The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 2 No 1 - June 1971

Gallant Gentlemen 1855-1865
The Cape Colony Volunteers of a Century Ago

by J. J. HULME

The Citizen Force, which now forms an important part of South Africa's Defence Forces, can trace its origins back to the 1850s in Natal and the Cape. This article deals with the origin of a volunteer force in the Cape Colony only, although the Natal origins of the force predate the Cape by one year.

The 1840s and early l850s were disturbed times for the Cape Colony where there were two Kaffir Wars in quick succession on the Eastern frontier. By 1854, however, it looked as though the frontier would be quiet for a time, although the newly arrived Governor of the Cape, Sir George Grey, came prepared to keep a wary eye on the area. During his time in office the peace which the Colony wanted was precarious and a number of crises arose to disturb it; the Crimean War, the Cattle Killing of the AmaXhosa, the Indian Mutiny, the Trent incident and Zulu dynastic troubles on the Natal frontier.

The Colonial defence system was hopelessly inefficient and in 1855 the Colonial Parliament tried to tighten it up by the Burgher Levies Act to put the Commando system on a better footing. The Act enunciated no new principle and was a consolidating measure with better machinery to register and mobilize the burghers who, under the prevailing law of the Colony, were all adult males, White and Coloured. By reason of this last fact, the Act was not well received in the country districts. There was bitter opposition in Malmesbury and Caledon and a riot at Stellenbosch.

Grey had only been in office for a year, but when a move was made in various towns in the Colony to form Volunteer military units which many preferred to service under the Burgher Levies Act, he was quick to encourage the movement. He had not dealt with Australians, New Zealanders and Maoris without learning a good deal about people living in a pioneering country. The Act remained on the Statute Book but was not applied to men who joined the Volunteers. Without Grey's tact and support, the Cape would have had an unworkable piece of defence legislation instead of the beginnings of what in time came to be a useful force. He encouraged the Volunteers and, on occasion, stood between these enthusiastic military amateurs and the often hostile military authorities.


The first Volunteer corps to be founded in the Colony was the Cape Town Rifle Corps when various interested citizens attended a meeting at the Town House in November, 1855, and resolved to form a Volunteer rifle corps. The press report reads:
"Nearly a hundred have put down their names as members . . . Some of the most respectable signatures in this neighbourhood are found amongst them. Several gentlemen belonging to the Army have joined, and in all probability the corps will be well arranged and directed." At the first meeting of the new corps held in the Commercial Exchange on the 28th November, a letter from Sir George Grey was read conveying his support and promising to forward the corps' request to Queen Victoria to call itself the Cape Royal Rifles. Details of strength and organization,entrance fees and subscriptions, were soon settled, as well as the fascinating matter of uniform.

This was to be rifle green with a helmet, and a black waist belt and pouch. Captain, the Honourable William Hope, Auditor General of the Colony, was elected the first commanding officer in December, and was given the rank of colonel and his second-in-command was the Chevalier Alfred du Prat, Portuguese member of the Mixed Slave Commission.

A proposal made at the same time to form a mounted troop came to nothing, but by May 1856, the Rifles had a brass band good enough to accompany them on guard mounting at Government House and by October the corps was almost fully equipped with uniforms, accoutrements and arms, all provided at no cost to the Government.


The Cape Royal Rifles had shown the way and a rush to form Volunteer Corps throughout the Colony began. Units raised in February 1856, were the D'Urban Cavalry (at Durbanville), Mounted Rifles at Hope Town and Graaf Reinet and corps of infantry and cavalry at Stellenbosch and Worcester. The Swellendam Volunteer Rifles were formed in June; the George Town Mounted Rifles in July, and the Lang Kloof Cavalry in August. September saw the establishment of the Malmesbury Cavalry, the Paarl Rifles and the Port Elizabeth Volunteer Rifles.(1)

The usual procedure was for a few individuals to petition the local magistrate or civil commissioner to call a meeting of the public to consider the formation of a Volunteer corps. If sufficient support was forthcoming names were taken and a committee was elected to draw up rules and to request the Governor to accept the services of the new corps. Almost as a matter of course, the presiding magistrate or civil commissioner found himself elected to command, usually as a captain, sometimes as a major and in one or two instances as a colonel! The fact that his regiment might be no more than two dozen strong was of little importance, for the new title was carried into private life and on to the Bench, and Press and public seldom failed to give the new warrior his due.


