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History of the Battle of Blaauwberg

 – The Battle of Blaauwberg
8 January 1806*

Willem Steenkamp

* Shortened version of an article which was first published in the Cape Argus.

Supported by a huge armada of warships and transports, a British invasion force which had landed at Losperd’s Bay (today’s Melkbosch) defeated a small multi-racial force led by Lt-Gen Jan Willem Janssens of the Batavian Republic, bringing to an end three years of liberal democratic rule at the Cape and setting the scene for the subsequent colonisation of southern and central Africa.
The battle began soon after first light on the morning of 8 January 1806, when the once-peaceful plain behind the Blaauwberg, literally ‘Blue Mountain’, just 20km from Cape Town, erupted in an orgy of controlled violence on a scale never before seen at the toe of Africa. Artillery pieces boomed and spat lethal iron cannonballs back and forth, muskets rattled off individual shots or roared in volleys. Wounded men and horses screamed as they wallowed in their own blood, officers and sergeants shouted orders in voices hoarse with thirst, torrents of sweat turning their powder-stained faces into devils’ masks. Drums rattled, Highland bagpipes screeched eerily, overlaying frenzied battle cries in Dutch, English, French, Gaelic, German, Hungarian and the local dialect that would later be called Afrikaans. Everywhere lay the dead, some in the red coats of Imperial Britain, others in the dark blue or green of the Batavian Republic.
Two hours later it was over. General Janssens had withdrawn and Lieutenant-General Sir William Baird of His Britannic Majesty’s Army was the master of the battlefield and its gory fruit. It was still to be another ten days before a formal capitulation was signed, but for all practical purposes the Cape of Good Hope was now a British colony.
The Battle of Blaauwberg was insignificant when measured against the scale of other battles of the Napoleonic period. It involved a total of no more than about 6000 men and, at its end, the combined dead, wounded and missing amounted to just over 500 – a mere bagatelle compared to epic battles of the period, such as Austerlitz and Waterloo. Yet that brief clash of arms had enormous consequences, not just for the Cape but for all of southern and central Africa, because it drastically and permanently altered the regional architecture of power and set in motion a long train of interconnected events that is still unfolding today, 200 years later.
Blaauwberg is now little more than a footnote in our history-books, in spite of its historical significance and ‘cast of characters’ who fought on both sides: Dutch, English, Scottish, French, German, Hungarian and Austrian; and, most important of all, the small but valiant multi-racial corps of Cape-born men – white dragoons and commando burghers, coloured light infantrymen and Malay gunners – who stood their ground after many of the Batavian troops had fled, and delayed the British advance long enough to let the Batavian army withdraw in good order.
The Battle of Blaauwberg took place because in 1806 the Cape was a football being kicked around in the greater game of the Napoleonic Wars, just as it was later to be a pawn in the Cold War, and control of the Indian Ocean was strategically vital for both the British and French. The Dutch East India Company had established the Cape outpost, but control of the Indian Ocean was strategically vital for both the British and French, and the Cape’s fate was decided in 1803, when it was handed over to the revolutionary Batavian Republic which had taken power in The Netherlands and expelled the Prince of Orange.

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Date: 29 September 2018


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