South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on the 9th of March, 2017, was fellow-member, Dr Dan Sleigh, the internationally-acknowledged historian and the foremost authority on the history of the Dutch East Indies Company during the 17th - 18th centuries at the Cape. His lecture specifically dealt with Colonel Robert Jacob Gordon and the end of Company rule as a result of the First British Occupation in 1795.

Gordon's early life in the Netherlands, his professional career at the Cape, his long travels in the interior and his social life were recorded by his biographer Patrick Cullinan. But these matters do not concern us. We will examine the colonel's conduct as a military man during the fateful four months from 11 June to 25 October 1795, during which his employer, the Dutch East India Company's government of the Cape, came to an end.

Professor J.N.S. Allamand of Leiden University wrote in 1778 that the Company's directors posted Robert Gordon to the Cape, charged with "eene bediening van vertrouwen", which would fortunately not prevent him from pursuing his scientific ambitions. Does the phrase "eene bediening van vertrouwen" (literally: a position of trust) accurately reflect Gordon's duties, or was it actually a "confidential mission", as Cullinan understands it? His posting was coupled with the eventual command of the Cape garrison.

Exactly what his patrons, the Lords Seventeen and their chief director, the Prince of Orange, expected from Gordon in return for the privileges and profits of a military command as well as sponsored expeditions to great distances from his station for six months at a time, but without any obligation to report, remains a mystery. Just four months after taking up his post in 1777, he was away on a lengthy excursion to the interior, equipped and paid for by his new employer.

Gordon regarded the Prince as his ultimate superior, and it looks as if he considered himself answerable only to the Prince. Circumstantial evidence points to a personal agreement between the two, involving affairs of greater significance than geographical information and zoological specimens.

On assuming command of the garrison in 1780, he enquired minutely into the extent of his authority over the artillerists and the foreign mercenaries contracted to serve at the Cape, as well as the limits of the Governor's authority over him, reasoning perhaps that he would be better able to carry out his commission if he was in overall command. The Directors, Lords XVII, remained adamant that the Cape's defence was the responsibility of their governor. In a conciliatory gesture, they promoted Gordon from captain to colonel, an unusual mark of favour, allowing him to bypass the ranks of major and lieutenant-colonel.

There are other signs of preferment. In 1790 he had two sons on the Company's payroll. While a common soldier got nine gulden a month, and a corporal twelve, little Pieter, aged seven, was a cadet at twelve gulden and nine-year-old Robert was an ensign at forty. In 1793 high commissioners Nederburgh and Frijkenius, notwithstanding the most stringent financial constraints they were imposing on the Company and the Cape Colony, singled him out for an award of fifteen hundred rixdollars a year, in addition to his salary.1 His biographer, Cullinan, missed the detail of this generous annual bonus.

Gordon obstinately disputed the issue of overall military command with Governor Van Plettenberg, and on 30 June 1784 went over the heads of the Governor and the Directors to appeal directly to Prince Willem when he felt thwarted by Van Plettenberg. After an argument with Van Plettenberg's successor, Governor Van de Graaff, he avoided Council meetings for more than a year and only returned after Van de Graaff was recalled.

From 1793 the Cape was governed by Commissioner Abraham Sluysken, who had power to act without recourse to the Council of Policy. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) suffered heavy losses of ships and cargoes in its 1780-1784 war with Britain, and by 1795 the Company was on the brink of bankruptcy. In January 1795 French revolutionary forces overran the Netherlands, where the rebellious Dutch Patrioten welcomed them as allies, assumed power and proclaimed the Batavian Republic. The Prince of Orange, Willem V, sought sanctuary with King George III in England.

The British naval expedition sent in 1795 to wrest the Cape from the Company was an initiative of Sir Francis Baring, chairman of the British East India Company (ElC). It was all about India. The EIC needed the Cape as a replenishment station for its merchant fleet, also to house a regiment of fit soldiers close to India and a base from which the British navy could control the sea route to India. The EIC perceived the Dutch-French alliance as a threat to its expanding Indian interests, and Prince Willem's plight presented a handy excuse for British intervention at the Cape.

A letter emphasizing the advantages of British protection to the House of Orange was prepared for Prince Willem's signature. A fleet of nine ships was dispatched to the Cape under Vice-Admiral George Elphinstone, conveying Major-General James Craig and twelve hundred soldiers, A support squadron of fourteen ships - mostly EIC vessels serving as troopships for two thousand five hundred soldiers - would join them if required.