By the beginning of 1857 the Cape Royal Rifles were well established with a strength of over 100 which included the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly and the Attorney General, both privates. Further afield the country Volunteers were also developing favourably and on 23rd March, 1857, the first Volunteer review took place on the Wynberg Flats, probably the present site of Kenilworth Racecourse. The Rifles mounted their band on horses for the review and were joined by the D'Urban Cavalry, the Stellenbosch Cavalry and Rifle Corps, the Malmesbury Cavalry and the Worcester Cavalry. This was the first of a series of convivial field days to be held over the next six years in the Cape Peninsula and vicinity and perhaps it was on this occasion that the Rifles band played for the first time some music entitled "The Cape Royal Rifles Corps Waltzes" composed by a Cape Town man, George S. Darter.

The raising of new units in the Colony continued in 1857, the Oliphant's Hoek Volunteers in Ffebruary; the Drakenstein Cavalry in March; the Wynberg and Simon's Town Cavalry in June, the Cape Volunteer Artillery and the Cape Town Cavalry in August, a cavalry section of the Paarl Rifles in September and a Volunteer rifle corps at Middelburg in November. During the following month, new units raised were the Beaufort West Rifles, the Bedford Mounted Rifles and the Richmond Mounted Rifles. Also raised in 1857 were the Murraysburg Volunteer Cavalry and the Burghersdorp Volunteer Rifles.


News of the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny reached Cape Town at the beginning of August 1857. Grey well knew that it was his duty to despatch every British regular soldier who could be spared to India, but he dared not weaken the garrison more than was absolutely necessary. The Cape Peninsula was a vital strategic point in the imperial lines of communication and the Eastern frontier was tensely sitting out the climax of the Xhosa Cattle Killing. The arrival of the German Legion in Kaffraria earlier in the year had eased matters slightly, but Grey dared not risk another Kaffir War. On the 7th of the month, the Cape Royal Rifles offered their services for garrison duty in Cape Town, an offer gratefully accepted, and 12 pickets were asked for to assist with the embarkation of part of the garrison for India. The Rifles volunteered en masse and went on duty to prevent desertions from the regulars. The job was well done and despite fights between the Volunteers and would-be deserters from the 89th Foot (later 2nd Battalion, Royal Irish Fusihers), the regulars were embarked without loss. On the 9th the Rifles took over guard duties at Amsterdam Battery and the following week at the Castle as well numbers rose, duty rosters for guards were published daily and two evenings a week were devoted to drill. Garrison duty continued until later in the year and was rewarded in December by a letter from the Governor thanking the Rifles for enabling him to send the 89th to India and to order the 95th Foot (Derbyshire Regiment) to proceed straight to Bombay without landing at the Cape as garrison reliefs, as had been intended.


South Africa's oldest gunner regiment owes its establishment to the Indian Mutiny when the Cape Volunteer Artillery was raised from a nucleus of men from the Cape Royal Rifles. Its first meeting was held on 26th August 1857, and Chevalier du Prat was elected to command. The Artillery paraded for the first time on 2nd October with two brass guns drawn by the gunners themselves and on the 7th of the same month they attended their first Volunteer review, held this time at Stellenbosch. The General Officer commanding the troops in the Colony had refused them the loan of a gun for the occasion but the Royal Navy obliged with a 12-pounder for the day.

At its first live shoot, the Artillery fired solid shot from two six-pounders from a position between the Castle and the Military Hospital, probably on the site of the old Sir Lowry Road market. The target was a barrel carrying a flag, floating in Table Bay, quite possibly where the National Road from the North today joins the Heerengracht. In October the gunners took over garrison duties at the castle, enabling Grey to send some Royal Artillery to India. The second live shoot was carried out on 2nd November from the same place as the first, but this time the Artillery used shrapnel at a range of 650 yards, as well as solid shot. The results were reported to be excellent, and Grey's appreciation of the corps' services took the form of a recommendation to the War Office that the guns on loan be presented to the Cape Volunteer Artillery as a gift. This, however, was never done but the gunners received the harness. In the same year John Molteno, member of the Legislative Assembly for Beaufort West, moved that the Artillery be given free ammunition and that their annual grant of 50 be increased, but the House was not in a generous mood and the grant remained at its existing figure.


