South Africa - Ian D. Colvin

The Second Conquest By The British

The English now ruled the Cape, and on the whole they ruled well and wisely. England was engaged in a life-and-death struggle with Napoleon. She was fighting all over the world. Every man and every penny she could spare were put into the war, and when all her embarrassments are taken into consideration, when, moreover, it is remembered that she only held the Cape temporarily, and as it were in trust for another Power, we may be surprised that she threw so much energy and enterprise into its administration. The bulk of the work was done by soldiers who had no training in civil affairs, yet the British rule was a vast improvement on that of the Dutch East India Company. The British have been blamed for their want of sympathy with the Graaff-Reinet settlers, yet even a hostile witness like Lichtenstein admits that these people were a turbulent and lawless set, who would have been a thorn in the side of any administration. Dr. Theal makes a great grievance of the fact that half-bred Hottentots were employed to keep them in order; but these same Hottentots had been first engaged to fight the British themselves, and had actually fought them. They were, moreover, as a Dutch official pointed out, the best, or, indeed, the only kind of soldiers for the work, and at any rate they were the only soldiers that England could possibly spare.

For the rest, justice and peace were established; trade was encouraged; endeavours were made to improve agriculture; a more humane native policy was adopted; and although England was unfortunate in the choice of one of her governors, the eight years of her first occupation were greatly to her credit.

The nineteenth century dawned with a lurid and stormy sky, but two years after its opening there was a little rift in the clouds. The Peace of Amiens was signed, and the Cape was given back by England to the Dutch Republic. The new Dutch Governor, Janssens, was an excellent man, brave, wise, upright, who continued the good work the English had begun, and won the love of the whole colony.

But his reign was short. War broke out again more fiercely than ever, and the Batavian Republic was again under the heel of Napoleon. Lichtenstein tells us with what zeal General Janssens prepared against a second invasion of the Cape. He organised a Hottentot corps, he diligently drilled the burghers, he repaired the fortifications left by the British, and with the help of his officers drew up a plan of campaign. It was plain that Cape Town was at the mercy of a great sea power like England, and Janssens determined that his best chance was to defend the interior of the colony. To that end he prepared a strong position in the Hottentots' Holland Kloof, a high mountain pass in the steep range that guards the interior. Here he organised magazines of stores, and set up a laboratory for the manufacture of gunpowder. But misfortune attended his efforts. The harvest was so scanty that there was almost a famine in the land; an epidemic worked havoc among his troops; and his laboratory blew up, killing the officer in charge and his assistants. Still Janssens persevered, and when at last the English fleet hove in sight he had done as much as any man could do in his desperate circumstances.

It was a majestic and awe-inspiring sight that met the watchers of Lion Hill on the fourth day of January 1806. Towering battleships, their snowy sails heaped up to heaven, great transports, dashing frigates—fifty-nine ships in all—swept into the bay that bright day of summer, and poor Janssens' heart must have sunk within him as he saw this vast Armada anchor between Robben Island and the Blaauwberg Strand.

Two of the bravest subjects of King George were in command. Sir David Baird, the leader of the expedition, was a Scot, as brave as he was zealous. He had already seen enough fighting to fill the lives of ten men. He had fought Hyder and Tippoo in India. At the battle of Damal he received two sabre wounds in his head, a ball in his thigh, and a pike-wound in his arm, and he was among the prisoners who were forced by their captor to present him with the heads of their comrades. He languished in irons in the prison of Seringapatam. There is a famous story that he was chained to a brother-officer, and that his mother on hearing the news said, "God help the man who's chained to poor Davie." He was in the army of Lord Cornwallis, and took a leading part in all the desperate fighting in his great campaign. He commanded a brigade under Wellesley, and led the storming party which burst through the breach into Seringapatam. He marched an army from the Red Sea to Alexandria to attack the French, and he marched back again to the Red Sea when his work was done. He was a man of iron and a great soldier, and moreover he knew the Cape, for during the first occupation he had been Brigadier-General under Lord Macartney.

