Preserving the history of SA cannons

ATHINA MAY

Spectators at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town stand huddled close together, leaning slightly backwards with their hands covering their ears, as Richwood resident Gerry de Vries lowers a lit linstock towards the noon gun, which sounds the hour.

The gunpowder filled cannon, although only 1.5 metres in length, makes an explosive noise and fills the air with smoke.

Mr De Vries fires the gun at 10am, 11am and noon from Monday to Saturday.

“The military tattoo asked me to fire a seven pounder in here before and six windows broke. Three days later we were still fixing up windows,” laughs Mr De Vries.

Mr De Vries, 69, joined the navy at age 18 and served there for 34 years as an apprentice, technician, and eventually serving as the Officer Commanding (OC) of the SAS Wingfield, which is a South African Navy training base.

During his days as the OC, the firing of the gun fell under Mr De Vries’s command in 1989, and that is how his interest in cannons grew into a passion which led him to starting the Cannon Association of South Africa (CAOSA).

The association has 88 active members, based all over South Africa, who are dedicated to uncovering cannons which have been left in ditches or forgotten. They capture the cannon’s information and history on a data list so that it is not forgotten again.

“If you go into the library, there is nothing about cannons and their history. When I was in command of the noon gun, no one could tell me anything about it. We were fortunate that a curator from the Tower of London came to speak to us about the noon gun, and he saw my interest, and sent down a few books for me to read.

“I started to research cannons in 1995. Now, 1028 cannons later, here we are,” said Mr De Vries, referring to how many cannons the association has managed to capture on its records.

Mr De Vries said none of the cannons belong to the association, because once they’re discovered, they’re returned to their place of origin.

“We are trying to find them all. We photograph and identify the cannons, and keep a record of the ones we have located and their location. I don’t move cannons from their historical sites, I do the opposite and take them back to their historical sites. The cannons we find in a ditch or wherever, we record them and put them back where they belong,” said Mr De Vries.

Mr De Vries relayed one of the incidents in which he was alerted to a cannon in early 1996 on the Oak Valley farm in the Grabouw.

“After several telephone calls I contacted Ms Oakaline Hewett who invited me to come and see two cannons. Ms Hewett was 94 years old when I met her, but she had bright eyes and a sharp mind.

“She told me that her father, Dr Anthony Viljoen, had bought the farm Broadlands as it was known then, in 1898 and that he had bought the two cannons in question soon after the purchase of the farm. The cannons came off a shipwreck, and have no historical significance in South Africa. They were never used on the farm.” said Mr De Vries.

Although those cannons had no historical significance in South Africa, Mr De Vries was enthralled by the story he was told by Ms Hewett about the history of another two cannons, which were possibly linked to the Battle of Blaauwberg. However, there is no historical evidence to prove that the cannons were indeed tied to the battle.

“Ms Hewett could remember her child minder telling her family about the time that he was at the Battle of Blaauwberg at the age of six with his father who was a horse-holder. He told of passing through the hills near the battle site with horses, some carrying one or two cannons on their backs.

“They eventually made camp near Somerset West and waited for instructions from the Castle.

“After a period of days they heard that the Castle had surrendered, but one of the senior officers in their group wanted to deny the English the satisfaction of capturing their cannons so he ordered that the guns be taken over the Gantouw Pass for safe keeping,” said Mr De Vries who wished more could be done to preserve historical cannons.

Mr De Vries said many cannons are used for scrap metal and jokingly said that they unfortunately return in the next life as Toyotas and Hondas.

The association is therefore trying to save as many cannons from being scrapped as they can.

Pointing to cannons at the Castle in Cape Town, Mr De Vries said: “I can identify a cannon just by looking at it. If you see that one there on the left is a Swedish gun, an eight pounder, and on the right is a Portuguese gun, a Culverin dated 1638. The one on the left is more powerful because in 1638 (when the Portuguese gun was made) gun powder was still weak. Serpentine gun powder was used and not corning gun powder which was used in the 18th century.”

Mr De Vries said the history of a cannon could be traced using the inscriptions on it.

The indentations were made to explain to its users the weight of the gun, the date and manufacturer.

“Every country had its own set of weights and measures which were put on the cannon and knowledge of these weights and their placing on the gun is essential to its identification. We have to learn and study all of these things.

“We found a brass gun cast in Holland with Dutch, Portuguese and French markings on it. You can trace the history of the gun via the weight markings. We discovered that the cannon was aboard a Portuguese ship which was captured by pirates who put the French weights markings on it. The ship then sank in Mauritius and was salvaged there,” said Mr De Vries.

* CAOSA is planning to host a talk about the meaning of cannons at Bloemendal restaurant, Durbanville. Call Mr De Vries on 082 416 9547 for details.