South Africa - Ian D. Colvin

The First Conquest By The British

If you have read this little history aright, you cannot fail to have seen that so far the story of South Africa has been the story of the great struggle for the wealth of the East. Portugal led the way; then Holland rose to eminence; and now we are come to a time when the power of the Netherlands has sunk low and she is only a pawn in the game between France and England. The knell of the Dutch as a world-power was struck when William the Third became king of England. From that time, more and more, Holland had to dance as her partner fiddled. By a little after the middle of the eighteenth century, England had driven France out of India, and the Treaty of Paris made her supreme in the East. The House of Orange did as England commanded, and at this time the House of Orange was the ruling power in the Netherlands. Sometimes the little country ventured to kick; but all that she could do, in her own defence, was to run from England into France, and as England was stronger than France at sea, the results were disastrous to Dutch shipping.

Thus, twenty years before the close of the century, when England was fighting her American colonists, Holland wanted to join the Armed Neutrality, and Commodore Johnstone was sent with an English squadron to take the Cape. Now this Johnstone was clever with his duelling pistols and a brave enough fellow in his way. He was also an adept at lining his own pockets; but nobody ever thought much of him as a naval commander. On this occasion, when he got as far south as Cape Verde, he put into the harbour of St. Iago. His ships were all huddled together in the most unseamanlike fashion, and Admiral Suffren, a dashing French sailor, who had been sent with a smaller fleet than the English to protect the Cape, saw his chance, and bore down on the English ships. Fortunately for Johnstone, Suffren's captains failed to support him, and the French attack was beaten off. But Johnstone was so much astonished at his own victory that he forgot to pursue the foe, and when at last he got to the Cape, he found that Suffren had landed a French force, whereupon the Commodore decided not to attack the settlement.

He heard, however, that five richly laden Dutch East Indiamen were lying in Saldanha Bay, which is a fine harbour with a narrow mouth, a little to the north of Cape Town. When the gallant Commodore sailed into the bay, the Dutch ran their ships ashore and made off across country. They had received orders to set their ships on fire in case of attack; but they were in such a hurry that only one was effectually set alight, while one Dutch captain was so beside himself with terror that he set on fire a neighbouring house in mistake for his ship. As the English sailors were taking pot shots at the retreating Dutchmen, the blazing Middelburg  drifted towards the English fleet. Johnstone saw the danger, and in one of his own boats helped to tow her outside. And not a moment too soon, for directly after the boats had cast loose, the Middelburg  blew up with a tremendous explosion. The French naturalist, Le Vaillant, had been on board the ill-fated vessel and watched from the shore the destruction of his treasures. He did not wait very long, however, for a cannon ball took off the head of a fugitive who was approaching him on one side, while a large dog was killed in the same way on the other. Thus, with the capture of four ships, ended the first British attack on the Cape, and it has only to be added that Commodore Johnstone was put on half-pay when he got home, while the French regiments provided scandal and entertainment for the ladies of Cape Town.

But then came the French Revolution, and the so-called "Patriot" party in Holland fell into the arms of the Jacobins. The Prince of Orange, who had crushed the Patriots a few years before, fled to England, and Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity reigned in the Netherlands. This, however, did not do Holland much good. Napoleon first pillaged the country and then set up his brother as king, while the English seized the Dutch colonies. Thus we see how great a misfortune it is to belong to a small nation.

When the Prince of Orange went to England, he beseeched his royal brother to protect his dominions. It was known that the French meant to take Cape Town, for that nation had great designs in the East, and to be beforehand with them, England prepared an expedition which was designed to defend the Cape. Admiral Sir George Elphinstone, afterwards Lord Keith, was in supreme command. If he was not one of England's greatest sailors, he was at any rate a very good one, and on this occasion showed himself, as usual, a resourceful and capable commander. The land forces were under the command of General Craig, a gallant old soldier, and the design was to join forces with General Sir Alured Clarke, who was to go to meet them from India. Elphinstone had with him a letter from the Prince of Orange, commanding the Cape Government to admit the English troops and ships of war. "You are," it said, "to consider them as troops and ships of a power in friendship and alliance with their High Mightinesses, the States-General, and who come to protect the colony against an invasion of the French."

