South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 9 July 2009 was Major Willem Steenkamp, MMM, JCD, the well-known author and military historian, who is also Curator of the Chavonnes Battery Museum at the Waterfront in Cape Town. This was the subject of his talk.

Major Steenkamp introduced his talk by explaining that that capitalism and not colonialism was the most important legacy of the Dutch era at the Cape. The exchange of goods and services, the interaction of peoples - both good and bad - and trade between East and West comprised that legacy. Goods obtained from the East included tea, coffee, sugar, gold, jewels, textiles, indigo, silk, porcelain, rare woods like teak and mahogany, cloves, saffron, nutmeg, pepper, etc. He pointed out that nutmeg was particularly important in combating bubonic plague. Many of the goods purchased in the East for one penny could be sold in London for thirty shillings!

These goods were for the most part transported by sea round the Cape. The first to trade with the East were the Portuguese who started in the 1500's. They were pushed out of their prime position by the Dutch and British East India Companies, which did their considerable best to keep others out of the trade. The French were latecomers - albeit aggressive latecomers at that - while the Portuguese were left with only a small share.

The Dutch and British companies were established chiefly to trade in pepper and spices, which constituted their most valuable cargoes in the first half of the 17th century. These were supplanted by Indian textiles and Chinese, Bengali and Persian silks fifty years later on and these, in turn, were replaced by the tea and coffee trade.

The Dutch obtained silver from Japan until 1668 when exports were prohibited. A short Japanese gold boom then followed, replaced by a copper boom in the 1670's. This continued for close on 100 years.

Major Steenkamp described British policy at this time as "no colonies, no fighting, trade instead and no missionary activity".

There was little overland trade between East and West as the Ottoman Empire was none too friendly. Our speaker then described the hardships endured by the men who manned the ships of the Dutch East India and the other companies. An East Indiaman bound for the Far East could be at sea continuously for between six and eight months. Governor General Reynier wrote that "the water and wine which are daily taken from the hold are about as hot as if they were boiling in a pot and this is the reason why much of the victuals go bad". Although many of the ship's chandlers were dishonest and supplied inferior provisions, a few were honest. If provisions supplied were of good quality, they would only remain edible for a period of up to 6 months.

Dutch ship-owners frequently provided their crews with oranges, lemons and apples but did not realise the importance of the lemon. Inadequate clothing and poor shipboard hygiene also contributed to a high death rate among crews. The commonest shipboard diseases were scurvy caused by inadequate diet, ship or jail fever (i.e. typhus), dysentery, colds and pneumonia. So it became apparent that some form of halfway port of call would be essential to provide supplies of fresh food and meat, as well as water and firewood. A hospital where sick sailors could recuperate was also a necessity.

In July 1620, Andrew Shilling and Humphrey Fitzherbert annexed the Cape Peninsula on behalf of King James the First of England, who however, decided not to occupy it. Instead it was the Dutch who, in 1652, founded a half-way house here. This included a hospital but this was not always highly thought of! Mentzel considered that the pure air and fresh meat were more beneficial than the medical treatment provided.

Many of the sailors chose to make a new career for themselves in the new colony springing up at the Cape as skilled workers and tradesmen or as Knechts or farm overseers. This type of employment could lead to wealth as often farm owning widows would marry their knechts!

Major Steenkamp described the mud fort built by van Riebeeck and the stone Castle of Good Hope built between 1666 and 1679. The Cape was becoming a very important stop-over on the long sea route from Europe to the East and its defences became a priority.

In 1714 Colonel M P de Chavonnes, a regular army officer, was appointed Governor of the Cape. He soon realised that an additional battery would be required to protect the western side of Table Bay. Governor Chavonnes' suggestions were approved by the Here Sewentien (the 17 governing main shareholders) in Holland and work on the new battery commenced in 1715. The battery was commissioned in 1726, being known variously as the Water Kasteel, Water Pas, Mauritius Battery and, finally, in 1744, the Chavonnes Battery. It was only one - albeit an important one - of the numerous batteries and other defences constructed around Table Bay, in Hout Bay and along the shores of False Bay. The battery was built very close to the shore and some 15 metres above sea level. It was armed with 12 36-pounders and 16 18-pounder together with three mortars, a powerful armament with a facility to heat shot. The guns were trained on Table Bay and its anchorage.

Chavonnes Battery was regarded as the most important of the batteries defending Table Bay. The guns of the battery were fired in anger only once - at a Danish ship thought to be spying for the British in 1781.