His friend, Sir Home Popham, was a dashing dare-devil of an Englishman. His career had been at least as full of adventure as Baird's. As an officer of the fleet he had been everywhere, and when there was no work for him on His Majesty's ships he would be surveying on his own account in the Malay Straits, running a private venture into the ports of China, or guiding the East India Company's vessels through a new channel of his own discovery. Any little time that was left over he spent in personal war with His Majesty's Admiralty, or conducting flotillas of troops through the inland waters of Holland. He had already co-operated with Baird in the Red Sea, and had surveyed some of the coast of South Africa.

We may imagine then that these two worthies looked with glee at the white town in the distance and the hilly, arid, bush-covered land in front. But they had a tough job in front of them, for the sea was running high on the rocky shore, and there seemed to be no place where a landing could be effected. Yet land they must, and that speedily, for the French were expected with reinforcements, and, like a good strategist, Baird desired to settle with one enemy before he took on the other. As it seemed impossible to land he sent General Beresford to Saldanha Bay with part of the troops, and was about to follow.

Yet Baird was very unwilling to abandon his original plan, for he saw the great advantages of a landing near the capital, and at the first blink of dawn he was at the maintop, with a spy-glass in his hand, eagerly scanning the shore. To his delight he saw that the surf had considerably abated, and Popham joyfully agreed with him that there was now a possibility of landing, though only at one little inlet. This was an open cove clear of rocks, then called Lospard's Bay, and now known as Melkbosch. Popham ran a light brig ashore to act as a breakwater, and a little after noon the signal to land was given.

In their excitement both soldiers and sailors lost their heads. The joy that was manifested in the countenance of every officer," says Popham in his despatch to the Admiralty, "heightened the character- istic ardour of the troops, and under an anxiety probably to be first on shore, induced them to urge the boats to extend their line of beach farther than was prudent, and occasioned the loss of one boat with a party of the 93rd Regiment." Every soul on board, thirty-six in all, perished among the weeds and rocks of that inhospitable coast.

But the dash of the landing took Janssens at a disadvantage, and only a feeble attempt was made to oppose it. Janssens has been blamed for this; but as he himself points out in his despatch, an attack on the troops on the shore would have exposed his forces to a murderous fire from the fleet, and no doubt he was right in deciding to engage at a place where the ships could not co-operate with the invaders. Yet Baird also was in a dangerous position, for the surf made the landing slow and difficult, and it sometimes ran so high that the work had to be stopped altogether. If the weather had got dirty the troops on shore might have been starved for want of provisions from the fleet. However, these risks were wisely taken, and fortune favoured the brave. Early the next morning the last of the troops were landed, and after a brief rest they set out on their march to Cape Town.

In front of them, ten miles away, rose Table Mountain, clear and blue in the distance, like a great castle among the clouds. Immediately in front of them was a stretch of sandy downs, sparsely covered with heath and milk-bush and low flowering protea, while a little way off, across their road to the capital, lay the Blaauwberg, behind which was the enemy. A body of five hundred sailors cheerfully dragged the guns through bush and sand, and the little army toiled along, breathless but happy at the prospect of a fight. Four miles from the landing-place they reached the crest of the Blaauwberg range, which intercepted the road almost at right angles, and saw Janssens' forces drawn up on the plain beyond. The British were formed in two parallel columns of brigades. The right brigade, consisting of the 24th, 59th, and 83rd Regiments, was under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Baird, the General's brother, who was destined long afterwards to find a grave at the Cape; and the left column, the Highland Brigade, was composed of the 71st, 72nd, and 93rd, commanded by Brigadier-General Fergusson.

Janssens' troops consisted of as motley a body of men as was ever brought together. As he says himself, they were of "all languages and nationalities from the other hemisphere," together with "the most respectable children of the Colony, and including even Eastern and Mozambique slaves." Besides these he had a Hottentot corps, a body of Malay artillery, and a French contingent, drawn from ships that had been chased ashore by the British frigates. He had more than a battalion of light cavalry, as well as the mounted burghers. He had a superiority in horsemen, a substantial advantage in his number of guns, and in the number of his men he was also superior, for a large part of Baird's army had been sent with Beresford to Saldanha Bay. But the invaders had the advantage in skill, ardour, and discipline. Baird commanded what were among the best troops in the world at that time, with the prestige of many victories behind them, and Janssens was disheartened by the knowledge that Beresford's army was landing in Saldanha Bay, and that in the long run defeat was inevitable. In his own words "the General was fully convinced in his own mind that victory was impossible, but the honour of the Fatherland required him to fight, whatever the result might be."