Now this put the Cape Government in a very awkward position. Holland was divided against herself. There was an Orange party and a Patriot party, and it was evident that in Holland, at least for the time being, the Patriot party had the upper hand. The same divisions were apparent in the colony. Those delightful people, the burghers of Graaff Reinet, and their good neighbours of Swellendam, were, of course, enthusiastic Jacobins. They were led by an Italian adventurer called Louis Almora Pisanie, who was shrewdly suspected of being a spy in the employment of the French. The two districts declared themselves to be republics on the French model. "They prepared," says Barrow, "to plant a tree of liberty and establish a convention, whose first object was to make out proscribed lists of those who were either to suffer death by the new-fashioned mode of the guillotine, which they had taken care to provide for the purpose, or be banished the Colony. It is almost needless to state that the persons so marked out to be the victims of an unruly rabble were the only worthy people in the settlement, and most of them members of Government." They expelled the local officials, appointed "National Commandants," elected "National Assemblies," and formulated a series of highly ridiculous demands, which showed that their hold on the principles of the French Revolution was a trifle imperfect. Thus one of their principles was, "that every Hottentot taken prisoner or caught shall for his or her life remain the property of the captor"; while another is almost equally illuminating, "that declarations of amount of produce be always taken as correct, without the Landdrost being allowed to add more." In the meantime another section of the population was equally busy. "The adult male slaves," says Martin, "who bore the proportion of five to one of the white men, having heard their masters descant on the blessings of liberty and equality, and the inalienable rights of man, naturally desired to participate in these advantages, and held their meetings to decide on the fate of their owners when the day of emancipation should appear."

The Governor at this time was a gentleman named Sluysken, a liverish invalid from Batavia, who had been stopped on his way home to Holland and made ruler of this turbulent country, and the commander of the troops was Colonel Gordon, not a Scottish soldier of fortune, as is generally believed, but a Dutchman of Scottish extraction. These two officers, if we are to judge from their letters, had strong Orange sympathies. Thus Sluysken writes to Elphinstone: "I am heartily sorry for the fate of my country. My unhappy star enduced me to send my wife and family there two years ago, and I am alarmed that I do not find she is at present with her own family in England." And Gordon, also writing to the Admiral, says: "I am extremely sorry that I could not hitherto come aboard to pay my respects to you, being a subordinate, however, Sir George, be assured that I shall serve the common cause with all my exertions, that I abhor French principles, and that if our unhappy republic, where I am born in and served these 42 years, should surrender (which God forbids) that then I am a Greatbritainer."

Most of the Cape Town people, however, were of another way of thinking. In the same letter Gordon says that the whole country is in an uproar, "much augmented by bad designing people, who think to find their ruined finances re-established by French principles and anarchy, and by others who are the endoctrinated dupes." "In this moment," he adds, "prudence is necessary to bring things to a proper end." And Sluysken says: "The minds of the people are everywhere in a sort of convulsion and the best manner for every man in certain situations is to give them a little time for recollection." In the same way, Captain Dekker, who was in command of the Dutch ships in the bay, was torn between his loyalty to the Stadtholder and his duty to the de facto  Government. In one of his despatches Elphinstone says that Dekker was "much affected" and said that he was "a man of fortune, who had lost all save his honour." The Admiral very chivalrously solved his difficulty by allowing him to sail to the East with his ships.

Most historians have tried to make out that Sluysken and Gordon were traitors to their country. For my part I do not think so. Like the Cavaliers in England at the time of the Civil War, they preferred a prince to a republic, and they had no doubt very good reasons for their preference.

But events were too strong for them. In spite of all that Elphinstone could do in the way of conciliation, he was not allowed to make a peaceful entry into the colony. The chief citizens, he found, were involved in a large issue of paper money, which they feared would be repudiated by a new Government, and they were also interested in the bad system of monopolies, which they suspected the English would bring to an end. Elphinstone was met with, as he says, "nothing but chicane and duplicity," and he found Sluysken "a cold and undecided person."

The Admiral too was in a difficult position. A large proportion of his force was down with scurvy, and there was no sign of General Clarke with the reinforcements. His fleet was anchored in False Bay, for it was the dead of winter and Table Bay was too dangerous. When the Dutch evacuated Simon's Town, he found it impossible to get provisions, and his men suffered both from cold and hunger, while the Dutch skirmishers fired at them from the surrounding hills. Sluysken and Gordon had, in fact, been forced into hostilities.

There was only one road to Cape Town, and that lay along the shore and directly under a range of steep and rocky hills. At Muizenburg, which is now a pretty little watering-place, the Dutch had thrown up batteries and opened trenches, completely blocking the narrow path between the mountain and the sea, and this strong position the little British force was compelled to attack. It was cunningly chosen, for the British men-o'-war could not venture into the shallow waters at the head of the bay. But Elphinstone and Craig rose to the occasion. A flotilla of heavily armed gunboats was got ready, and they sailed boldly in, and anchored among the breakers in two and a half fathoms of water, thus taking the Dutch position in flank, while a mixed force of soldiers and sailors attacked it on the front. The Dutch did not hold long to their position, but retreated on Wynberg, thus leaving the British in command of two fairly open roads, the one towards Cape Town, and the other across the Flats to the interior.

For the moment all was in confusion with the Dutch. Colonel de Lille, who had been in command of the Muizenberg position, was put in prison on a charge of cowardice, and a counter-charge of cowardice and insubordination was laid against the burghers. But the British position was not much better than it had been before. The little army could not leave the sea; they were without provisions; and as time wore on, it was decided that they must either attack Wynberg with an inadequate force, or re-embark and sail away.

The Dutch, seeing their perplexity, took courage. With twenty guns and all their forces they advanced to the attack; but at this crucial moment the starving and scurvy-stricken little British force saw what filled them with rapture—fifteen English ships came sailing into the bay. It was General Clarke with the reinforcements. The Dutch saw them too, and turned tail. The burghers deserted wholesale. The British attacked the Wynberg camp, and took it after a sharp fight. A British squadron threatened a landing at Camp's Bay, thus taking the town in the rear. The game was up, and Sluysken, like a sensible man, surrendered on the best terms he could get. He returned to Holland to be covered with obloquy. Certainly he did not make a very spirited defence; but the best of soldiers could not have done much more. Half his burghers were in open rebellion, and though he checked the movement by arresting Pisanie, he knew that they were only waiting for a French force to depose him. He was in a hopeless position; he was an invalid; he was fighting in a cause he did not like. What more could he have done? As for poor Gordon, he shot himself in his own garden, no doubt preferring death to the accusation of cowardice.

Thus the Cape was captured, and for the first time since the days of Shilling and Fitzherbert, the British flag was hoisted in South Africa. General Craig was made Governor, and ruled wisely and well. Elphinstone went to the East to fight the king's enemies there. But he had one more triumph in South Africa. When he was again in Simon's Bay with his fleet he heard that a Dutch fleet, which had sailed to retake the Cape, was anchored in Saldanha Bay. In heavy weather he set sail and drew up his fleet across the mouth of the bay, thus catching the whole Dutch force like a rat in a trap. The Dutch had nine ships and the English fourteen. "Humanity," wrote Elphinstone to Admiral Lucas, "is an incumbant duty on all men, therefore to spare an effusion of blood, I request a surrender of the ships under your command, otherwise it will be my duty to embrace the earliest moment of making an attack on them, the issue of which is not difficult to guess." Lucas took some little time to guess, but guessed right, and the fleet of nine ships, with 342 guns and two thousand sailors, as well as a force of two thousand soldiers, fell into Elphinstone's hands without a blow.