Elphinstone's fleet reached the Cape in a poor state: in need of provisions and water but without funds to buy necessities, and hundreds of sailors and soldiers sick with scurvy. What is more, Craig's force lacked field guns and land transport. On 11 June the arrival of warships under 'unrecognisable flags' was reported from Simon's Bay, the VOC's winter harbour.

Elphinstone invited Sluysken and particularly Gordon to visit the flagship to discuss with him the Prince's instruction to receive the British fleet and troops as those of an allied power sent to prevent the Cape form falling into French hands. What he concealed, was that the government in the Netherlands had not only changed hands but also allies. This was only revealed at the end of June, when a Dutch newspaper got through the British blockade. The stadtholder system had been abolished, Dutch subjects at home and abroad were absolved of their allegiance to the House of Orange and most of the population in the Netherlands had welcomed the French as liberators.

Once the Prince's letter had been rejected, it was the Council's duty to oppose the invasion. Sluysken was officially in charge of the defence, with Gordon commanding the combined field force. It was time for Gordon to show the soldier in him. They had a considerable military strength of 1,741 infantry, 900 cavalry and 990 gunners who served forty field pieces and 334 cannons of various calibres, mounted on almost thirty forts and batteries."2 They also had the strategic advantages of home base, numerical superiority, field guns, cavalry, the choice of battlefield with control and knowledge of the terrain, as well as unlimited supplies of provisions, draught animals and fuel. Sluysken called up the citizen force and sent two hundred infantrymen to occupy Simon's Bay, and gunners to man the two batteries.

There was little likelihood of an amphibious attack on Cape Town because Table Bay was unsafe in winter, and its shores were in any case protected by a line of heavy defence works, including the Castle and the Sea Line, a stone wall with gun batteries to prevent landings.

The invader's remaining option was an overland attack that involved soldiers, weighed down by their equipment, hauling field guns the forty kilometres over the rough terrain from Simon's Bay to Cape Town.

How to respond to that? In response the defender would concentrate all his forces on the almost impregnable position at Muysenburg,3 long recognized as the Thermopylae of the Cape, with a narrow road between the sea and a steep mountainside.

Gordon's infantry, flanked by cavalry, would block the road at Sandvlei, and Koina marksmen would be positioned on the slopes above the road to harass the British advance. Meanwhile, burgher cavalry hidden in the Fish Hoek Valley would wait for the British column to pass and cut of their retreat. Genl Janssens visualised it after 1803.

In a first aggressive act the British in Simon's Bay seized VOC ships (two outward-bound, three homeward) and put prize crews on them. Next, they became masters of the port without any effort on their part when Sluysken withdrew his troops from Simon's Bay to Muysenburg, without a shot being fired. On 14 July British troops landed to occupy the VOC's abandoned facilities. They now fed from the Company's stores and vegetable gardens, carpenters built gun carriages and handcarts in the workshops for a march on Cape Town and boats crews took soundings off Muysenburg beach to see how close ships could approach for a bombardment of the Dutch camp.

The attack on Muysenburg began on 7 August. With Elphinstone in charge, four warships fired at the camp while sixteen hundred British soldiers advanced by road, unopposed. Lieutenant-Colonel De Lille, the VOC officer who substituted for Gordon, led his confused troops in flight, leaving field guns, provision wagons and tents standing. "The Dutch on our approach neither behaved with courage or prudence, nor took proper advantage of their strong positions.' wrote a British eyewitness."4

Three thousand British reinforcements arrived in early September, and their commander, General Clarke, notified Sluysken that he had orders to attack at once if he found the Cape still in Dutch hands. Sluysken reiterated his resolve to defend the Cape but did not order Gordon to employ and lead his troops; instead he wasted his forces in idleness, exposing them to the winter rain, until every single advantage was lost. In spite of strong burgher protests, Sluysken persisted to the end with absent and inept officers.

A British attack on the Dutch position at Wynberg in September caused a general retreat, and resistance collapsed. The disgusted burgher forces, unwilling to become prisoners of war, went home. Sluysken obtained a twenty-four-hour truce and a capitulation was signed on 16 September. The next day Colonel Gordon came forward to lead the troops for the first time, to lay down their arms and be taken prisoners of war. And that was the only time he drew his sword. He died by his own hand, shortly after the British takeover.