General Janssens


If this was the feeling of the commander, the sentiment among the troops was even less inspiriting. A little time before, it had actually been said in the Government Gazette, with more candour than usually appears in such publications, that bets were being freely laid in the castle that the British flag would be hoisted there by the first of January. Moreover, the German mercenaries, who composed a large part of Janssens' forces, were not likely to forget that their predecessors had been taken into the British service on the former occupation, and Janssens could see that they were not very eager to fight in a cause which meant little to them.

Baird advanced skilfully, keeping in touch with the shore and thus with the fleet, and Janssens was forced by these tactics to thin out his line, until on the shore side it was no more than a string of vedettes. On a hill upon his left front he had posted a strong body of mounted burghers, and the battle was opened by the grenadiers of the 24th attacking this position. It was a dashing assault, but the burghers as usual shot well, and an officer and fifteen men were killed or wounded before the hill was taken. In the meantime the British advanced all along their front, sometimes in line and sometimes in file from the heads of companies according to the nature of the ground. The Dutch opened fire with twenty field-pieces, and the action became general. But the British advance was too much for the spirit of the mercenaries, and the Waldeck battalion began to give way in disorder when the British were still a hundred yards distant.

What followed is best described in Janssens' own words. The General threw himself among them, conjuring them by their former renown, the honour of Germany and of Waldeck, their beloved Prince, and whatever more he was able to adduce, to remain firm, and to show that they were soldiers worthy of the name. But neither this nor the request of their officers availed the least. They did not retreat but shamefully fled, and had he, the General, remained a longer time amongst them, they might have dragged him along with them for a while in their flight. He therefore left the cowards and joined the braver French, who were still maintaining their ground. Seeing, to his soul's distress, that the left wing of the 22nd battalion was giving way, he called on them also to stand firm, and they both heard and obeyed him. But the disorder had become too general to enable us to restore the line, and the French, deserted right and left, were finally also compelled to retreat with heavy loss. Colonel Gaudin Bouchier and the officer du Belloy, a nephew of the Archbishop of Paris, held their ground the longest, and the last-named was severely wounded. Riding farther straight along the line, the General found the Grenadiers and Chasseurs also retreating, but not flying. The dragoons had formed together, and upon his order marched oft He sent the Adjutant-General Rancke, and later Colonel Henry, in advance to the Reit Vlei, in order to rally the retreating troops and to form a new position there, whilst, with the officers who were round him, he kept in the rear of the retreating columns." The artillery showed splendid pluck. One of the guns had all its team of six horses shot and some of its artillery-men killed or wounded; but it was spiked before it was abandoned, and the rest of the guns kept up a cool and accurate fire, and only retreated at the urgent and repeated request of the General.

Janssens had done all that a brave man could do. Several of his staff were wounded; one had two horses shot under him, and the General himself was hit in the side, though the ball was stopped by something in his waistcoat pocket. As for the British, they were too exhausted to turn the enemy's retreat into a rout.

Moreover, they had lost considerably. A captain and fourteen rank and file were killed, and three field-officers, one captain, five subalterns, seven sergeants, three drummers, and one hundred and seventy rank and file were wounded. The Dutch lost more heavily, having three hundred and forty-seven men killed and wounded.

The British rested for a while on the field and then proceeded to Reit Vlei. "It is utterly impossible," wrote Baird afterwards, "to convey to your Lordship, the obstacles which opposed this advance, and retarded the success of our army; but it is my duty to inform your Lordship, that the nature of the country—a deep, heavy and arid land, covered with shrubs scarcely pervious to light infantry, and, above all, the total privation of water, under the effects of a burning sun, had nearly exhausted our gallant fellows in the moment of victory, and with the utmost difficulty were we able to reach the Riet Vlei, where we took our position for the night. A considerable portion of the provisions and accessories, with which we started, had been lost during the action, and we occupied our ground under an apprehension that even the great exertion of Sir Home Popham and the navy could not relieve us from starvation."

General Janssens, true to his plan, had retired to the prepared position in the Hottentots' Holland, and General Baird, the next day, marched to Cape Town, which capitulated without much ado.

