The Battle of Muizenberg 1795

A minor skirmish that changed world history right here on our doorstep. The reason we speak English today and not French. Bravery of the Pandouren.

By Chris Taylor

Muizenberg Historical Conservation Society

So now we come to the Big One, the meat and potatoes, the main course. Muizenberg’s claim to fame, and big it is. To summarize for those of us with short attention spans, this minor military skirmish changed everything for South Africa. It changed our language, our laws, our people, our businesses, pretty much everything, and those changes from 200 years ago are still embedded in our society. To those of you who say history is immaterial, I say read on. History is ever with us.

By my reckoning there have been six nation-changing events in South African history, events that totally changed the course of the lives of all South Africans from that event forward. This was the second of the six and it took place right here in little Muizenberg. Allow me to present my case:

  1. 1652, the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck and the first permanent European settlement
  2. 1795 & 1806, the British occupation of the Cape (two parts of the same event)
  3. 1830, the Great Trek by the Cape Afrikaners to escape British rule
  4. 1910, the Union of South Africa. No longer a colony. Home Rule
  5. 1961, the Republic of South Africa. Fully independent from the British Empire.
  6. 1994, majority rule.

Regarding item 2, there are two main strands here, and I shall attempt to weave them together to make one story. The first strand concerns the (British) East India Company, a trading enterprise that brought spices and exotic goods from the Far East for resale in Britain at ridiculously high prices, and made vast profits doing so. The second strand involves the French Revolution. How these two strands came together is the core of the story.

The Commercial Background

The Spice Islands

The exploitation of the East Indies was a great adventure and industry over centuries. The goods sought by European traders were spices and tea, silk, ivory, porcelain. In return the traders offered guns and gold.

The trading grounds covered all coastal areas from (using modern names) Sri Lanka and the East and West Coasts of India, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Borneo, Vietnam and China. Later traders would go into Pakistan and Afghanistan. The area was hot, exotic, dangerous, exciting and highly profitable, the stuff of romance!

Gold in particular was welcomed by the East to the extent that gold supplies in Europe became hard to find. The trade made many Europeans stupendously rich. The exploited peoples, unsurprisingly, were not so lucky. Begun by the Portuguese, extended by the Spanish, carved out by the Dutch, then the late-comer English and of course the French, followed by the Danes, the Austrians  and the Swedes; the Far East trade was a feeding frenzy. This time in history was one of great action and treachery, of death and glory, and entire books have been written without depleting the subject. I do not propose to compete. I will however point out that no ship could get to the Far East without going around the Cape.

The East India Trading Companies

The VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagne)

The name translates as United East India Company. It was formed in 1602 at the insistence of the Dutch government, which was seriously cross with the constant squabbling of the numerous little independent trading companies that existed at the time. The company had a Dutch Royal monopoly over trade to the Far East, and profited mightily. Their growth was explosive, the range of their operations astonishing. The VOC was the biggest corporation in the world until General Motors in the 20th Century. The firm declared bankruptcy in 1799, almost two hundred years after being founded.

The Honourable East India Company

The HEIC or simply EIC was granted a Royal Charter by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600, giving it a monopoly of trade between England and the Far East, in direct competition with the VOC which had its own Dutch monopoly. The focus of the East India Company later shifted to the Indian sub-continent and the North-West Frontier (i.e. the now Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the source of the opium which the British so shamelessly sold to the Chinese, the cause of the Opium War). The company was mostly nationalized by the British government in 1858 and was wound up in 1874.

Lesser East Indian Companies

The Swedes, Austrians, Danish and French all had their own East Indies trading companies, such were the profits to be made. I know nothing of their stories, except for this one. In 1745 the Swedish East Indiaman Gotheborg arrived home after a two-year journey to the Far East and back. She had been outfitted for the voyage at great expense by private investors in a game of high risk and high reward. She was laden with valuable spices and other cargo, and as dawn broke the excited investors gathered at the harbour to watch their untold riches come alongside. 900 metres from her berth she struck a rock and sank. The investors were devastated, their dreams lay in ruins. Some of the cargo was salvaged but the textiles and spices were all spoiled. Such is adventuring.

There were frequent clashes between the VOC and the EIC, one of the reasons the EIC subsequently focussed on India. Relations were bad – the two companies would burn each other’s warehouses, sink each other’s ships, interfere with each other’s trade. Not for nothing did the ships carry guns, and they were not only for defence against pirates. Eventually the British and Dutch governments forced a meeting in London between the two warring sides, reasoning sensibly that there was plenty of trade for everyone. The VOC and EIC undertook to desist from attacking each other and to share facilities, and that early agreement underpinned the use of Cape Town by the ships of the East India Company.

Getting to the Spice Islands

The East India Company traded from London to the Far East, and like everybody else had to go around the Cape of Good Hope. Imagine you were the captain of an English merchantman, an East Indiaman, on your way out to trade. Just getting to the Cape required a journey of at least three months, possibly six months. To reach the Cape from Europe (and the ships of all nationalities essentially had to follow the same route) you caught the clockwise Gulf Stream south of the English Channel. This carried you, with a following wind, across the mid-Atlantic towards the coast of Brazil. Here you changed currents and picked up the anti-clockwise South Atlantic Stream, which carried you south along the South American coast then across the southern ocean to the Cape. Fighting against strong sea currents was a complete waste of time. Between three and six months have now passed. Your ship has been buffeted by huge seas and strong winds. Sails have split, ropes have parted, some of your masts and spars might be cracked and the constant twisting has caused the hull to leak. Men are pumping out sea-water by hand every day, sometimes all day. It is exhausting work. To make matters worse your fresh water has run desperately low and you and your men have been reduced to eating salt beef and weevil biscuit for months. Scurvy has gained a grip. As you near Southern Africa you consider your options. Saldanha Bay? Safe but little fresh water and no wood or supplies. North of that? Nothing for thousands of kilometres until you reach Luanda. Too far. What about on the other side of Cape Town? The first harbour is Lourenco Marques in Moçambique more thousands of kilometres away, and that is a pestilential hellhole where men die swiftly from malaria, yellow fever, sleeping sickness and a host of other foul tropical diseases. Keep away. The French had their own possessions of Madagascar and Reunion, but for everyone else it was Cape Town or nowhere. Trying to sail in one voyage from Europe to the Far East without stopping was a Herculean task that few tried and fewer managed. Apart from the state of the ship there were sick and injured seamen to land, dead men to replace, water and victuals to take on board. Scurvy and ship-board disease took an extraordinary toll of sailor’s lives. This was the practical situation which faced the British and their great East India Company.

Without a safe haven the voyage is doomed. The captain’s only hope is Cape Town; well equipped with capable craftsmen, hospitals, fresh food, clean water and a healthy climate. But if Cape Town is closed, is out of bounds, off limits? Then what? Then the whole enterprise comes crashing down, that’s what happens, not just for this ship and this voyage but the whole enormous empire of trade and land in the East.

And that’s just the background!