of France’ support of the Dutch only reached the Cape of Good Hope with the arrival of the French ship La Sylphide on 31 March 1781. Britain used the Dutch recognition of the American War of Independence as an excuse to capture the Cape, which it needed as a replenishment station en-route to the East.
A fleet of 46 ships (of which 13 were merchant ships) and 3000 soldiers under command of Commodore George Johnstone was dispatched to the Cape.
After a spy in the British war office, with the name of La Motte, reported the British' plans to France, a French fleet of 14 ships under the command of Admiral Pierre Andre de Suffren was sent to the Cape of Good Hope on 22 March. Seven of these ships carried troops of the Pondichery Regiment under the command of Colonel Conway.
De Suffren’s fleet came upon Johnstone’s fleet at the Cape Verde Islands, were they were taking on supplies and De Suffren launched a surprise attack on the British. Commodore Johnstone was unaware that his plans were known to the French and therefore unprepared for a surprise attack. However, the British retaliated successfully and De Suffren broke off the attack, chasing for the Cape of Good Hope. Several ships on both sides were damaged in the attack. The French managed to capture four of the British ships; however the British succeeded in recapturing them.
The first of De Suffren’s ships, the Heros, arrived at Simon’s Town on 21 June 1781. The rest of the fleet arrived later and on 3 July 1781. The French troops marched to Cape Town where the Pondichery Regiment was garrisoned in the hospital, which was never used as a hospital, and which is where Barrack Street in Cape Town got its name from.
The ships that laid at anchor in Table Bay were sent to other harbours in anticipation of the arrival of the British fleet. Four were sent to Hout Bay and six to Saldanah Bay, including the Held Woltemade, which was at the Cape for repairs.
The Held Woltemade was on its way to Ceylon. She had just left Saldanah Bay when she encountered a ship flying French colours. Communicating in French, the commander of this ship was informed of De Suffren’s arrival at the Cape of Good Hope. Unknown to the commander and crew of the Held Woltemade, the encountered ship was not a French ship. It was the Active - one of Commodore Johnston’s ships. As soon as the Captain of the Active learnt what he needed to know, they struck the French colours and took control of the Held Woltemade. They then joined the rest of Johnstone’s fleet.
Since the Cape of Good Hope was too strongly defended for Johnstone to conquer, he decided to attack the ships in Saldanah Bay instead. On 21 July 1781 they sailed into Saldanah Bay under French flags and only hoisted British flags just before attacking the Dutch ships. One of the ships, the Middelburg, was set on fire and the four were captured without loss. This battle is known as the Battle of Saldanha.
The French Period of the Cape of Good Hope, which stretched from 1781 to 1783, when Britain signed a peace agreement with the Dutch, was a prosperous period for the Cape and during that time the Cape became referred to as Little Paris. Governor De Mist, who from his Calvinistic beliefs complained that the French had entirely corrupted the standard of living at the Cape, found this very annoying.
When the French Period began, the French made an assessment of the Cape’s fortification and found them lacking. The Cape could be attacked from five points:
- Table Bay
- The neck between Table Mountain and Lion's Head
- Hout Bay
- False Bay
- Saldanah Bay
They realized that they needed an improved early-warning system, and that the troops had to garrisoned at a central point from where they could be quickly deployed to an endangered area.
There were already several batteries around Table Bay, at the Castle, at Roggebaai, and the important Chavonnes Battery with its 18 cannon. Hout Bay's entrance was protected by 20 cannon.
There were also several other cannon batteries with many cannon, but all of them were regarded to be of too small a caliber to be effective in the defense of the Cape.
It was thought that the Castle of Good Hope was poorly equipped with cannon and could be destroyed within 24 hours with large caliber cannon placed at the foot of Devil’s Peak. At that time the Castle’s armament consisted of 1 mortar of 12 pounds and 27 cannon of 12 pounds, 18 pounds and 24 pounds.
There were a number of batteries between Roggebaai and Gallows Hill.
Roggebaai Battery had six 6-pound guns and one 7-pound howitzer.
Another battery to the left of Roggebaai Battery had seven cannon of different calibers.
Further to the left was Chavonnes Battery with sixteen 18-pound cannon, one 12-pound mortar and one 7-pound howitzer.
To the left of Gallows Hill, there was another battery of three 18-pound cannon.
Only the batteries of the Castle and of Chavonnes Battery were seen as effective.
Hout Bay was armed with cannon of 8 pound caliber.
The construction of a building on the neck between Table Mountain and Lions Head was suggested as well as another battery at Hout Bay, and a much stronger fortification at Muizenberg.
Amsterdam Battery was also constructed under French persuasion and provided a new western arch of fire to cover gaps in the fire from Chavonnes Battery and the anchorage. Amsterdam Battery had fourteen 24-pound guns and five 18-pound guns. This magnificent battery was demolished in the 20th century and all that marks the site where it used to be is a street name - Battery Street.
Governor Van de Graaff attended the inauguration of the Amsterdam Battery and narrowly escaped serious injury when one of the guns exploded during the ceremonial firing. A burst gun barrel that currently lies outside Chavonnes Battery is believed to be the gun that was involved.
The Pondichery Regiment consolidated the defenses of the Cape and built the ‘French Lines’ from Fort Knokke (now Woodstock Station) up the slopes of Devil’s Peak at about the same time when Amsterdam Battery was constructed. The most substantial remains of the French Lines is Centre Redoubt in Trafalgar Park, Woodstock.
The Pondichery Regiment also extended the construction of the West Fort in Hout Bay and built the earthworks of the East Fort.
The French Period at the Cape of Good Hope also resulted in an improved signaling system consisting of flags and cannon firing for early warning of an enemy ship around Cape Town, False Bay and Hout Bay. The system was operated from several places such as Simon’s Town, Muizenberg, Wynberg, Newlands, the Lions Rump and Constantia Nek.
Commodore George Johnstone
Admiral Pierre Andre
SOUTH AFRICAN CANNON ASSOCIATION
Governor Van de Graaff