Gordon had sworn allegiance to the Lords Seventeen, the States-General and Prince Willem V. lf, while a cadet in the Scots Brigade, he had also sworn allegiance to the King of England, as was expected of its officers, it may help to explain his conduct.5 His Anglophile sympathies were known abroad, and he was singled out before the invasion as a potential collaborator. Lieutenant-Colonel William Dalrymple wrote that Gordon "had an English heart and might take sides against the Company."6 John Pringle, agent of the EIC at the Cape, as well as Elphinstone and Craig, believed that they could count on Gordon's defection. The expedition leaders had "grounds for hoping" that he would join them with his troops when they landed.7 Colonel Gordon also corresponded privately with the invader. He wrote to Elphinstone: "I shall serve the Common cause with all my exertions [but] prudence is necessary to bring things to a proper end," and: "I abhor French principles and if our unhappy republic... should surrender...then I am a Great Britainer." Because the British were at that time aware of the altered situation in the Netherlands, they knew by those words that Gordon was their man.

His actions show that he did not risk changing sides openly, but covertly served the invader's interests, Commissioner Sluysken withdrew the defenders from Simon's Bay - starting a series of unforced retreats - because Gordon "advised" him that the enemy may land behind their backs and cut them off from Cape Town.8 After Muysenburg they retreated in stages towards Cape Town, because Gordon either "advised" it or failed to provide leadership, gun batteries and troops where they were needed. He fed Sluysken false advice, did not oppose or object in Council to the Commissioner's lack of action and never led his army which included burghers, Pandours and free Malays who were risking their lives for the homeland. He spent the Company's valuable time, money and labour at the opposite end of the Cape peninsula on sham defences: raising the ramparts of the Groote Moelje battery (now Mouille Point) with cowhide sacks filled with sheep's hair (soon to be torn down by stray dogs) and building a new battery on the Galgenheuvel (Gallows Hill, now Fort Wynyard), where no threat existed and which was so far from the sea that its guns could not damage a ship.9

Gordon had three full months - from the arrival of the British in June until the capitulation in September - in which to consider what might have been an awkward personal situation. Officers are bound by their oath to resign when personal scruples clash with their duty. He did not resign, but neither did he fight. An eighteenth-century colonel of infantry's place was in front of his battalion. While his troops were in action Gordon avoided the front and also absented himself from strategic discussions. His signature appears on the minutes of only the first two out of thirty council meetings held after the evacuation of Simon's Bay.10

He had a last chance to stand by his vaunted loyalty to the Prince of Orange by rejecting the capitulation that made no mention of Prince Willem or the eventual return of the Cape to the Dutch government. Instead, he signed it.11

After the surrender, Gordon was socially disgraced, reviled by the garrison and became spiritually depressed. He was attacked and beaten in the street. Former subordinates such as Engineer Captain L.M. Thibault, Artillery Lieutenant P. Marnitz and Sergeant H.D. Campagne wrote disparagingly of his conduct. Their testimonies coincided, and they did not hide their frustration, indignation and contempt; to them the Colonel's behaviour during the invasion was inexplicable, irregular and unsoldierly. Sir John Malcolm, who was attached to General Clarke's staff, and so involved in the advance on Cape Town, wrote that Gordon neglected his duty. Imagine that this officer was President of a court martial, with Gordon on the carpet. What would the verdict be? Dr Sleigh pointed out that three senior British officers had been executed for cowardice: Captains Richard Kirby and Cooper Wade in 1701, and Admiral John Byng in 1757.

Colonel Gordon committed suicide on 25 October 1795. Perhaps future research will uncover a secret that seems to have passed with him. Taking all contemporary information into consideration, it seems possible that Gordon's "special mission," with its generous professional, financial and social rewards, could spring from a secret undertaking to Prince Willem, that should the Company fail (its bankruptcy was already or the cards) and the political situation became difficult for the Netherlands and for the Prince personally, Gordon would ensure that the strategic maritime replenishment service at the Cape would fall to his British cousin George and not to the French. Professionally, Gordon was not what he was supposed to be.

Lastly, Dr Sleigh explained that there remains a question of identity of a painting in the William Fehr Collection at the Castle that for many years were thought to depict Colonel Robert Gordon and his wife. The error in identity was further compounded when the local daily, Die Burger, some years ago published information to that effect. When Dr J.J.P. Op't Hof 12 was attempting to identify the officer and lady in question, he was informed by Dutch historians that the officer was a lieutenant-colonel in the Castle Guard at the Castle of the Cape of Good Hope. Dr Sleigh pointed out that there never was a Castle Guard here, and furthermore, that Colonel Gordon was a full colonel and never was a lieutenant-colonel, for the reasons given at the beginning of his lecture.