In spite of Janssens' strong position, the struggle was practically over. The Dutch were short of provisions; a large number of men had deserted, and Janssens knew that a protracted resistance would only mean suffering to the colony. General Baird was making formidable dispositions. Beresford was advancing from Saldanha Bay, and the Highland Brigade and the 59th Regiment were also sent to Stellenbosch, while a force was sent round to Mossel Bay to strike at the Dutch rear.

At the same time Baird did his best to prevent further bloodshed. In an admirable letter to Janssens, he says: "You have discharged your duty to your country as became a brave man at the head of a gallant though feeble army. I know how to respect the high qualities of such a man, and do not doubt that that humanity which ever characterises an intrepid soldier will now operate in your breast to check the fatal consequences of a futile contest." The fine old-world courtesy of the whole correspondence between these two brave soldiers is delightful. In another letter, Baird says, "I hope you will do me the justice to believe that a sense of duty to my country teaches me to respect and admire the operation of that principle in an enlightened enemy, and that whether the sword or the pen terminate the present discussion, we shall respectively support a character founded on that sentiment." And Janssens, in one of his replies, says: "No choice is left us but our honour, and that is of the utmost importance, the misfortunes of our unhappy country we are sensible of in the highest degree. If it was in my power to know and judge what might be the interest of the Republic, which we have the honour to serve, then even all our personal sentiments would be sacrificed to the same . . . . if there are terms that possibly can procure an accommodation, then the same only proceeds from the love and gratitude I owe the Colonists." Again in a letter to Beresford he describes "the idea of coming to an accommodation" as "the highest grief I ever felt." And he ends with words as noble as they are pathetic: "He that is superior in force may excel in granting much without wounding the honour of his arms, he even elevates the same by it. The weaker but not entirely deprived of the means of continuing the war, ought to obtain much, not to be humbled before himself, his country, and even before the enemy, and even then he gives more than he receives, and still it remains a series of sorrows, which cannot be easily effaced from the heart of a brave man." In the event, Janssens was given honourable terms. The army retained all its private property and the officers their swords and horses, and "in consideration of their gallant conduct, the troops will be embarked and sent straight to Holland at the expense of the British Government, and shall not be considered as prisoners of war, they engaging not to serve against His Britannic Majesty or His Allies until they have been landed in Holland."

There is a pleasant story which I am inclined to believe, that when Baird and Baron von Prophalow, the Commandant of Cape Town, were signing the capitulation of the capital in the pretty little thatched cottage at Papendorp, which may still be seen by the curious, the British band outside struck up the National Anthem, and were immediately stopped by Baird out of consideration for the feelings of the other side. Baird and Janssens were both gentlemen, and they acted towards each other after the manner of gentlemen.

And now comes the strange part of the story. Home Popham was a dreamer of dreams, and his dreams, like those of Rhodes, were of the greatness of his country. The French attack under Admiral Villeaumez had been expected, and the two friends prepared a pretty little trap for it. The English ships were to hoist the Dutch flag and to lie on either flank of the batteries, and the batteries were to be provided with heated shot. It was hoped that the French, in ignorance of the change of Government, would anchor in the centre of this pleasant ambush, before they discovered their mistake. However, only one French frigate, La Volontaire, of 46 guns, with 360 men and over 200 English soldiers whom she had captured in the Bay of Biscay, was caught. The main body of the French fleet, hearing the momentous news in good time, changed its course for the West Indies.

There was therefore no danger of an attack, and Home Popham told Baird his plan. This was no less than an attack on Spanish America. He said that the Spanish force at Buenos Ayres was feeble and the inhabitants discontented. From a letter afterwards written by Popham to the Admiralty, we learn something more of his motives. He had already, he said, discussed the matter with Lord Melville and Mr. Pitt, which was evidence enough in Popham's eyes that the British Government favoured the undertaking. "Buenos Ayres," he said, very truthfully, "is the best commercial situation in South America. It is the grand centre and emporium of the trade of all its provinces, and is the channel through which a great proportion of the wealth of the kingdom of Chili and Peru annually passes." He described in glowing terms the richness of Monte Video, the navigable rivers, the resources of the country, and the magnificent trade which it would open to the merchants of London. He added that General Miranda, who was then in London, would be a magnificent ally in the cause of emancipation in South America. Strange that Dossonville, that marvellous French spy and adventurer, should have entertained the same idea and actually opened the project to the English Government. It may indeed have been the warning he subsequently gave to Spain that helped to wreck Popham's empire.