Another Peninsular unit whose raising was speeded by the Indian Mutiny was the Cape Town Cavalry. Again a nucleus of Cape Royal Riflemen was responsible. Raising took place in July 1857, and the first commanding officer was the Honourable William Porter, Attorney General of the Colony and, incidentally, draftsman of its constitution of 1854, and who had by then served for two years in the Rifles as a private. In September the Cavalry could muster a strength of 33 and another officer, Ryk le Seuer, Member of the Legislative Assembly for Worcester, was elected. The corps immediately began to take a share in the guard duties at the Castle. It was clear from the start that the Cavalry intended to be an extremely smart unit. The proposed uniform was a scarlet tunic with cuffs and collar in royal blue, gold lace, blue pantaloons with a white stripe down the outer seams, white belts and metal helmets with a tail of green horse hair. The uniforms were ordered from England and arrived in April 1858, the corps parading in them for the first time on 25th May, but in blue tunics instead of the proposed scarlet. Despite this the outfit was gorgeous enough, the only distinction between the officers and the troopers being the silver and gold ornaments worn by the former, hence the name "The Sparklers". All this show did not go uncriticised. One dissatisfied individual, in a letter to the press in August, complained that the uniform of the "Cape Town Dragoons" as far too gorgeous and conspicuous and he was sorry to see that they had adopted "the clattering, sword-blunting and very objectionable steel scabbard" instead of a leather one. He also recommended leather helmets with thickly quilted covers instead of the current showy silver ones, and that the troopers' uniforms should consist of a stout blouse and a pair of trousers. He ended by saying that more should be left to commandants and less to committees.


There was much to be said for these criticisms. Volunteer corps tended to be one part military unit and three parts club where the rules, the elected committee and a strong democratic feeling meant that the officers' authority went for little. General meetings were held during the course of a year at which every member of the unit considered himself at liberty to air his views, and usually did so. Sanctions were limited to fines and, as a last resort, expulsion. In one humiliating instance, a Colour Sergeant of a corps in the Eastern Province decamped with the unit colours when he was expelled for insubordination. The commanding officer was compelled to recover these by way of a civil action in the Magistrate's Court. Unfortunately, the Magistrate and the commanding officer were one and the same person so another judicial officer had to be imported to try the case.


In normal times, the great attraction of Volunteering was the social life. Communities were small and relatively isolated, mass entertainment was unknown and people had to make their own amusements. Volunteering was one of these, with the attraction of a smart uniform thrown in, but this is not to say that the movement was entirely frivolous. The Indian Mutiny and other troubles during the ensuing five years showed clearly that, once a threat appeared, the Volunteers never failed to rise to the challenge and to render valuable service of a strictly military nature. Inevitably, under peaceful conditions, training could, and did take a lesser place than the social side. Dinners were frequent and were held to celebrate regimental birthdays, the Queen's birthday, and to honour visiting naval and military notables. The toast list was always long with a minimum number of items - the Queen, His Excellency the Governor, our distinguished visitors, other Volunteer corps, Her Majesty's regular forces, the Royal Navy, and naturally, replies to each toast. Many hotel and tavern keepers in the towns of the Colony found it worth their while to establish and advertise Volunteer club rooms. Soldiers have never been abstemious and the licensed victualling trade in the 1850s, knowing this very well, did not neglect a golden opportunity. Front pages of the newspapers, which carried the advertisements, frequently drew the attention of the Volunteers to the existence of comfortable drinking facilities, and the Volunteers did not neglect them.


1858 was not without its excitements. In February certain of the Kaffir prisoners, lodged in the Amsterdam Battery where they had been sent for their part in the Cattle Killing on the frontier, escaped. The Volunteers responded to a call for search parties and were kept hard at work on the 5th and 6th of the month. The Wynberg and Simon's Town Cavalry came into the city, after searching Hout Bay and Camps Bay without result, although 60 of the Rifles were more successful, since they collared the runaways in Breda's Bush in the Oranjezicht area. The following month the Swellendam Rifles were out searching for runaway Kaffir labourers.


