South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 8 November 2012 was Major Willem Steenkamp whose topic was a military and social history of the Cape from 1510 to 1806. This period of the Cape's military history is the subject of Major Steenkamp's recently published book, Assegais, Drums and Dragoons: A Military and Social History of the Cape.(1)

Maj Steenkamp briefly discussed the first recorded battle on South African soil, which took place in 1510 on a beach thought to be the Woodstock Beach now forming part of the Cape Town Docks. This was fought between Portuguese sailors and soldiers - belonging to a Portuguese fleet transporting the retired Portuguese Envoy to the Indies, Antonio d'Almeida, back to Portugal - and local Khoina inhabitants.

The Portuguese decided to slaughter cattle seized from the locals without paying for these. The locals objected and armed themselves but the Portuguese, wearing armour and equipped with firearms and crossbows, thought that they could easily repel the "savages" and carried on loading the meat of the newly slaughtered cattle into their boats. The locals stampeded a herd of trained fighting cattle in the direction of the Portuguese which broke up their defensive formation. In the confusion, the Khoina attacked, drove the Portuguese back to the beach and inflicted heavy casualties on the invaders. D'Almeida was one of those killed.

As a result of this skirmish Portuguese ships were forbidden to land anywhere along the lower parts of Africa's east or west coasts. The result of this was that the first European settlement at the Cape was a Dutch one, some 140 years later.

Our speaker touched briefly on military developments in the period 1652 to 1795.
Jan van Riebeeck made an important contribution to the defence of the Cape. He realized that fast-moving mounted musketeers were needed to protect the settlement against the fleet-footed Khoina warriors. He resolved this problem by obtaining more horses, establishing a breeding herd and increased his firepower by obtaining more snaphaan<2> muskets to replace the obsolete arquebuses.(3) The concept of the South African mounted infantryman had been born and was here to stay.

The Dutch East India Company (VOC) had a small garrison consisting of mercenaries used to man the coastal defences and batteries developed round the Cape Peninsula. A system of part-time militia was developed. This took the form of infantry but, with the expansion of the colony, the troops became mounted infantry to provide more mobility. These forces were controlled by the local Landdrosts (magistrates) and were the precursors of the Commandos. In fact, they were dragoons in the European context - light cavalrymen or mounted infantry, using horses for mobility and fighting on foot.

Our speaker noted that he was a descendant of Ritmeester Jan Zacharias Moolman, one of the Swellendam burgher dragoons who held the Batavian left flank on Kleinberg in 1806.(4) He reportedly left the Blaauwberg battlefield with an extra horse after shooting its owner, Capt Andrew Foster, out of his saddle. This strong family link made his research into the topic of his book particularly appealing to him.

The main part of our speaker's talk concentrated on the battle of Blaawberg in 1806, one of the most important battles in South African military history. He examined the composition of the small multi-racial force of Cape-born soldiers - white, coloured and Malay - which fought so well in this battle. The units were the Hottentot Light Infantry, the Javanese Artillery Corps and various burgher dragoon companies.

There were also foreigners in Gen Janssen's Batavian force - a contingent of 500 French sailors from the Atalante and three fusilier companies from the Waldeck Regiment, as well as a small number of Batavian Infantry, namely Artillerymen and Dragoons.

A number of very able officers served under Gen Janssens. Capt Madlener commanded the Javanese Artillery Corps and Capt Frans le Seuer was an able infantry commander in the 22nd Batavian Regiment. Janssens' ADC, Ritmeester Verkouteren, was the commander of the regular dragoons.

Our speaker pointed out that previous historians had examined only the military operations which resulted in the second British occupation of the Cape in 1806 and overlooked the social history and events that preceded it. He explained that the Khoi and San people were normally peace-loving people unless provoked.

Tragically, in 1713, a vlaggeman or lookout on Lions Head was either too drunk or otherwise incapacitated to hoist the flags indicating the nationality of the small return fleet which had arrived in Table Bay or to fire the gun indicating the number of ships. Had he done so, a boat would have been sent out with a surgeon to either give the ships a clean bill of health or, if any sign of contagious diseases were detected, to quarantine them, thus not allowing any sailors or passengers to land. Instead a quantity of linen infected with smallpox was sent ashore to be washed. While the Cape outpost survived the epidemic which followed, smallpox killed the majority of the Khoi and San and destroyed the remnants of their social structure.(5)

Our speaker then discussed the policies of the Dutch East India Company and the Batavian Republic. Up to 1795, the population was divided partly by class and social status and partly by race and culture. There was a certain degree of commonality as regards language, social usages and (except for the Malays) religion.

The conduct of the Pandooren at Muizenberg and Sandvlei during the first British occupation confirms their sense of identity and a common loyalty to the cause.

The restoration of the Cape to the Batavian Republic in 1803 resulted in the Cape being governed for, and to some extent by, its new citizens rather than by simply being managed as a virtual branch office of the VOC's headquarters in Indonesia. During the three years of Batavian rule, Governor Janssens and Commissioner General de Mist introduced an extremely liberal constitution which enshrined freedom of speech and lawful assembly including a non-racial qualified franchise and protection for the ordinary citizen against arrest or search without a court-issued warrant. There was religious freedom and Muslims were given their first formal cemetery and were allowed to take oaths in the name of Allah and not in the name of the God of the prevalent religion, Christianity.