Baird was a cautious man, and we need not wonder that he was doubtful in his attitude. But Popham had an ardent mind and a ready tongue. They were old comrades in arms, who had helped each other out of many a tight place in Egypt and the Red Sea. Popham, as a matter of fact, had no orders of any sort on the subject from his superiors; but he persuaded Sir David that the enterprise was founded on an understanding with the British Ministry, whose sentiments he knew would be favourable to the undertaking. He declared that if Sir David failed him he would start all the same and take the Rio de Plata with his sailors. All he wanted was a regiment, a small detachment of artillery, and a few light guns. Beresford, too, who was fired by the idea, and wanted to go with Popham, used all the forces of persuasion upon the commander, and at last Baird gave his consent. Ninety years after, perhaps on the self-same spot, another Scotchman and another Englishman arranged another Raid, with at least equally disastrous results.

To give an account of this expedition would take me too far from South Africa. Sufficient to say that Popham sailed with Baird's reluctant consent; that he prevailed on the Governor of St. Helena to give him some more troops; that they took Buenos Ayres, after driving two thousand of the enemy out of a strong position; and that they occupied a city of sixty thousand people, with a force which never exceeded sixteen hundred men. While, however, Popham was beseeching assistance in vain from England, opening a free trade and administering a new empire, a conspiracy was hatched, the little British force was attacked by overwhelming numbers in the great square of the city, and after they had lost one hundred and sixty-five in killed and wounded, were compelled to lay down their arms. The Whig Government, which was ready enough to profit by Popham's enterprise, turned upon him the moment it heard of his defeat. He was superseded and was refused even a ship in which to return to England. Sir Home expressed his disgust in a letter to his friend, Sir David. "If," he says, "an energy had existed in the Government, if Miranda had been supported, and they had sent us out some reinforcements three days after the receipt of our letter, we should have had all South America now."

But long before the receipt of this letter, Sir David had shared the disgrace of his friend, and had been recalled for his share in the expedition. The Whigs, who were in office at the time, had received the news of the General's triumph at the Cape with a most disheartening coldness, and they eagerly seized on the excuse of insubordination to recall the soldier and put Lord Caledon in his place.

It must have been a bitter blow to Baird, for he had thrown himself into the work of government with all the zeal of his nature, though no doubt it was some comfort to him that Dutch and English colonists united in wishing him well and in regretting his departure. He was forced to embark in a common transport, a calculated insult; but when he arrived in England, he found that his enemies, the Ministry of "All the Talents," had fallen. To Lord Castlereagh, the new Minister for War, he addressed an indignant letter. After he had described the origin of the expedition and protested that he had only given Popham the troops after Sir Home had convinced him "of the strong probability, or rather entire certainty, of its success," he went on: For this act, my Lord, which at most can be considered an error in judgment, I have not only been dismissed from the charge of a Colony, the conquest of which was achieved by an army under my personal command, but dismissed in a way that has mortified my feelings in the keenest manner, and must have disgraced me in the eyes of the Army and of the nation at large, by apparently imputing to me a degree of criminality of conduct of which I am proudly unconscious."

Before the fall of the Whigs, Popham had been tried by court-martial and reprimanded; but, as he said to Sir David, "these broils and ill-usages sit lighter upon me than upon any one else as I am more used to them."

Poor Sir David! The blow must have bit more deeply in his case, for he had not his friend's mercurial temperament. Besides, he had lost more, for he had fallen in love with the Cape, and years afterwards, when his wounds disabled him from more active service, he petitioned, though in vain, to be allowed to return there.

Such is the story of the first taking of the Cape, and so soon do we see the ingratitude of the Home Government to its servants, which has ever since been one of the curses of British rule in South Africa. Sir David Baird had won the Cape gallantly and ruled it wisely; but for this he received neither recognition nor reward. On the contrary, he was recalled in disgrace. His ashes may rest the more peacefully, since he was only the first thus treated in a line of illustrious public servants.