In August 1805, while the French army with which Napoleon intended to invade England was still in waiting at Boulogne, a formidable British fleet sailed southwards on a secret mission, the Battle of Blaauwberg was going to happen. It was proposed to take the Cape – the key to India – from the Batavian Republic (which was an ally of France) by means of a surprise attack. Naval and cargo vessels, 61 in all, under the command of Commodore Sir Home Popham had 6,654 soldiers and officers under Major-General Sir David Baird on board. Baird, who had spent ten months at the Cape during the first British occupation, knew the fortifications well. Reports of a mighty fleet sailing south reached Lt.-Gen. J. W. Janssen’s, the Governor at the Cape, and he made all possible preparations, but it was the harvesting season and he could not mobilise the burghers without sufficient information of an intended attack.
The Battle of Blaauwberg
He had a motley military force of about 2,000 at his disposal. Among them were some 400 German, Austrian and Hungarian mercenaries, the 5th Battalion of Waldeckers; also soldiers from the Netherlands and recruits from various other European nations, including the crews and marines of two French ships under Col. Gaudin Beauchene. In addition, there were 224 mounted burghers under Cavalry Captains Jacobus Linde, Petrus Human and Willem Wium; also Hottentot foot-soldiers and 104 slaves from Mozambique who served in the communication lines of the artillery. Gen. Janssen’s had only 16 guns, whereas the British invasion fleet included the Diadem, the Raisonnable and the Belliqueux, each with 64 cannons, the Diomede with 50, and the Narcissus and the Leda, each with 32. On the evening of 4th January 1806 the British fleet dropped anchor between Robben Island and Blaauwberg.
Baird had selected Losperds Bay (where the village of Melkbosstrand was established later) for a landing, but on the morning of 5 January the weather was too stormy. He then decided to land at Saldanha Bay, and a number of ships sailed there during the night. Meanwhile the sea had become calmer, and Baird decided to land in Losperds Bay. Men-of-war moved into position in readiness to bombard the coast; and a cargo-boat was deliberately manoeuvred up against a sandbank close to the beach to serve as a breakwater. Besides the troops the necessary provisions, guns and horses had to be brought ashore on 6 and 7 January. One boat with 36 men capsized and all were drowned. If Janssen’s had been present at the landing he could have played havoc with the British, whose landing-boats were so close to one another that they could hardly use their oars. Except for those who were drowned; the whole landing operation cost only one life, but four men were wounded in a skirmish with a few burghers who were reconnoitring under Cavalry Captain J. Linde. Eight hours after the fleet had been sighted on 4th January the news had been spread as far as Swellendam by means of signal-guns fired from hill to hill. Commandos began to move, but reached Cape Town too late to play any real part in the action.
Janssen’s spent the night of 7th January in the dunes at Rietvlei instead of taking up a position on top of Blaauwberg. At 3 a.m. his motley military force advanced to halt the British, who were advancing in the direction of Blaauwberg. They had no difficulty in driving off Janssen’s’ scouts on the slopes of the mountain and with about 4,000 men they took up a stand at the southern extremity of the mountain. Janssen’s lined up his troops on the plain and awaited the attack. He put up a dutiful defence, but his military knowledge convinced him that his task was impossible. He rode down the front and encouraged his troops; the Waldeckers alone did not cheer him, and when the Scottish Highlanders were near enough to charge with fixed bayonets these German mercenaries beat a retreat. (The German states under the heel of Napoleon were at this time allies of Britain.) Then the Netherlands professional soldiers also took to flight.
The Cape burghers, the French, and also the Hottentots fired at the enemy as long as possible and caused many casualties: 15 killed, 189 wounded, 8 missing. The number of the defenders’ dead and wounded is uncertain. Baird estimated the losses at 700 killed and wounded, while another British officer put the casualties at 500. These figures, however, are both exaggerated. At a roll-call that evening 337 were reported missing: 188 Netherlanders and other regular soldiers, 110 French, 4 Cape burghers, 17 Hottentots, 10 Malays and 8 slaves. Janssen’s, himself slightly wounded, ordered his men to retreat, fearing that they could not hold their own against the British onslaught. So exhausted were the British soldiers after their fatiguing march across the hot sands without water that they could not pursue the defeated defenders. Many fainted, and some of the sailors who were dragging the guns collapsed. The British suffered from thirst to such an extent that when they came across a shallow pool Baird had to supervise the distribution of the water personally.
Sometime later Capt. Carmichael, who had taken part in the battle, remarked that had Janssen’s known of their plight, he would not have retreated. Janssen’s assembled his defeated army at Rietvlei and withdrew to Hottentots Holland with picked men, intending to offer further resistance and to deprive the British of food-supplies from the interior. He did not wish to take the German mercenaries along; they had to share the lot of the small division he left in the Castle under Lt.-Col. Count C. von Prophalow. A few Waldeckers, who had not taken part in the flight, remained with Janssen’s at their own request. He found it difficult to take leave of the brave French marines, but it was better for them to present themselves at the Castle, as their ships, the Napoleon and the Atlante, were still riding at anchor in Table Bay. Meanwhile Baird had marched to Cape Town and on 10 January 1806 the terms of capitulation of the Cape were signed at Papendorp (Woodstock). Janssen’s soon realised that his attempts at resistance would be futile, and on 18 January he too signed the capitulation. The battle of Blaauwberg, followed by the second British occupation, is one of the important milestones in South African history.
For further information – History of South Africa by Geo. McCall Theal
Image 1: Unsigned water-colour of the Battle of Blaauwberg. (Cape Archives)
Image 2: Map of the Blaauwberg area