De Mist was aware that the abolition of slavery would have to be achieved without causing financial upheaval. His method was a phased approach - an immediate ban on the importation of more slaves and a decree that children of slaves be born free. He also promoted free trade and encouraged individual enterprises. He also provided a viticultural expert to advise the wine farmers.

Our speaker explained that all of these great improvements gave the people of the Cape a stake in the country and a cause worth defending. It was a place where a poor soldier or sailor could marry a rich widow and embark on a new and exciting career.
The Batavians had identified Losperds Bay near Blaauwberg as a good landing place for the invading army but did not have the resources to fortify this properly. Janssens drew up his small force near Kleinberg with the regulars and mercenaries in the centre with the Hottentot Light infantry and the burghers on the flanks. The British advanced in two three-battalion columns, deployed into line and attacked under heavy fire. The mercenaries and regulars in Janssens line broke and the Hottentots remained to face the British with the burghers.

The colony's forces retreated to Sir Lowry's Pass in the hope that rumours of a reinforcing fleet of French/Dutch ships on its way to the Cape were true. If this was the case, Baird and Popham would have been cut off with little or no possibility of reinforcement.

Gen Sir David Baird had won a military victory but could have faced a long guerilla campaign were it not for his considerable diplomatic skills. He persuaded Janssens to capitulate and even ordered the band at the surrender ceremony at the Treaty Tree in Woodstock to stop playing "God save the King" in order to spare the feelings of the defeated Batavians. But the Cape was now a British colony and the Batavian constitution was scrapped.

Finally our speaker discussed the role of the Waldeck regiment during the campaign. Despite its reputation as a fighting unit and with the honour of the Prince of Waldeck and of Germany at stake, the regiment fled shamefully during the battle, thus enabling the British forces to break the Batavian line and so disperse Janssens' line. They were the last mercenary regiment to serve in the Cape and they were Janssens' best trained infantry. Janssens thought so highly of them that he used them to train other units. Their fatal flaw was that they lacked the will to fight. The local units, comprising of a mixture of all races at the Cape, had performed much better.

Maj Steenkamp noted that the best sources on the two British occupations are written in Afrikaans(6) and then discussed British casualties at the battle of Blaauwberg. He described the battle as not just a military victory but as a propaganda victory as well. The myth arose or was allowed to arise that Baird had won an almost bloodless victory against a far larger force with better artillery. The history of the South Wales Borderers in 1892 claimed that the Batavian Army was 5,000 strong with 23 guns while Baird had only 4,066 men and 6 guns, which defeated the Batavians with a British loss of 17 dead and 189 injured and a Batavian loss of 700.

In actual fact, the Batavian force consisted of 2,045 men, opposing Baird's force of 4,000 men (reinforced with 500 marines and a further 500 sailors). Janssens had more guns but a number of these were very short range pieces. Thus a classic example of history being interpreted and written from the victor's viewpoint.

Our speaker then discussed the impact of the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805 on events at the Cape. Lt Col Erasmus has written that, by 1805, it had become apparent that the handing back of the Cape had been a great mistake for three reasons - the French could base a fleet there to attack British trade routes to the Indies, as well as to attack British India and to use the Cape as an ordnance and victualling base to supply their ships on the way to and from India. Krynauw has written that the capture of the Cape in 1806 was for military purposes and not to gain another colony, but the Cape grew to become a colony. Popham's expedition sailed unaware of Admiral Nelson's victory over the French fleet off Cape Trafalgar - although not a sea battle, the outcome at Blaauwberg greatly contributed to ensure Great Britain's maritime dominance and imperial supremacy for the next century-and-a-half.

Our Chairman Johan van den Berg thanked Maj Steenkamp for a very interesting and informative talk and presented him with the customary gift.

Note from the Assistant Scribe: Assegais, Drums and Dragoons is an excellent read and gives some interesting and refreshing insights on early Cape Military History.


  1. Steenkamp, Willem: Assegais, Drums and Dragoons: A Military and Social History of the Cape: Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg/Cape Town, 2012, Pb, 376pp. - Ed.
  2. The "snaphaan" (a Dutch term, from which the English "snaphaunce" or "snaplock" was derived), first appeared in the late 1540s and is a muzzle-loading rifle, similar to a flintlock, but not a real flintlock rifle, which dates from the beginning of the 17th century. - Ed.
  3. The arquebus is an early muzzle-loaded firearm used in the 16th to 17th centuries, normally a heavy and cumbersome matchlock shoulder weapon, fired from a forkrest. - Ed.
  4. The Battle of Blaauwberg, near Cape Town, took place on 8 January, 1806. To read more, consult Wikipedia (
  5. The expansion of the European settlement at the Cape and the penetration of the Cape hinterland by the burghers whose farming activities came in conflict with the pastoral and cultural practices of both the Khoikoi and the San peoples, led to the steady decline in numbers and communal and cultural integrity of the indigenous tribes. - Ed
  6. In view of the subject under discussion, it is relevant to only mention the following book as it is quoted in the first paragraph on page 5 of this summary: Krynauw, Dr D.W.: Beslissing by Blouberg: Triomf en Tragedie van die Stryd om die Kaap: Tafelberg Publishers, Cape Town, 1999, Pb, 207pp. - Ed.
  7. Back-issues of the Cape Town branch's newsletters are posted on the Society's national webpage at or by typing "SAMHS newsletters" into the search facility of your favourite internet search engine.