He is rather of the opinion that the jacket depicted is a hunting jacket as often encountered during the period. He bases his surmise on the fact that the buttons on the jacket in question are not military, as the oversize buttons depict a scene of a man with a rifle under a tree. Thus the painting is no longer recognised as an image of Gordon. For example, it is not used at the new exhibition of Gordon's life and work that opened at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in February 2017.13

The Vice-Chairman, Mr Alan Mountain, thanked Dr Sleigh for his fascinating talk and praised his meticulous research which has shed new light on the topic, before presenting him with the customary gift.

1 Boeseken, 1945.
2 Marnitz and Campagne, 2004, pp. 12-14
3 The present-day spelling is rendered as "Muizenberg" - Ed.
4 Nel, 1972/1977, p. 229
5 Cullinan, 1992, p.21, 184
6 Nel, 1972/1977, p. 266
7 Barnard, 1950, pp. 415-416; Nel, 1972/1977, pp. 267-268
8 Cullinan, 1992, p.21, 184
9 Marnitz and Campagne, 2004, pp. 180-181
10 C231 Resolusies van die Politieke Raad, pp. 394-539
11 C231 Resolusies van die Politieke Raad, 16.09.1795, p. 539
12 Guide to the Collection: Additions to the William Fehr Collection, 1892-1968/Gids vir die Versameling:
Byvoegings tot die William Fehr Versameling, 1892-1968
by J.J.P. Op't Hof, Cape Town, 1975 (2nd edition).
13 A Geographical Note: The name Gordon's Baaij (present-day spelling Gordon's Bay/Gordonsbaai, also for the settlement
at the north-eastern corner of False Bay) already appeared on maps during Col Robert Gordon's lifetime. The township
was originally known as Fisch Hoek, but renamed Gordon's Bay, in honour of Gordon after he explored the area in 1778. - Ed.



Notice was duly given fourteen (14)[days] in advance that the Society's Annual General Meeting (Cape Town Branch)
will be held on Tuesday 11 April 2017, at 20:00. Please note that the advancement of the above date, instead of Thursday, the 13th of April,
was necessitated by the Easter long-weekend, with Good Friday falling on the 14th instant.



Please find attached a programme for the above event. Dr Sydney Cullis has indicated that there are still a few vacancies and that it is not yet too late to change your mind and join the tour!





Our speaker will be Hannes Wessels, journalist and author of books on the then Rhodesia, of which the title of the evening's lecture is also the title of his most recent book, A Handful of Hard Men; The SAS and the Battle for Rhodesia. During the West's great transition into the post-Colonial age, Rhodesia refused to succumb quietly, and throughout the 1970s resisted the determined and internationally-supported onslaught of so-called "popular liberation" movements. During this long war, many heroes emerged, but none more skilful and courageous than Captain Darrell Watt of the Rhodesian Special Air Service (SAS), who himself was at the vanguard in the ferocious battle to resist the insurgent forces of Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo.

Intertwined with the story of Capt Watt, our speaker will also recount the engaging history of an elite force of fighting men waging war on behalf of a seemingly-doomed cause.

THURSDAY, 11 MAY 2017:

THE FALL OF SINGAPORE, FEBRUARY 1942 by Capt. Peter Rodgers, SM, MMM (SAN Retd.).

The topic for May, the Fall of Singapore, also known as the Battle of Singapore, was fought in the South-East Asian theatre of World War II when the Empire of Japan invaded the British stronghold of Singapore-nicknamed the "Gibraltar of the East". Singapore was the major British military base in South-East Asia and was the keystone of British imperial interwar defence planning for South-East Asia as well as the South-West Pacific. The fighting in Singapore lasted from 8 to 15 February 1942 although this was preceded by two months of British resistance as Japanese forces advanced down the Malaya peninsula.

It resulted in the Japanese capture of Singapore and the largest surrender of British-led military personnel in history. About 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops became prisoners of war, joining 50,000 taken by the Japanese in the earlier Malayan Campaign. The British prime minister, Winston Churchill, called it the "worst disaster" in British military history. Leading military historians also view the Malayan Campaign and the Fall of Singapore as one of the most successful military campaigns of World War II - along with the Fall of France in 1940 - when taking into account the input of resources as compared to the outcome thereof from the victors' point of view.

Our speaker for the May meeting recently had the opportunity to visit Singapore and this will certainly add interesting side-notes to his illustrated lecture.


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

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /