Dutch and British Coastal Fortifications at the Cape of Good Hope (1665 to 1829)

Dutch and British Flags Image source

The Cape Peninsula is surrounded by oceans on three sides and has three natural harbours: Table Bay and Hout Bay on the Atlantic coast and False Bay on the Indian Ocean. Table Bay was used as a major anchoring place by European seafarers since well before Jan van Riebeeck, administrator in the service of the Dutch East India Company (also known as the VOC) founded the Cape settlement in 1652. As it was found that heavy winter storms caused much damage to shipping in the open roadstead of Table Bay, in 1743 Simon's Bay (in False Bay) was declared the winter anchoring place for the VOC fleet. Other shipping followed suit. Hout Bay was not suitable as it could contain only about six East-Indiamen, trading ships of a certain size suitable for the long run to the East Indies and the spice island in the China Sea. In addition the wind blows into Hout Bay throughout the year (Fig. 1).

From the beginning the Dutch settlement at the Cape of Good Hope needed - in the minds of the colonizers - some form of protection from internal and external enemy forces.

During the pre-colonial period the Table Bay valley and its environs was probably inhabited by San hunter-gathering communities, which were replaced by Khoi pastoralists some two thousand years ago. The Khoi migrated over a set route during the seasons. During the early 1650s the dominant Goringhaiqua people claimed grazing rights over the whole Cape Peninsula, but shared it with the Gorachoqua and the stockless Goringhaicona (Bottaro, J. 1996).  It came therefore as a shock when in 1652 the Dutch established a foothold in Table Bay, erected a basic four-square fort with four hornworks, and some years later proceeded to grant freehold farms to freeburghers along the Liesbeeck River valley.

The first fort: Fort De Goede Hoop

Two days after van Riebeeck arrived in Table Bay to establish a provisioning station for the VOC ships a gathering of the first 'Council of Policy'  decided to begin immediately with the erection of a fort, to be known as Fort De Goede Hoop to house the garrison and government offices. Its location near the beach and a freshwater stream seemed ideal.  The remains of this first fort are a couple of centimeters below the tarmac at the western end of the Grand Parade in central Cape Town (Fig. 2).

The Fort De Goede Hoop was basically an enclosed square, surrounded by earthen ramparts with some clay walling, and on each corner a rectangular bastion, the basic star-shape of the Old Dutch fortifications system. The courtyard contained a series of wooden or wattle and daub one-storey buildings (barracks, stores and workshops) with a brick building, "de Kat", at the back of the courtyard, the commander's residence. To the seafront, an enclosed hornwork contained the hospital, storage space and latrines, at the rear earthen walls enclosed a cattle pen. The rough and ready building materials consisting of sods, sand, boulders and clay, were found in the vicinity. The whole was surrounded by a moat. However, the walls and ramparts collapsed periodically in the heavy winter rains. The work was conducted by employing the local garrison and Company slaves*, as well as soldiers and sailors from passing ships, the local Khoi were unwilling to labour under the foreign intruders.

In 1666 the foundation stone of a more permanent building, the Castle was laid and some twelve years later the whole garrison moved to their new quarters.

*The first company officials introduced slaves of East Indian and African descent into the country. They were owned by the Dutch East India Company and individuals.

Early European Fortifications along the Liesbeeck River

By the late 1650s the settlement around the Fort De Goede Hoop had expanded, and also included free burgher farms along the Liesbeeck River to the east of the fort and Table Mountain, cutting off the local Khoi from their traditional grazing areas. The land along the lower reaches of the Liesbeeck River to the mouth of the Salt River consisted of barren, rocky soil with sparse vegetation. Van Riebeeck declared this too VOC grazing lands and consequently instructed Kaptains Autschomao and Gogosa of the Goringhaiqua "not to establish their kraals in the vicinity of the Liesbeeck and Salt Rivers" (Sleigh, D. 1993). The Khoi reaction to the dispossession of their lands was to disrupt farming, and in 1659 full-scale war broke out, which ended in a stalemate. A line of manned forts was erected on the eastern side of the Liesbeeck River amongst the farms and connected by a log fence (Fig. 3).