It is with deep sorrow that we announce the passing of fellow-member Mr Derek Alban Newton O'Riley (1932-2013), shortly before his eightieth birthday. Derrick will be remembered for his dedication and loyal service to the Cape Town branch in which capacity he served as a member of the executive committee from the early 1990s right to the end. He was chairman of the Cape Town branch from 1997 until 2008 and subsequently served as deputy chairman. In his early career he served in the government service in the then Southern Rhodesia. Upon his return to South Africa he took charge of the family business - a well-known electrical contracting concern in Cape Town.

He and his wife, Hilary, were dedicated and active members of the St. Michael's Catholic Church in Rondebosch and well-known and respected amongst the parishioners. Derrick has been in ill-health for the last couple of years and after his wife passed away in 2011, his health further deteriorated and took a turn for the worst late last year. In spite of his ill-health he still attended the catholic mass on Christmas Eve. He was hospitalised early in the New Year and passed away on Monday, 7th of January.

We wish to convey our deep-felt sympathy and condolences to the immediate family and close friends. He will be sorely missed by his fellow society and committee members, particularly as he had cast a giant shadow in the Cape Town branch.

A Historic Photograph: Taken on a SAMH Tour of the Fortifications of the Cape Peninsula in 2006, the picture shows (L-R) the chairman at the time (the late Derek O'Riley); a past chairman (Maj Tony Gordon); a founding member of the Cape Town Branch (Cdr Mac Bisset) and the current chairman (Johan van den Berg)

We welcome Lt Gen I R Gleeson and Mr M G Pate as new members for 2013 and hope to see them at our meetings next year.

A few members have not yet paid their 2012 subscriptions. If you have not yet paid, you will have received a renewal reminder. Please let us have your remittance as soon as possible.



Mr Stephan Fourie has on previous occasions held the audience spell-bound with his first-person accounts and reminiscences as a National Serviceman taking part in Combat Group Foxbat's epic Blitzkrieg-like advance across Angola during Operation Savannah in 1975 (Newsletter No. 276, March 2001)(7), followed later by a talk focussing specifically on the Battles of Ebo and Bridge 14 as some highlights of Operation Savannah (No. 355, June 2008). Last year he spoke about his experiences as a volunteer in the Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment (No. 389, July 2011). What few people knew, was that he subsequently transferred to the elite Selous Scouts after successfully passing the gruelling selection course.

In his forthcoming talk he will discuss the concept of "pseudo operations" that was undertaken with great success in some post-WWII insurgency wars, particularly in Malaya against the Chinese Communists, against the Mau-Mau in Kenya, and lastly in Rhodesia, where the concept of "pseudo operators" were perfected and executed with great success. He will also share with the audience some of his personal experiences and reminiscences of his service with the Selous Scouts



February's talk is the third and final delivery in a continuing series on the rise and fall of the Zulu Empire by fellow-member Alan Mountain. His talk opens with a brief discussion on the reasons for the war. It then expands on what happened after Zulu defeat at Ulundi with particular regard to King Cetshwayo whose ambition was to refurbish the Old Shakan Order. This did not suit either imperial Britain or colonial Natal and was used to provide their reasons for going to war. Sir Garnett Wolseley took command after the Zulu defeat and decided to divide Zululand into 13 chiefdoms. In doing so he laid the foundations for probably the bloodiest civil war in Southern African history. Cetshwayo was incarcerated in the Castle in Cape Town and the talk deals with his efforts and eventual success to return to Zululand and his re-installation as King of what had become an emasculated Zululand. This was a period of intense imperial and colonial machination, compromise and intrigue. The eventual outcome was civil war, uSuthu defeat and Cetshwayo's death. And with his death so died the Old Order.

The talk will be concluded [if time allows] with a brief overview of the uSuthu (the Royalists) regaining power (at the battle of eTshaneni) and the relevance of this to Pax Zumania and Nkandla.

As Alan Mountain is known for his masterful and professional blending of video and audio input in his talks, his final lecture in the series should prove to be one of the highlights of this year's programme and has therefore been selected to serve as the Ken Gunn Memorial Lecture of the Cape Town Branch.

The Ken Gunn Memorial Lecture has been instituted by the Cape Town Branch of the SAMHS to commemorate and honour the memory of Dr Ken Gunn who was the first branch chairman and co-founding member of the Cape Town Branch (along with fellow-member Cdr Mac Bisset). Dr Gunn was a radiologist and educated at Cape Town University. He served as a medical officer in the SAAF in Italy during World War Two. He was a keen amateur military historian with a particular interest in the Frontier Wars of the Eastern Cape during the 19th Century.

BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /