The St James Cannonball

In 2014 Derek Stuart-Findlay of the Kalk Bay Historical Society gave a cannonball to the Muizenberg Historical Conservation Society, knowing that the Battle of Muizenberg is a special focus of ours. The ball was dug up by Naseegh Jaffer in his garden in Ley Road, St James, and it tells a story.

HMS America is the big ship flying the red and white flag.
Because we have excellent detail on the actions and participants of the Battle of Muizenberg, we can work out a great deal of information on the cannonball. It was found between Ley Road in St James and Boyes Drive, high above sea level.
An enduring belief amongst non-gunners is that when you apply the burning fuze to the touch-hole of a cannon, it goes off. This is not always true. Sometimes the powder in the touch-hole fizzes and splutters before the flame reaches the charge, and only then does the gun go BANG. On a sailing ship this is a problem because you cannot aim a ship’s gun, you have to wait until the roll of the ship brings your gun on target, so effectively you aim the ship, not the gun. If you apply your fuze at the exact right moment and are rewarded with fizzing and spluttering, followed later by the bang, this is called a misfire. The ball could go anywhere except the target.

The St James cannonball is a 24-pound cast-iron ball, cannons being classed by the weight of the shot they threw. The only time cannonballs have ever been fired on this coast was during the Battle of Muizenberg, 8 August 1795. Four ships of the Royal Navy took part in the Battle of Muizenberg on that date. The ships were HMS America (3rd rate, 64 guns), HMS Stately (3rd rate, 64), HMS Echo (sloop, 16) and HMS Rattlesnake (sloop, 16). The sloops were small and light, and only carried smaller 18-pounder guns. His Majesty’s Ships America and Stately, the 64’s, carried 24-pound guns as well as 18 pounders, so the ball could only have come from one of the 64’s.
We have it on record from the log of HMS America that she fired at the VOC picquet at Kalk Bay. The entry reads “at half past 11 weighed anchor… sail in company with Stately Echo and Rattlesnake and 3 gunboats 10 minutes past 12 fired at a three gun battery which the Enemy quitted”. (It must be noted here that the Enemy that quitted did not run the 2 km to join their colleagues at Muizenberg, but chose to leg it about 15 km, all the way across the sandy Fish Hoek Valley and around the back of Chapman’s Peak to join up with the men at the East Fort in Hout Bay, a journey of many hours. It had the attraction of not being the site of an impending battle.)
Twenty minutes after thumping Kalk Bay, the four British ships formed a semi-circle close to Surfers Corner and each dropped two anchors, fore and aft, to stop the ships from drifting around. They were now directly in front of the main Dutch force which was where Casa Labia is now, and opened fire on the defenders with all the guns they could bring to bear. It was a lot. 2 x 64 = 128, plus 2 x 16 = 32, a total of 160 guns of which a handful pointed ahead or astern of each vessel. So say 150 in total, or 75 to each side. The ships all fired from the port or left-hand side for this action.
The 64-gun ships had two gun decks; for stability the lower main gun deck carried the heavy 24s, and the upper gun deck carried the lighter 18-pounders. The weather deck was kept clear of guns because all the deck space was needed to work the ship. Of the two 64-gun ships that carried 24-pounders, only HMS America was facing the St James area during the skirmish. We know that from the Federici painting done shortly after the battle, which depicts HMS America clearly flying a red and white signal flag.

Of special interest is that the ball was found where it was, above Ley Road in St James, not far below Boyes Drive. The cannon fire was directed at the ground around Bailey’s Cottage and Casa Labia, so the ball was way off target and much too high. This neatly illustrates the problem that misfires meant the cannon only went off some seconds late, when the ship had rolled on the swell, and the gun was no longer pointing at the target but up in the sky.
Thus we can confidently conclude that the cannonball was fired from the lower gun deck, port side of HMS America, between the hours of 12.30 pm and 4.00 pm, and that it was a misfire. About the only detail we do not have is the name of the gun-captain.
And I also like the fact that for 210 years this little bit of unimportant history has lain unknown and buried in the sand, but today illustrates an interesting bit of long-ago military life.

The painting of the Battle of Muizenberg now hangs in Parliament. Apart from being a skilled artist, Johann Federici was also present on the Dutch side at the Battle of Muizenberg, so he qualifies as a direct observer and a war artist. His painting can be considered broadly accurate. Other paintings of the occasion were the result of the artist being told the story by someone who might or might not have been there, so those pictures were based on a second or third hand imagination and bear little resemblance to reality.
The cannonball is available to be seen in Het Posthuys, and strong visitors may pick it up, a privilege not allowed by other museums. Which is strange because I don’t know how anyone could break a cast-iron cannonball.

References: The First British Occupation of the Cape, TD Potgieter , Castle Military Museum 199