In August there was a plea for some kind of organization for the Volunteers in the Peninsula. Its basis was sound, if a little elaborate, and was that the Volunteers should form a brigade which was to consist of:

One brigadier who should be a military man, that is a regular soldier, with a staff officer, also regular.
1. Artillery. (Four 6-pounder guns). One commandant, two subalterns, one surgeon, one apothecary, four sergeants, four bombardiers, one armourer, one store sergeant and 60 gunners.
2. Cavalry. (One squadron of two troops of 40 dragoons each). One captain, two subalterns, one surgeon, one apothecary, four sergeants, four corporals, two farriers, one saddler, two trumpeters and 80 dragoons.
3. Rifle Corps. (Four hundred men in two wings). One commandant, four captains, two surgeons, one adjutant, one quartermaster, two apothecaries, one commissariat officer, four first lieutenants, four second lieutenants, eight sergeants, eight corporals, 360 privates, six buglers. Total 402.

Like all attempts to bring order to chaos, it was to be commended but, as it was bound to cost money and to disturb vested interests, it was doomed from the start. Nor did the Volunteers take kindly to the idea of being organized and to taking orders from Imperial regular officers. There developed a small Volunteer staff in Cape Town at this time with Colonel Hill, Resident Magistrate of the city, as Colonel-in-Chief and Alfred de Pass, a merchant, as Commissariat Officer, but their duties were limited to organizing the administrative side of reviews and field days. Lieutenant Colonel John Eustace who was elected to command the Cape Royal Rifles in October 1858, was also gazetted as lieutenant colonel of the Cape Town Volunteers and acted as second in command to Colonel Hill, and in 1860 an additional staff officer was appointed.


One of the first Volunteer units, the D'Urban Cavalry, soon obtained an excellent reputation for efficiency which it maintained throughout its existence. After the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny, an enormous demand developed for horses for service in the cavalry and horse artillery regiments of the Bengal Army. By that time, the Cape had established an enviable reputation for its horseflesh and the Indian Army had a permanently stationed remount agent in the Colony. The D'Urban Cavalry was the first unit to sell its horses to him and then set to work to train a fresh set of mounts for its own use. By October 1858, it had also established, equipped and trained a band which made its first public appearance in that month at a bazaar. It was trained by a bandmaster employed by the corps who had previously served in the West Indies. In December the gallant cavalrymen turned out and captured a party of Kaffirs proceeding to Wellington, who had stolen a sheep on the way.
New uniforms arrived for the Cape Royal Rifles in January 1859, and, instead of their black regimentals, the Rifles adopted a dark green tunic with silk braid facings and what the newspapers described as "flower-pot shaped hats", actually shakos of the current British Army pattern. The Rifles had also engaged a bandmaster from the 59th Regiment named Namick who had obviously not accompanied his old regiment to India to help suppress the Mutiny.


The Colony as a whole could now muster a growing number of Volunteer units and a list giving the position as at 1st January 1859, reads:

Cape Town 1 troop cavalry (Cape Town Cavalry)
  1 company artillery (Cape Volunteer Artillery)
  2 companies rifles (Cape Royal Rifles)
D'Urban 2 troops cavalry (D'Urban Cavalry)
Wynberg and Simon's Town 1 troop cavalry (Wynberg and Simon's Town Cavalry)
  1 company artillery (Simon's Town Artillery)
Stellenbosch 1 troop cavalry
  1 company rifles
Graaf Reinet 1 company mounted riflemen
Worcester 1 troop cavalry
  1 company rifles
Swellendam 1 company rifles
George 1 company mounted riflemen
Paarl 1 troop cavalry
  1 company rifles
Port Elizabeth 1 company rifles (Port Elizabeth Volunteer Rifles)
Langkloof 1 company mounted riflemen


The Volunteer Corps of Cape Town Sappers and Miners was born, like all other corps, at a public meeting held in this instance, in July 1859, at the usual venue, the Town House. Advertisements in the press promised that the uniform would be a scarlet flannel blouse with dark blue facings, white waist and cartouche belts, dark blue forage cap and blue flannel trousers with broad red stripe down the outside seams. Recruiting went well and within a fortnight of the meeting strength had reached 65 with the contractor for the Cape Town to Wellington railway line promising to raise another 50 men, presumably from among his employees. One of the inducements held out to prospective sappers was the low cost of uniform which was to be 2 12s. 6d. and the tailor who put in this tender was successful in being appointed contractor to the corps while the Governor did his share by making 150 muskets available from army stores. Contemporary reports state the corps was soon proving extremely popular among the working class, but there was soon trouble. On the formation of the Sappers and Miners, it was decided that the officers should be appointed by the Governor in view of the technical nature of their duties, instead of being elected by the corps as was the usual practice. The officers were duly appointed but in no time the inevitable protest meeting by the other ranks was demanding that the usual elective methods be applied. The officers all resigned and at a further meeting were all re-elected to the posts to which they had originally been appointed. Honour was satisfied.


