Monday, 20 May 2013

Battlefields: Blaauwberg, 1806

Not more than 25 kilometers from central Cape Town is a battle site that has been so successfully forgotten and obscured, that few local residents (even those living on its fringes) know anything about it, despite it counting as one of the most significant and interesting battles in our nation's history: Blaauwberg, January 8, 1806.

In an attempt to invade and wrest control the Cape of Good Hope - then a strategic port on the lucrative trade route to India - from the French-allied Batavian Republic, British warships landed of force of 3000 regulars - including an elite Highlander Brigade - under the command of veteran Lt General Sir David Baird. They faced a mixed force of locally-raised militia dragoons, jaegers and artillery, Batavian and Waldeck regulars and French sailors led by the Governor of the Cape, Lt General Janssens.

Taking advantage of the difficulties of defending the long coastline, the British landed almost unopposed, but were then met on the slopes below Blaauwberg hill by the more mobile Batavian "reaction force".

Janssens, outnumbered and commanding a mostly untested force, realised he would be very unlikely to defeat the British, but planned to inflict a blow on the invaders before retiring his force into the Hottentots Holland mountains, where he hoped to conduct a "guerilla-style" campaign against the British on ground suited to his mixed force, while waiting for French reinforcements.

However, his plans were dashed when the centre of his line - comprised of his trusted Waldeck regulars - buckled in the face of a charge by the Highland Brigade, and on the day a comprehensive victory was claimed by the British.

Compared to the grand battles happening in Europe at the time, it was not much of a set piece - no more than 5000 troops took the field, and casualties - missing, dead and wounded -  amounted to at most 600 (exact casualty figures are unknown and disputed). Excluding skirmishes occurring on the days before and after that battle, it was over in a matter of hours.

So why is it significant?

First, (and I have to thank local author and historian Willem Steenkamp for this perspective) it represents a turning point in the history of the region, as it marks the start of a period of aggressive British colonialism in South Africa, fundamentally changing the course of our history.

And, (again, owing this insight to Steenkamp) it involved prototypes of the definitive soldier  of South African history - the mounted rifleman.

And why is it interesting, and especially interesting to wargamers?

First, it is the only Napoleonic battle in the region, and the only battle in our country's history where both sides used the European-style military tactics of the time in a symmetrical battle.

Second, it involved a range of units unique to the Cape, all with distinct uniforms - the Javanese Foot Artillery Corps (which despite their name were locally raised), the Burgher militia, the Hottentot Light Infantry, and the Kaapse Jaegers.

Third, the battle is so little known, and so little celebrated or commemorated, that its almost as if it was been deliberately erased from memory. No monuments mark the site of battle. Not a single grave is marked or recorded. Despite attempts in the 1950s (when the site was more open and less covered in vegetation) to find grave sites, none were found. Even the casualty records are incomplete - and even by the standards of the day remarkably sketchy. The exact position of the battle lines is still a mystery,  as we are reliant on rough contemporary sketch maps for our understanding of the encounter.

However, three locally-published histories of the battle are currently in print: Steenkamp's "Assegais, Drums & Dragoons" - Anderson's "Blue Berg", and Krynauw's "Beslissing by Blouberg". For more information see the reference gallery I have started.

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Conservation efforts

The Blaauwberg battle site has been threatened by the northward urban sprawl of the metropole's western seaboard suburbs. Thankfully, recently, the majority of the site has been incorporated into a reserve, the Blaauwberg Conservation Area. The BCA is focused on preserving both the natural heritage (the reserve includes almost-extinct Strandveld, West Coast Renosterveld and Sand Plain Fynbos) and the cultural heritage (as well as the battle site, pre-colonial Kwenna/Khoi middens and burial sites occur within the reserve).

However, there is currently no public access to the battle site, except in the form of overnight accommodation available in an old military installation near the top of Blaauwberg Hill which overlooks the site.

Recently, I was privileged to meet Roy Fuller-Gee of the Friends of the BCA, who is hopeful of the role local wargamers can play in re-introducing the battle to the general public. Roy has kindly offered to take members our wargaming club on a tour of the site. Publicity aside, he also sees a role for wargamers to help model the battle and gain insight into the potential locations of battle lines, which in turn might guide archeological teams who are beginning the huge task of surveying the site.  Its not often wargamers get asked to "give back" to community projects, and this is one that is so close to our interests and so close to our homes.

A website centred around the 200-year anniversary of the battle is to be found here and some images of the small re-enactment can be found here.  A short article by Willem Steenkamp in the South African Military History Journal is here. For what its worth, the Wiki article on Blaauwberg is here .

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