The battery remained operational until 1861, being manned by 40 gunners, commanded by a captain. Although the ships of the Royal Navy were regarded as the main threat to the Cape defences in the 18th century, the advantage lay in reality with the coast gunners who had a stable platform to fire from with guns heavier than those carried in men-'o-war (battle ships) and with the ability to fire heated shot - something dreaded by the sailors in their wooden ships. In this way the battery helped to deter the British forces invading the Cape from landing in both 1795 and in 1806.

It was also used as a prison, isolation ward for people with contagious diseases and a smallpox isolation hospital.

The battery was demolished in the late 19th century but in 1999, when evacuations started for the foundations of the new BOE office building, the remains of the fort were rediscovered and archaeologists from UCT excavated the entire site. A restoration project was started under the direction of famous Cape Town Heritage Architect, Mr Gawie Fagan and his team and the site turned into a museum situated in the basement of the BOE building. This was financed by the Board of Executors.

Major Steenkamp discussed two very important gifts to the museum. The first was a spiked gun which was dug up on the Parade in Cape Town. It is the only one in a museum collection in South Africa. The other gift was a half gun which had exploded accidentally.

Major Steenkamp then spoke of some of his experiences as a museum curator, including the time he escorted a blind visitor on a guided tour of the museum allowing him to touch and feel the various exhibits. We were most disappointed that our speaker was not wearing his colourful VOC uniform with its gold buttons! (Which he wears on occasion as heritage tour guide.)

Our treasurer, Mr Bob Buser, then thanked our speaker for his fascinating talk and presented him with the customary gift.



Members who have access to DSTV may have seen the Armistice Day parade at the Cenotaph in London on 11 November 2008. You will remember the place of honour given to three very elderly gentlemen in wheelchairs. They took part in the march past, being pushed by current serving servicemen, including the most recent VC-winner. These elderly gentlemen were some of the last surviving combat veterans of the First World War in the UK.

Alas, all three have since passed away. Bill Stone, a veteran of both WWI and WWII, and whom served with the Royal Navy, passed away in January at the age of 109. The oldest of the three, Henry Allingham, an airman, died two weeks ago (July 18th) at the age of 113 and Harry Patch, an infantryman, died last week (July 25th) at the age of 111 years. Henry Allingham was in fact considered to be the oldest living male in the world at the time! The last surviving British combat veteran of the Great War is Claude Choules who served with the Royal Navy. He emigrated to Australia and is 108 years of age. (Together with Claude Choules there are currently still only three known survivors of WWI left - Frank Buckles, a 108-year-old American, and Canadian John Babcock, 109, who both live in the United States. Neither Mr Buckles nor Mr Babcock saw active combat.)



We were saddened to hear of the passing of one of our older and very loyal members, Mr Lou Harris, who died peacefully in his sleep recently. Mr Harris was a WWII veteran and served in Italy as an infantryman with the Wits Rifles/De la Rey Regiment (his parent unit being the former) in the 6th SA Armoured Division. Our deep sympathy and sincere condolences go to his family.

We are pleased to announce that fellow-member Geoff Mangin's recovery after his recent setback is beyond all expectations and that he is in a most positive frame of mind. We wish him well!

Just over 70% of our members have paid their subscriptions. We thank them and would urge those who have not yet paid to please do so as soon as possible.

We are always looking for more members so, if you know of anyone who might have an interest in military history, bring him or her along to the next meeting or otherwise persuade them to join.

If any member knows of possible speakers or who have a subject that would be of interest to members, please let us know.



Thursday 13 August 2009 - The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Empire and its Relevance to the Politics of Today

Our speaker is fellow member, Mr Alan Mountain. Alan is a historian and author of note whose books cover, inter alia, early South African history such as "The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Empire" (1999) and "The First People of the Cape" (2004). All in all he has written 11 books covering such diverse subject fields as cultural and natural history, heritage, travel and tourism, as well as diving.

Thursday 10 September 2009 - A Short History of SANDF Museums

Our speaker will be fellow member and scribe, Commander Mac Bisset, SAN (ret.). Other than his encyclopaedic knowledge of any matter military (history, that is), Cdr Bisset had the unique distinction of having being a central figure at the creation and management of a number of our military museums over the past four decades. He is therefore uniquely qualified to relate to us the story (and often the story behind the story) of the SANDF museums over the length and breadth of South Africa - including the Military Museum at Delville Wood on the Somme Battlefield of WWI fame, in faraway France.


BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Scribe
Phone: Home: (evenings) 021-689-1639
Office: (mornings) 021-689-9771

Phone: 021-592-1279 or 021-531-6781

South African Military History Society /