The individual Volunteer paid for his own uniform and, if a corps had an elaborate dress, it tended to turn away many who felt that they could not afford the expense, a notable tendency in Cape Town in 1859. A number of individuals who were not prepared to join the Cape Royal Rifles for this reason, petitioned Colonel Hill to hold a meeting to discuss the formation of a corps of Light Infantry which would impose no entrance fee, would limit the monthly subscription to one shilling and charge the member five shillings a month for the cost of uniform until this had been paid off, the purpose of all this being to recruit the working man. The Rifles met and decided to reduce expenses with the result that in September the idea of forming a light infantry corps was dropped and 79 prospective members applied to join the Rifles. At the same time the Artillery took stock of the same question. Its numbers were rising and were then 60, but the full price of uniform to each member was 18, a lot of money in 1859, and it was decided to allow members to pay off the cost in instalments.


The next large Volunteer review was held at Durbanville and, in addition to the usual drilling and skirmishing, the organizing committee decided to extend the scope of the entertainment. This was advertised in the Cape Argus, 4th October 1859:


To Volunteers ! !

The Committee for the Management of the


On Thursday evening,
6th instant
beg to invite all Volunteers of the Western Division to the same, a Programme of which is subjoined for general information.


Under the patronage of Colonel Hill, Colonel van der Byl,
and the officers commanding the Volunteers of the Western Division.

The Corps Dramatique composed of the different Volunteer Corps will have the honour of performing
on the Evening of
The 6th October, 1859,
The Celebrated Burletta, by Charles Selby, Esq.
The Monarch and the Mimic,
after which a vocal interlude.

The Whole to conclude with the screaming, roaring
farce by Mark Lemon, Esq.; called
The Two Buzzards !

All this in the best tradition of low-brow entertainment for the troops! The review itself was a success with 600 men on parade, 300 of them being Cape Royal Riflemen and including two new companies. Shortly after the review, the Cape Volunteer Artillery published a regimental order which stated "to Gunners Sorey and Roe the company is indebted for the use of two excellent teams of horses". The artillery was to continue being indebted to these gunners for a few more years as the result of governmental meanness in failing to provide the corps with horses for the essential business of pulling the guns, although their skill in gunnery was growing apace. In November they had three guns and competed against the regulars of the Royal Artillery with shot and shell over a thousand yards.

The D'Urban Cavalry decided to expand its band to full cavalry band size and lured Bandmaster Namick away from the Rifles in October at an annual salary of 100 guineas. Further instruments were imported from Europe at a cost of 100, and at the end of the year the Cavalry band with a strength of 17 instrumentalists, all mounted, was reported as being far better than "the Rifles discordant band."


The last notable event of 1859 was the raising of the Scotch Volunteer Rifle Corps. The usual meeting was held at the Masonic Hotel on 2nd November where 50 enthusiasts resolved to form themselves into a national company of the Cape Royal Rifles, but with a special uniform of green doublet, tartan trousers and a forage cap with a band of Rob Roy tartan round it. Some expressed a preference for the kilt, but history is silent whether anyone apart from the commanding officer wore it. The Rifles were by no means overjoyed at the proposed accretion to their strength and only agreed to admit the new company after a general meeting at which some hard things were said by all ranks. The election of officers for the new company provided more uproar. There was no difficulty about the company commander, Robert Granger(6), a prominent merchant and shipowner who had seen service in the 7th Kaffir War, but the two remaining officer posts produced four candidates to fill them. The aspirants did not hesitate to publish notices on the front pages of the local press, soliciting support and denigrating each other. Two of them, Hawthorne and Spence, who stood on a ticket of two, won handsomely. The Scotch Volunteers paraded for the first time at a field day on 2nd January 1860. On the 12th the Artillery took their guns out to Mowbray for a live shoot on Mr. Mostert's farm. Later in the month the Government announced that in future arms and accoutrements would be supplied to the Volunteers from Ordnance Stores, and on the 25th the Scotch Volunteers met at a dinner to celebrate the birth of Robert Burns.