These simple earth and timber fortifications works (redoubts) stretched from Fort Dynhoop in Table Bay in an arc towards, what is now, Kirstenbosch gardens. In addition, a wild almond hedge was planted to prevent the indigenous cattle of the Khoi-Khoi to graze on "Company land". None of these redoubts has survived the expansion of the town, only a short fragment of the wild almond hedge is said to be extant in the Kirstenbosch gardens.

The Castle of Good Hope

Instructions concerning the building of a new fort to replace the existing one came in 1665 and the foundation stone was laid a year later. It had become evident that the new settlement needed some form of protection and defense from external, mainly European enemy forces. In accordance with its priorities the Company often sent governors with a military background to the Cape.

The Castle was built in blue-stone and it was said that, viewed from the bay, it loomed huge above the shore like "a stone wall out of the earth that thundering cannon cannot destroy" (Hall, M. and Halkett, D. , et al. 1990). By mid-1676 all five bastions were standing and armed with cannon, from 12- to 24-pounders. These guns covered the anchoring place in Table Bay. The whole was surrounded by a moat, watered by the Plattekloof stream, which discharged itself into the bay at this spot. Over the years buildings were erected inside the pentagon courtyard and a dividing wall ("De Kat") across it. Governor van Der Stel had dwellings, store-rooms and barracks built beside this wall including a house for the secunde and fine new governor's residence. These buildings were constantly repaired, enlarged and updated according to prevailing fashions.

At the end of the Dutch period at the Cape the Castle with its armament and moat still presented such a display of power and solid impregnability that no attempt had ever been made against it. Today the Castle, separated from the shore by a large expanse of reclaimed land, still serves the country as the headquarters of Western Cape Province Command. It is the oldest surviving example of European architecture in South Africa and houses two of the country's finest museums.

The early Table Bay defense works

By the beginning of the 18th century new business, prosperity and developmental opportunities had been introduced to the port at Table Bay. Its value as a supply station for VOC ships to and fro from the East Indies increased enormously and additional defense works along the shores of Table Bay were seen as indispensible against foreign maritime powers, such as the British and French. The Castle at it presented itself then was reported as too vulnerable and given a new couvre-face battery, named Imhoff Battery, between it and the receding beach. This battery was destroyed when the railway line was extended into central Cape Town.

In addition, during the following years several small batteries were erected between the Castle and the Lion's rump to the west and a line of small defense works, connected by breastworks of earth and masonry, ran along the shore above the high water line to the east (Fig. 5). The "Sea Lines" ended at Fort Knokke, a substantial star-shaped fort, demolished only in 1952 to make way for a railway line.

Behind the Sea Lines the Company built a powder magazine and its military hospital. During spring tide and winter storms the walls and batteries were often damaged considerably.

The most western defense works, the Chavonne Battery, also known as "Waterkasteel" was erected at the foot of the Lion's Rump on the rocky shore between 1714 and 1726. It was re-discovered in about 2002 below the BOE building in the new "Waterfront Development" at the Alfred basin in the harbour's clocktower precinct (Fig. 6). The remains have been preserved in a well planned site museum underneath the new building erected in its stead.

The battery was manned by a VOC posholder, a corporal and nine men, who were posted by the Castle on a daily basis, and a number of prisoners, who had been sentenced to be flogged and branded and to do hard labour. Fifteen cannons were trained horizontally from the rocks in front of the quarters over the sea, against enemy shipping.

Between the Chavonne Battery and the Castle a smaller fort was erected, called the Heeren Hendricks Kinderen or Groote Battery and it is recorded that ten guns were mounted on it. This was the forerunner of the Amsterdam Battery, an impressive fortification work which was only dynamited in the early 20th century making way for the new harbor extension.

The positions and combined strength of the Table Bay batteries lent the appearance of a formidable deterrent, so the Cape was never threatened by a maritime assault (Fig. 7). Yet, in the mid 1750s Captain RS Allemann, the military commander of the Castle and member of the Council of Policy considered the Cape ill defended, if the enemy decided to sail into False Bay and attack the Castle overland from the South.

The American war of Independence (1775-1783) drew France and the Netherlands on the side of the American colonies. The Cape became strategically important as a supply station, as it was breaking the British blockade of the United States. French guns were shipped on VOC vessels, via the Cape to St Eustacius in the Caribbean and from there on American vessels to the rebel colonies. The existing coastal defenses at the Cape had been rather neglected, but this situation was to change after the arrival of the French fleet in June 1781.

Preparing against a British take-over (1781-1795)

In July 1781 the Cape was nearly taken by the British, who saw it already then as an important strategic place in military and economic terms. During the renewed Anglo-French war (1781-1783) when the Netherlands were allies of the French, the authorities at the Cape were aware of a real threat of a British invasion. A French fleet was urgently put together and arrived ahead of the British to assist with the defense of the settlement. This initiated the first large-scale intensive fortifications building program in Table Bay, Simon's Bay and also in Hout Bay. The work was supervised by a Dutch fortifications engineer, Colonel G.H. Gilquin, trained in the 'Old Dutch Fortifications System'. In Table Bay the Amsterdam Battery was erected between the Castle and the Chavonne Battery. It was a massive work, the only fully casemated fort, and armed with twenty two 24-pounder cannon (Fig. 8). Its primary function was the defense of the Company's anchorage, the approach - together with the Chavonne Battery - to the landing beaches, jetty, Castle and ultimately the town itself.

Smaller earthen forts were erected between Camps Bay, further south along the coast, and the Castle. A line of defense works were thrown up by French soldiers, fortifications workers employed by the VOC, artisan slaves and local convicts, together with a small  corps of  "halfbreeds" and "Hottentots" from Fort Knokke (at the northern end of Table Bay) up Devil's Peak. These "French Lines" were connected by a rampart and ditch and for many years formed the boundary of the expanding town.

The first British attempt at taking the Cape was thwarted in Hout Bay, where the West- and East Fort commanders succeeded in deceiving Commodore Johnstone about the real strength of the armament. Com. Johnstone then sailed to Saldanha Bay and took - to his delight and surprise - four returning, fully laden Dutch East-Indiamen. The Hout Bay forts were simple conventional zig-zag batteries, with stationary gun platforms, lying low on the horizon above the water's edge (Fig. 9).

Simon's Bay on the other side of the Peninsula, the winter (May to October) harbour was at long last fortified by two small earthen batteries, guarding the south and north approach to the harbor. The lower North Battery is still extant, in expanded and modernized form, used by the SA navy to this day for training exercises.

A second stage of fort building activity was initiated in 1793 by the threat of renewed war between post-revolutionary France and Britain. At the Cape the Dutch, fired on by liberal ("Jacobin") ideas were in revolt against the VOC's maladministration. The British fleet was looking for new bases to supply, repair and refit its ships in transit to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. The Cape of Good Hope was seen as a vital link in this global network.

The building and repair program of the coastal fortifications from 1793 to 1795 was supervised by Lieut. Engineer and architect Louis Michel Thibault, who had trained in Paris in the modern and flexible fortification system of Vabaun and Coehoorn. Thibault initiated professional training for engineers, architects, surveyors, builders and building tradesmen in the Cape. With the help of fortification workers, recuperating soldiers of the VOC and Company slaves, new batteries and gun emplacements were added along likely landing places of the enemy in Table Bay, Hout Bay and False Bay. This stage of remodeling and re-armament is archaeologically quite visible in the surviving fortification works, especially in the Hout Bay Forts, the East Fort a superbly restored open-air-museum on Chapman's Peak Drive. The East and West Forts' 24-pounder cannon ball trajectories covered the entrance to the bay, Fort Klein Gibraltar covered the landing beach.

However, by early 1795 there existed such a discrepancy between the Cape's military needs, even the minimum requirements for the protection of Table Bay and the VOC's financial and manpower resources, that these sites could not be much improved. The only additions to eighteen batteries in Table Bay, two in Hout Bay and the two in Simon's Town were hot-shot cannon ball ovens.

The transitional period (1795 -1805) - Dutch - British - Dutch - British colony

The British takeover of the Cape in August/September 1795 was well planned and professionally executed. Commissioner Sluijsken's preparations presented no obstacle to the invader, when a British force landed in Muizenberg. The military government under General Craig quickly proceeded to install the first professional Ordnance Department at the Cape. Its brief was, amongst other duties to survey, repair and erect such  works as were needed "to put the defense of the place on a sound footing" (Cape Archives).  A major contribution during the first British Occupation of the Cape (1795 to 1803) was the building of Martello Towers in Simon's Town (still extant), on Milnerton beach (Craig's Tower and Battery) and in Hout Bay the Blockhouse at the East Fort. The towers were modeled on the "Martello Tower" concept of Corsica and adapted to conditions at the Cape*. It proved economical and fortified an area quickly and efficiently (Fig. 10).

*Martello Towers, which were built by the British at the beginning of the 19th century in great numbers all over southern England, Mauritius and the Indies, were self-contained defense units. The stone towers consisted of three floors: the ground floor contained a water cistern, the first floor the garrison's quarters with a central armory and the top floor a swivel gun hidden behind low embarzures. The towers were able to withstand a protracted siege.

The King's-, Queen's- and Prince of Wales blockhouses on the slopes of Devil's Peak (Fig. 11) overlooked Table Bay and False Bay, extending the French Lines up Devil's Peak.  to prevent an attack on the town from the landward side. The King's blockhouse was also used as a signal station, connecting the Castle with other signal stations further inland, Hout Bay and False Bay.

During the First British Occupation of the Cape the military were firmly in control, strategic points along the Peninsula  occupied and strengthened, fortifications works repaired and new ones built. Substantial sums of money were granted to be spent on making the Cape a secure way station, in General Craig's words: "The Gibraltar of India", the key to Britain's interest in India (Seemann, UA. 1993).

In 1802 the Cape was returned to the Netherland. The Batavian commander at the Cape added some terreplains - flat elevated terraces - to each of the Hout Bay forts and increased their armament.

However, in 1805, the British Government felt that the French and its ally, the Netherland (or Batavian Republic), again threatened Britain's sea route to the east, endangering its economic interest in India. The second British expeditionary force, aware of the strength and position of Cape Town's fortification landed at Losperdsbay / Melkbosstrand to the north of Cape Town in January 1806. A couple of short skirmishes across the sandveld and marshes led to the capitulation of the local government.

The second British occupation and the colonial Cape

Well aware of some shortcomings of the Cape's defenses against modern warfare, the Royal Engineers carried on with their fortifications program where they had left off in 1802. In Hout Bay a magazine or armory was built abutting the rear of the terreplain. When partially excavated in 1992 this armory yielded an inventory of British military hardware: 24-pounder cannon balls, one-pounder grape shot, grape shot holders fitting into the cannon muzzles on site, block- and tackle for a gun carriage and sundry iron bits and pieces. Some of these are displayed at the Hout Bay Museum, which is well worth a visit.

On the slopes of Devil's Peak the York- and Craddock Batteries were added, with earthen ramparts and ditch, a magazine and guardhouse built of masonry. The York Battery and Redoubt was excavated by the author in 1996 and yielded half a magazine full of artefacts, a rubbish heap the soldiers left behind when they decamped in 1829, witness to their every day lives over almost twenty five years (Fig. 12) (Seemann, UA. 2001). The road, the Royal Engineers built during 1786 and 1807 up to the King's blockhouse  is still in use, situated now within the Table Mountain National Park.

Wynberg military camp, situated halfway between Cape Town and a small garrison / fort at Muizenberg on the False Bay coast became the main military camp in 1812. Simon's Town was declared the official headquarters of the Cape Squadron in 1815. At this time there were over twenty eight fortifications works in and around Table Bay alone, which have been listed in Fig. 13.

Of these only the Castle, the remains of the Amsterdam Battery in the Waterfront, two redoubts of the French Line and the blockhouses on Devil's Peak have survived the extension of the city of Cape Town.

By 1827, with peace established in the world of British influence, it was thought that most of the forts and batteries along the Cape Peninsula had become obsolete and were therefore a burden on the British War Department's finances. Strong recommendations were made to dismantle not only those that were built of earth, clay, rubble and timber, but also those of masonry. The remaining ones, including all military property were handed over in 1829 to be administered by the Board of Ordnance of the Cape of Good Hope.

During the remainder of the 19th century the British colonial border conflicts shifted to the Eastern Cape interior, where the Indigenous inhabitants, the Xhosa, defended their tgrsaditional grazing lands against invading British settlers.. The Royal Engineers built a string of fortifications from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown from the 1830s to the 1860s. But this topic is best left to the experts working in the field.

What remains?

Apart from the Castle, there are only the remains of the Amsterdam Battery and Fort Wynyard left today, at Trafalgar Park in Woodstock fragments of the French Lines, i.e. the Central Redoubt, and part of a boundary wall and the foundations of the Hollands Redoubt. On Devil's Peak the British blockhouses have been left to fall into ruin and vandalized. York Redoubt is once again buried under mountain rubble.

In Muizenberg, Dutch and British defense lines dating to 1795 have been re-discovered between Boyes Drive and the Main Road and are well restored, a credit to the Muizenberg Historical Society. The lower North Battery is still in use in Simon's Town, the Martello Tower restored by the SANavy. In Hout Bay the sympathetically restored East Fort, and the remains of the West Fort are well visited tourist destinations.

Conclusion

 Between 1652 and the early 19th century the sea shores of the Cape Peninsula were largely perceived by the authorities as zones of future military interaction, to be fortified and defended. After 1659 the enemy was expected to come from 'overseas' / 'across the waters'. Internal border conflicts had shifted during the late 1650s north eastwards, as the indigenous inhabitants, the Khoi herders had been displaced from their traditional grazing lands in Table Valley and the Peninsula. However, the freeburghers saw the need to erect a line of earth and timber fortifications, connected by a wooden fence on the east side of the Liesbeeck River. These defense measures became quickly obsolete as the colony expanded.

However, the Dutch colonists felt to be constantly under threat of foreign invasion and reacted periodically with more updated fortification building programs. Finally the VOC settlement was invaded twice by British forces, once in 1795 from False Bay and then permanently in 1806 from the direction of Melkbosstrand, north of Table Bay, the second time for good.

Once the sea lanes from Europe to the East Indies were secured under British naval hegemony, the threat of a foreign invasion faded, the coastal defense works seem to become obsolete and were therefore dismantled.  During the early 19th century the shores of the Cape Peninsula could be re-discovered as places for economic and recreational activities.  For instance, the Hout Bay beach became popular for picnic outings. The blockhouse at the East Fort was occasionally used by convalescent officers "for the benefit of their health, and sea bathing" (Cape Archives). Permanent fishing communities were able to establish themselves, as in pre-colonial times, in Hout Bay and along the Table Bay and False Bay coasts, the majority of them of mixed Khoi, Dutch, British and slave descend.

Well into the first decade of the 20th century no new major defense work needed to be erected around the Peninsula. However, the First World War was to change this situation, but this is a topic for further historical research.

 

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This paper was written for South African History Online by Ute A Seemann in April 2010. Seemann works as a free-lance professional archaeologist after a career in the Chemistry Department at the University of Cape Town. She obtained her PHD in archaeology in 2001.


References:
• Bottaro, J. (1996) The Changing Landscape of the Liesbeeck River Valley. University of Cape Town: unpublished M.Ed.thesis, p.22
• Sleigh, Daniel. 1993. Die Buiteposte. VOC- buiteposte onder Kaapse bestuur 1652-1795. Pretoria: HAUM, pp 40-41.
• Hall, M. and Halkett, D. , et al. 1990. "A Stone Wall out of the Earth that Thundering  Cannon cannot destroy", Bastion and Moat at the Castle, Cape Town. Social Dynamics, 16(1) 22-37 1990.
• Cape Archives, VC 75. Lieut. Marnitz Account of the Surrender of the Cape in 1795.
• Seemann, UA. 1993. Forts and Fortifications at the Cape Peninsula 1781-1829. University of Cape Town: unpublished MSC thesis in Archaeology, p 12.
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Last updated : 27-Jun-2017

This article was produced by South African History Online on 16-Mar-2011

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