This skirmish / battle, between the Dutch and the British, which has now become known as the ‘Battle of Muizenberg’, took place on 7th August 1795.
Although there were not many casualties (two or three on the British side) and the ‘battle’ did not last very long, this action was one of the pivotal points in the history of this country. From 1652 until then, the Dutch had ruled the Cape and protected the very important sea-route to the East which gave the Dutch East India Company (VOC) access to the spices and riches of the East.
As a background to this ‘battle’ one has to look at what was happening in Europe at that time. France was at war with England and Holland. The French had successfully invaded Holland in 1794 and the Prince of Orange had fled to his allies in England. The other major factor to be remembered as background to this situation was the remoteness of the outpost at the Cape and the lack of communication with Europe. The only communication was by sea and that was seldom and not on a regular basis. At the Cape, the person in charge of the VOC’s affairs was Commissioner-General Abraham Sluysken. Besides not being informed of the situation in Europe, his task of controlling matters at the Cape was made more difficult because the VOC was beginning to falter and there was dissension and division in the ranks of the burghers at the Cape. In April 1795, the Dutch frigate, the Medemblik, brought some news about the French advances for those at the Cape. Unfortunately this ship had sailed from Holland before the collapse of the monarchy there, so Sluysken was still under the impression that the British were allies and the French were enemies of the Dutch.
Given the turmoil in Europe and the importance of the Cape sea-route to India the British Government sent a fleet of seven Royal Navy ships under the command of Vice – Admiral Elphinstone to secure the Cape as a refreshment station and as their gateway to the East. That fleet arrived off Simon’s Town in early June, 1795. The Dutch troops in Simon’s Town pulled back to their fort in Muizenberg while the British sent a delegation through to the Castle in Cape Town, who suggested to Sluysken that the Dutch should hand over the Cape to the British. This was rejected and the British delegation returned to Simon’s Town. The site of the Dutch fort at Muizenberg is the land immediately adjacent to where Sir Abe Bailey’s home, Rust en Vrede, was later built.
This was a very clever selection for the siting of the fort as it is in a situation where any persons passing from North to South would have to go just below the fort. The mountain in this area comes down fairly steeply to the sea and it would have been difficult to pass on the mountain side of the fort. The one disadvantage was that it was in range from the sea. On the 7 August the British made their move. They began marching with infantrymen and sailors from Simon’s Town towards Fish Hoek and Kalk Bay, with the aim of attacking the fort in Muizenberg. At the same time four of the Royal Navy ships set sail from Simon’s Town and anchored parallel to the coast, more or less opposite where Bailey’s cottage stands to-day. At about 2pm they released a bombardment of cannon balls at the Dutch fort.
It is believed that the bombardment lasted about 30 minutes and in that time they released many cannon balls. It didn’t take much for the Dutch to realise that they were outclassed and they hastily abandoned the fort and retreated towards Zandvlei and the Retreat area. (Hence the name ‘Retreat’). A number of cannon balls have been recovered over the years. One is on display at the entrance of the Shoprite store in Muizenberg.
It was found when the foundations of that building were dug. The latest cannon ball to be found was when they recently resurfaced the Main Road just in front of the Posthuys building. Reinforcements were sent from the Castle but the fight had gone out of the Dutch and they moved back and encamped in the vicinity of Wynberg Hill. Odd engagements continued for about six weeks until eventually a stalemate was reached. In September the Dutch again tried to recapture the fort at Muizenberg but were repelled. In the meantime the main British fleet with reinforcements had arrived in Simon’s Town and a new advance on Cape Town started on 14 September with the Dutch capitulated on the 16th.
This resulted in the British taking control of the Cape for seven years. The Dutch came back and ruled at the Cape in 1804 and 1805 and were then again defeated by the British at the Battle of Blaauwberg. After this the British ruled the Cape Colony and South Africa until 1961 when the Republic of South Africa was born. The remnants of the fort of Battle of Muizenberg are on that strategic site overlooking False Bay. Maps and an explanation of these happenings can be seen at the Posthuys museum. Where they also have a good collection of cannon balls used in this encounter. The remains of this fort and the site of the Battle of Muizenberg are cared for by the Muizenberg Historical Conservation Society. One of the mysteries of the 21st Century has surfaced early – how did we ever lose the Muizenberg Battlements? Because lost is what they have been, for about 150 years.
Known to very few, these fascinating ruins have been slumbering quietly beneath ever-growing bush like a lost Inca temple in the jungle. The extensive fortifications mark the seminal moment in South African history and a crucial point in world history, and we know almost nothing about them. The year is 1795, the month is May. Autumn in the Cape, lovely still, warm days, sometimes rain showers, the wind usually a gentle north-easterly. The VOC governor in Cape Town is apprehensive. A British fleet has arrived in Simon’s Town, and he does not know their intentions. Trouble is afoot in Europe, Napoleon is rampant, the Governor’s information from the Netherlands is old and out of date.
He does not trust the British, even though they are nominally his friends and allies of the Dutch. The Governor puts his False Bay batteries on alert and sends reinforcements to block the road. Under Captain Louis Thibault the engineers decide that the best place to block the British will be on the coastal road half a kilometre up from the Posthuys at Muizenberg. Here the mountain side is steep, the view is clear, there is no easy way around behind the position. The troops are put to work hurriedly erecting defensive positions.They build three lines of rocks at different heights for the troops to lie behind with their muskets and fire on the approaching British, assuming they approach. Cannons and field-guns are brought up but are not fully equipped, and crucially two of the 24-pounders lack wooden decks for the guns to rest on. Instead the gun carriages rest on the sand.
The Pandouren are deployed across the position, from sea to mountain-top. Interestingly, this fight is the first to involve the three major cultural groups of the Cape – the Dutch, the Coloureds and the British. It is the start of a complex and tense set of relationships. On 7th August 1795 the British march. 1600 men form a column, marines, army and sailors, and come along the coastal track from Simon’s Town. There is a Dutch picquet at Kalk Bay, a few men with a cannon. Sensibly they abandon their position and scurry back to the fort at Muizenberg. Here the Dutch, about 800 strong, can see the British coming, indeed, they have been watching all day. Apart from the troop column, they also see with some concern that four British warships, two big ones each carrying 64 guns and two small ships of 16 guns have sailed from Simon’s Town in support of the troops.
At two o’clock the fleet eases into position opposite the Muizenberg battlements, and from a range of 300 yards they open fire with broadsides. 80 cannon simultaneously! The noise is terrifying! The ships disappear in clouds of blue smoke. Cannon balls and rock splinters fly around in an unholy hail. The Dutch defenders valiantly man their guns, they dig them out of the sand after each shot, they score a hit on HMS America and kill two seamen, but they cannot cope with both the soldiers and the ships, and within an hour they abandon their position and retreat to Muizenberg. The fight continues, a running skirmish, for several weeks, and ends when the British take possession of Cape Town on 16 September 1795.
The consequences? This was the 1st British Occupation, followed a few years later by the 2nd, permanent occupation. 7th August 1795 is a defining moment in our history, the day when control of the Cape passed from the VOC to the British. It marks the end of the Vereenigde Ost-Indische Compagnie in South Africa. It marks the start of English as an official language of the country. It marks the beginning of English colonisation of Africa, with all the benefits and ills that argument rages about to this day. It marks British control of the Cape sea-passage, with the impact that had on world history. A big day, all told. The Muizenberg fortifications slipped into disuse after this, but they were not forgotten. A British military map dated 1844 shows the old Dutch defensive lines still in place.
The British were concerned that Cape Town could be attacked from behind, as they had done to the Dutch 50 years before. The land was surveyed and transferred to the War Department, and work began on building a strong position on the same site. There is a ‘parade ground’, a rectangular flat area with dry stone walls on all sides. There are two probable gun emplacements. There is an enchanting stone table made with a large flat rock. Of the initial Dutch defences two lines of rocks still exist. The lower line has disappeared, and was probably used in the construction of the walls.
The middle Dutch line includes an observation post, also marked as a battery, the floor of which is thick with sea-shells, like a midden. This at a height of 100 metres above sea-level. Why carry the shellfish up here to eat them? Is this what happened? Did the Dutch use fill from an existing midden to level their observation post? Was it used subsequently by modern-day strandlopers or vagrants?
No archaeological excavations have yet taken place. The University of Cape Town possesses the digging permit, but pressures of time and finances have prevented any action here. Tim Hart of UCT has been to the site, and in a quick visit picked up and identified several stone-age artefacts, so the site has other history to share, apart from the more recent European events. The Muizenberg Battlements are on the mountainside behind Bailey’s Cottage, close to Rhodes Cottage.