A colonel-in-chief's drill on the Grand Parade on 28th January 1860, provided the Cape Town Volunteers with their first tragedy. The Rifles and the Sappers and Miners, formed into two squares, were charged by the Cape Town Cavalry who were received with volleys of blank musketry, and then broke round the flanks. While passing a flank, two cavalrymen took the contents of 16 rifles and Colonel Eustace, who was on horseback in the rear of a square, saw one of them fall out of his saddle. Eustace, who had commanded Turkish irregular cavalry in the Crimean War, immediately enquired whether any of the infantry had fired off his ramrod, something which raw troops were very prone to do in the heat of action with muzzle-loading arms, but no-one had. The unfortunate cavalryman, Trooper E. C. Turpin, was examined and found to have been hit in the stomach and lung by three small segments of lead. He died two hours later. Before dying he signed his will, drawn up by Sergeant Arderne of the Rifles, a leading Cape Town Attorney, and approved by his commanding officer, Captain the Hon. William Porter, Attorney General of the Colony. The fault lay in the conical lead bullet issued to the troops, which had a hollow base and a groove cut round the outside of it. The bullet frequently broke during live firing, leaving a circular portion of the base in the barrel. Subsequently, blank firing often dislodged this ring and blew it out, and the unfortunate Turpin was unlucky enough to be in the way when this happened.

He was buried in a style which was a combination of Military ceremonial and Victorian ideas of what was proper on such occasions. The Press described the procession in detail:
"The following was the order for procession of the funeral cortege, the corpse on a gun carriage drawn by horses, The Volunteers with arms reversed, the instruments and drums of the band craped and muffled:

Cape Royal Rifles-Firing Party
The Band
The Pipe-Major of the Corps
Artillery Cavalry Sergeant Meintjies, with cap and sword of Deceased
Colonel Eustace [alongside] Corpse [alongside] Col.-in-Chief Hill
Pall Bearers [alongside] Capt. Comdg. Porter [alongside] Colonel du Prat [alongside] Pall Bearers
Deceased's Horse (bearing his boots, spurs and accoutrements)
Relatives of Deceased
Friends (two and two)
Scotch Company, C.R.R.
Cape Royal Rifles
Sergeants of each Corps
Sappers and Miners
The Artillery
Cavalry on Foot
Commissioned Officers of Corps
Mr. Purveyor Peter and H. Hall R.E.D.
His Excellency the Lieutenant Governor
General Wynyard CB, and Staff
His Excellency's Pad Grooms
Deceased's "Medical Attendants""

The Horse Guards in London, to whom the incident was reported, had some sour remarks to make about "Colonial Volunteers", but it was generally agreed that the culprit in this instance was the type of ammunition issued. The upshot was an order that all rifles were to be inspected after firing live ammunition and, "in order to prevent accidents, the charging by cavalry of infantry squares will be discontinued, a sham fight must be against an imaginary enemy in future." Generations of South African soldiers have been familiar with orders of this kind.


The institution of honorary membership became popular with men who were willing to support the Volunteer movement with an annual subscription and who were in some cases permitted to wear the uniform of the corps of which they were honorary members, but this did not imply any liability for attending drills, shoots or reviews. Its value lay in identifying the Volunteers more closely with the community. In February 1860, the Colonial Secretary and two judges of the Supreme Court were mentioned as being members. To be an honorary member of the Cape Royal Rifles cost 2/6 a month or 30/- a year, although the amount of the subscription varied from corps to corps. The duty of reminding honorary members that their subscriptions were due and of collecting them lay on A. de Pass, the Volunteer commissariat officer who published a notice annually in the press to that effect. Some units ran their own honorary membership funds, but members of the public who wanted to support the movement as a whole were entitled to subscribe to a general fund whose proceeds were divided among the various units. This was another cause of trouble, as there was seldom agreement on a method of dividing the money equitably. The Sappers and Miners at one stage refused to have anything to do with the rest of the Cape Town Volunteers, except for strictly operational purposes, as they felt that they had done badly in the share out.


