Where to go and what to see when you're in the Cape

17
Oct 11

 

The sea route past the Cape of Good Hope was of vital importance to the Dutch East India Company or VOC ( Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie) as they traded goods back and forth from the Netherlands to the East Indies. In order to re-supply their ships with fresh vegetables and other necessary items at the mid-point between the two ports of call, Jan van Riebeeck set up a small market garden below Table Mountain in 1652. This market garden eventually became a settler community and later the city of Cape Town.

As the farms grew and spread around the settlement, land became a high priority and when a fertile wooded bay around the corner from Cape Town was discovered, it became highly valued as farming land to supply the growing demands of the colony for food and, of course, wood.

This wooded bay became known as Houtbaai (from the Dutch t'Houtbaaitjen - or small wooded bay) or, in English, Hout Bay. No one thought that Hout Bay had much strategic importance until 1775 when this suddenly became an issue of high priority. The spark that fuelled this fire was the American War of Independence. During this internal conflict, the French aligned themselves with the Americans and by implication became enemies of the British. The Dutch, of course, were allied to the French and it suddenly became vitally important to protect the Dutch colony in the Cape - and the sea route to India - from possible British invasion.

Hout Bay was seen as a soft target, with its wide beach that would be an easy landing for a regiment of soldiers to make a quick march over the Nek to Cape Town, which could then be taken from above. A French regiment of mercenary soldiers was quickly raised in Pondicherry, India, which was a French enclave South of Madras and sent to South Africa to help build fortifications in Hout Bay.

In 1783 the West Fort Battery was constructed with eight 24-pounder Dutch guns and soon after the East Fort Battery was finished with eight 18-pounder guns. The iron guns were cast in Sweden to the specifications of the Dutch military engineers. The guns were called finbankers.

Despite the best efforts of the Dutch and the French, the British did assume control of the Cape colony in 1795, following the minor Battle of Muizenberg. However, the gunners of the East and West Battery excelled themselves in a short battle on 15 September 1795.

History records the events this way:

Around noon, the 16-gun British Ship Sloop HMS Echo, which was part of a small flotilla en route from Simonstown to Table Bay under the command of Captain Todd, entered the bay on a reconnaissance mission. The task was to establish whether or not the Bay was fortified and at the same time let the Dutch know that a British naval task force was active on the Atlantic seaboard.

The Echo drew fire from both the East and West batteries and quickly took flight without loss, but she also took with her reliable intelligence about the gun batteries for the British fleet. Admiral Elphinstone's feeling that Hout Bay could be the "soft underbelly" of Cape Town was proved wrong and the Hout Bay Gunners' stand was probably the last act of defiance by the Dutch prior to the first British occupation.

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