Battle of Muizenberg 1795

In March 1793, France declared war on Great Britain and the House of Orange. The French advanced on Holland, the British sent an expeditionary force to its defence. France and Britain were at war for the privilege of protecting the Netherlands, and its possessions, which included the Cape.

As soon as news of the declaration of war reached the Cape the Commissioners looked about for means of defence, and found none.

They hastily formed all clerks and junior officers of the Company into a military corps, and set about training a company of Hottentots and Bastaards, which later became the Hottentot Corps. Beyond this they could see nothing to do. Commissioner Sluysken built two forts at Simonstown, where the garrison, was stationed, and three more at Hout Bay; and from March to May 1795 (when it was supposed that the danger was past) a Stellenbosch commando was called to Cape Town to reinforce the garrison. A month after it had left the Peninsula, nine British warships sailed into False Bay.

The colony’s defences were extraordinarily weak. Forts and guns it had in sufficiency, but it lacked men. The professional forces were a very job lot, whose main strength was the so-called ” National Battalion ” of 571 men -National only in name, for in fact its soldiers were mercenaries drawn from every country of Europe, with scarcely a Hollander among them. The rank and file would fight for whichever side paid best, while the twenty-five officers were for the most part Orangemen.First British occupation 1795

In March 1793, France declared war on Great Britain and the House of Orange. The French advanced on Holland, the British sent an expeditionary force to its defence. France and Britain were at war for the privilege of protecting the Netherlands, and its possessions, which included the Cape.

As soon as news of the declaration of war reached the Cape the Commissioners looked about for means of defence, and found none.

They hastily formed all clerks and junior officers of the Company into a military corps, and set about training a company of Hottentots and Bastaards, which later became the Hottentot Corps. Beyond this they could see nothing to do. Commissioner Sluysken built two forts at Simonstown, where the garrison, was stationed, and three more at Hout Bay; and from March to May 1795 (when it was supposed that the danger was past) a Stellenbosch commando was called to Cape Town to reinforce the garrison. A month after it had left the Peninsula, nine British warships sailed into False Bay.

The colony’s defences were extraordinarily weak. Forts and guns it had in sufficiency, but it lacked men. The professional forces were a very job lot, whose main strength was the so-called ” National Battalion ” of 571 men -National only in name, for in fact its soldiers were mercenaries drawn from every country of Europe, with scarcely a Hollander among them. The rank and file would fight for whichever side paid best, while the twenty-five officers were for the most part Orangemen. morning, the Commissioner received three notes from the directors of the company, and an invitation from Admiral Elphinstone, commander of the British Fleet, who requested Sluysken and Colonel Gordon (officer commanding the Dutch forces at the Cape) to visit his ship and receive a letter from the Prince William V.

Commissioner Sluysken, however, replied cautiously with a counterinvitation-not being at all certain as to what the Government of Holland at that moment might be. He learned from further despatches from Elphinstone that the French had taken possession of the Netherlands and the Prince William V escaped in a fishing-boat and wasnow in England. The British ships had been sent off post-haste as soon as the French army occupied Holland, in order to prevent French annexation of the Cape. Elphinstone now sent Sluysken a letter from the Prince of Orange commanding him to give up the colony to the protection of Great Britain, as represented by Elphinstone, his fleet and troops.

The Admiral refrained from saying, in his account of the course of events in Holland, that the French had received a most enthusiastic welcome from the citizens of Holland, or that the office ruler had been abolished and the government had been remodelled. No newspapers were supplied, though asked, for the Admiral wished to give the impression that the French conquerors were grinding their Dutch victims underfoot.

Sluysken and his officers did not know this (though they may have suspected some of it)

An order from a fugitive prince, not even written from Holland, had no legal validity, and any day they might receive contrary commands, with more authority behind them, from the mother country. Clearly their duty was to play for time; and, in spite of the fact that Sluysken himself and most of his senior officers were good Orangemen, more disposed by inclination to admit the British than to keep them out, they proceeded to do their duty. Sluysken’s council replied to Elphinstone that they would continue to allow the fleet to be supplied with provisions, and asked in return that only small parties of unarmed men might come ashore. They expressed their gratitude to the British for their offers of assistance, of which, they said, they would avail themselves if the French were to attack the colony.Letters in this strain went back and forth, until finally the admiral decided to try the effect of a little popular propaganda. He issued several copies of an address to the colonists, written both in Dutch and German, depicting in vivid language the horrors of a French occupation. The guillotine would be set up in Cape Town; slaves would be freed as they had been, with such disastrous consequences, in San Domingo and Guadaloupe, all intercourse with Europe would cease, trade would be strangled, there would be neither money nor the means of existence available.

At this the council begged to be excused from further correspondence with the British; to which the Admiral and the General in charge of the British troops, Major-General J. H. Craig replied with a long letter to the effect that Great Britain could not allow the colony to be annexed by France. The council remarked that this was a very different matter from offers of assistance; and forbade the further supply of provisions to the British ships. Another burgher detachment was added to the garrison at Muizenberg, to which also some of the Simonstown garrison were withdrawn.

At this point, June 1795, two small American ships arrived in Simon’s Bay. One came from Amsterdam, where she had been chartered to take mails to the Cape. The English Admiral at once placed her under guard and proceeded to censor her mails, but one newspaper got through uncensored, and was found by the colonists to contain a notice freeing all Dutch subjects from their allegiance to the Prince of Orange. From this and other bits of information, which escaped the censors, the burghers discovered that the Netherlands Republic regarded the French as friends, which was quite independent of French control.

Sluysken, Gordon and the other officers were not unwilling to admit the British as protectors, and they might have done so if they had been sure that Elphinstone would hold the Cape only for the Prince of Orange, and not as a British possession. Many of the burghers were enthusiastic in their support of the new Dutch Republic and its allies, the French. At the worst, thought the authorities, there was nothing to be lost by putting up a show of resistance against the British fleet so long as it was not actually driven away, while if they submitted to British protection without a struggle an ill fate might be in store for them should a strong French and Dutch fleet appear on the horizon. So all the Simonstown garrisons were ordered back to Muizenberg, the guns in the Simonstown batteries were spiked, and nearly all the civil inhabitants left the town. A cutter which happened to be in Saldanha Bay was chartered and sent to Batavia with despatches, as the British were blockading Table Bay.

In July Admiral Elphinstone first took three Dutch ships in Table Bay, in order, as he said, to prevent their crews from destroying them, and then landed a force of 850 soldiers and marines to occupy Simonstown. Sluysken made no move in reply, indeed, he issued orders that nothing was to be done which might be construed by the British as an act of war, and earn the Dutch the blame for commencing hostilities. Elphinstone’s boats were allowed to take soundings before the Muizenberg camp, and Colonel Gordon, who was convinced that no boats could come close enough to the shore to do any damage, refused to erect earthworks to protect the camp.

Finally Elphinstone decided that he must hurry matters on somewhat, as he wished to get to India to take Trincomalee before the monsoon changed. But he was reluctant to send his men, of whom he had only 1,600, beyond the reach of his ships’ guns, lest a French fleet arrive before he should obtain further assistance.

The best policy appeared to take Muizenberg and negotiate further with Sluysken, but to do nothing more until Major Clarke should arrive from England with strong reinforcements. On August 7 his warships stood in towards the camp and opened their broadsides. At the first shot the ” National Battalion,” with a Captain de Lille at its head, fled from the camp; the main body under Colonel Gordon followed them. Practically no resistance beyondsome gunfire was offered to the attackers. De Lille’s conduct was especially disgraceful, he and his mercenaries fled across the Cape Flats, apparently in mortal terror of meeting so much as an outpost of the enemy. He was charged The burghers charged him with treason, and athough he was acquitted of the charge, public opinion was such that he had to be kept under guard for his own safety. He afterwards joined the British forces and was appointed barrack master at Cape Town when the occupation was complete, a very different fate from that of the unhappy Colonel Gordon, who committed suicide.

Sluysken and his councillors announced that they would continue to defend the colony. An unsuccessful attack was, made on the British outposts at Steenberg, but, on September 4, Clarke arrived with 3,000-armed troops. At this many of the burgher cavalry returned to their homes in despair.

On September 14 the British marched, between four and five thousand strong, from Muizenberg towards Cape Town. They were harassed on the march by the remnants of the commandos to considerable effect, considering how few burghers were left to fight. At Wynberg a combined force of regulars and burgher militia should have resisted them, but here again the leadership was confused and apparently treacherous. The camp was abandoned, and the last of the burghers returned indignant to their homes.

On September 15 the terms of capitulation were agreed upon, and on the following day they were signed by Clarke and Elphinstone at Rustenberg. The Dutch troops were to surrender as prisoners of war, but officers might if they chose return to Europe on parole not to fight against England. The colonists were to keep all their existing laws and customs, including their religion, and no new taxes were to be imposed.

All property was to remain in the hands of its owners, except property of the Dutch East India Company, which was to be handed over to the British.

Thus the first British occupation of the Cape was completed.

TheĀ 

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