On top of Blaauwberg Hill last Saturday morning, aside from the shouts of fellow hikers and horsemen gathered to mark the anniversary of a battle that changed the course of South African history, there was silence, peace and a stunning view – a far cry from what those at that vantage point would have seen almost 211 years ago to the day on January 8 1806.
It was a day when more than 5000 British troops clashed with 2000 Batavian troops in a small but key battle in the Napoleonic Wars that placed control of the strategic Cape of Good Hope firmly in British hands.
As temperatures neared 30ºC, it was possible to commiserate with what the troops had to endure more than two centuries ago as they marched to meet their fate: crippling heat, soft sand tugging at their legs, and shoulder-high fynbos snaring their uniforms.
There are several accounts describing the moment when the British in their thousands faced the Batavians, and all of them paint a bloody picture.
Writing in the Cape Argus in 2006 to mark the battle’s bicentenary, Willem Steenkamp, author and military historian, noted that the battle lasted two hours and cost the lives of more than 500 men.
Steenkamp writes: “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 cannon balls 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.”
Tour guide Dave Honour paints a colourful picture of the battle. An expert on the KwaZulu-Natal battle sites and now living in Flamingo Vlei, he describes how it must have looked as the battalions faced each other.
Most of us were wearing shorts and vests with sun hats and comfortable walking shoes. Picture for a moment just one of the contingents that was preparing for battle: The Highland Brigade garbed in knee-length tartan kilts fixing bayonets onto their flintlock guns and charging, bagpipes in full throat, over the field of battle.
Mr Honour says, “The rest of the troops were dressed in tight trousers and tunics over which were slung their muskets each weighing about 5kg, a round of ammunition, and each also holding a knapsack with their personal possessions.”
Shortly after the battle, Thomas Lucas, a member of the Highland Brigade’s 71st Regiment, wrote a letter to his friend back home in which he recounts: “My post was on the right of the 72nd Grenadiers – I never recollect a more glorious sight than when the Bag Pipes played ‘Cap-a-fee’ to the charge.”
Mr Honour said, “For many, the battle was relegated to a mere paragraph in history books, but it had ramifications for the region during the 19th and earlier part of the 20th centuries, as it established British rule in South Africa.
“After the battle, General Janssens retreated to the Hottentots Holland Mountains, from where he hoped to continue a guerrilla war on the British in the hope that French and Dutch ships were to relieve him later.
“Unfortunately, his army was greatly reduced by the time he reached the mountains, and he eventually surrendered to the British, ending the war.
“Sir David Baird remained in Cape Town after the battle as the first British Governor General, as did the 93rd Highland Regiment (they for eight years) and influenced the transformation to British colonial rule. Although the battle was not a major conflict in terms of other Napoleonic battles its outcome was to be a major turning point for South African history and changed the country.”
At the walk up Blaauwberg Hill, more than 80 people wound their way up the hill as Mr Honour created a feel of what it must have been like and followed the route the Highland Brigade regiments had taken.
There were young and old, and, at midday, they were joined by The SA Cannon Society for a firing of a remembrance gun with a guard of honour formed by the MOTHs (Memorable Order of the Tin Hats).
This was followed by a moving account of the scene of the battlefield as witnessed by the then Reverend Martyn related by archaeologist pastor Marius Breytenbach who then led a minute’s silence and eulogy for the fallen. The MOTHs then held a prayer of remembrance before the day was concluded.
The walk was organised for the second year running by the Friends of Blaauwberg Conservation Area (FoBCA).
The FoBCA has already scheduled next year’s walk and commemoration for January 6. For more information on the Friends email firstname.lastname@example.org