At all times in history, soldiers have been great imitators of each other in matters of uniform, arms and behaviour. Usually the sartorial fashions of the most successful army of the time are followed by all the other armies, and in the 1850s the army of the Second French Empire, resting on its laurels from the Crimea and Northern Italy, was the model. The French kepi was copied by the British and American armies and a tunic cut on French lines became popular. Cape Town did not escape this influence as in October 1859, there was a move to form a regiment of Turcos in the Peninsula, inspired by the performance of Algerian troops of the French army in Italy and even more by their picturesque dress. A committee was formed and a grandiloquent announcement made that some influential merchants had guaranteed the formation of a regiment of 600 men. In view of the manpower already in the Volunteers of the city, this was either wishful thinking or pure nonsense, and the proposal came to nothing. The Mother City was spared the sight of some of its martially minded citizens parading down Adderley Street clad in tarbooshes, waistcoat-sized jackets and baggy red plus fours!(7)

The Cape Royal Rifles managed to replace the bandmaster seduced away by the D'Urban Cavalry with another named Ireson, and the Scotch Volunteers acquired a pipemajor named Cowan. Local composers of music were obviously inspired by the Volunteers and in February 1860, there appeared in the press an advertisement offering a piece of music entitled "The Cape Cavalry Galop" by Miss S. Kannemeyer, dedicated by permission to Captain Porter.
Price 2/6 at Darters. Darter himself wrote and published the Cape Volunteer Artillery March in June 1860, also at 2/6 per copy.


The climax of Volunteering in this early period was marked by the visit of Prince Alfred to South Africa in the second half of 1860. From the moment he stepped ashore, the Prince was equipped with an escort of Volunteers which passed him on to units further afield. On the day of his arrival the Cavalry were busy controlling the crowds and on 27th July the whole of the Peninsula Volunteers paraded for his inspection. Captain Porter of the Cavalry was appointed aide-de-camp, and appears to have allowed the business of Attorney General to look after itself for the next few weeks. When the Prince visited Simonstown on the 24th of the month, he was received with a salute of guns fired by the Simon's Town Artillery, and he was later escorted back to the city by the Wynberg and Simon's Town Cavalry. On the 30th he visited Mulder's Vlei, under escort of the D'Urban Cavalry. The visit must have been a great success because the press were able to report:
"Prince Alfred's Hussars - Since the Prince's visit to Mulder's Vlei the martial spirit has seized upon the surrounding farmers, and a corps, to be named 'Prince Alfred's Hussars', is to be raised forthwith. It is to be a 'Crack Regiment', and none but gentlemen of large means will be able to be in it."
Despite this announcement, the proposed unit remained no more than an idea. Before leaving the Colony, the Prince presented four rifles for competition among the British regulars, the Frontier Armed Mounted Police, the Burghers and the Volunteers, while the Cape Town Volunteers presented him with a group painting of representatives of the various units in Cape Town. The Sappers and Miners put up their commanding officer as one candidate for the artist's brush and balloted among their ranks for the other representative of the corps.


The Prince's gift of rifles proved a great stimulant to target shooting and there was an all-round revival of interest in it. The D'Urban Cavalry proved as keen as anyone and were reported to have been very pleased with some double-barrelled Enfield Cavalry carbines which they had imported from England. In October, 70 of them turned out for a shoot fired over ranges of up to 200 yards, with a silver tea-service as the first prize. 1860 ended with a Volunteer shoot on Green Point Cotnnion on 20th December. The Cavalry were required to fire over 50, 100, 150 and 200 yards with Colt revolvers, the Infantry over 150, 300, 450 and 600 yards with any rifle, and the Artillery over 450, 600, 900 and 1200 yards with cannon, but how the handicapping was done, history does not relate.


In 1862 the Scotch Volunteers broke away from the Rifles. Their appearance was described as "picturesque" and they were still carrying smooth-bore muskets. All was not well with the Wynberg and Simon's Town Cavalry, and there was a move afoot to absorb them into a new corps with what remained of the Simon's Town Artillery. The Governor was duly lobbied for this purpose during his visit to Simon's Town on 3rd February, and the services of the new unit, the Simon's Town Rangers, were accepted and a uniform approved. This was to be a dark grey tunic with waist belt, peg-top trousers with leggings, a felt hat of Garibaldi pattern with feather and the usual belts and pouches. Short Enfield rifles were applied for but, as the Ordnance Stores only had the long pattern, the Rangers had to be content with these.


The removal of two diplomatic envoys of the Confederate States of America from a British packet steamer, Trent, by a warship of the United States almost led to war between Britain and the Northern States. Although the matter was later settled amicably, the alarm travelled fast along the Empire's long sea communications. The Cape, as Britain's major naval base on the route to the East, was a particularly sensitive spot. Reaction to the threat of war was swift, and the Western Province Volunteers turned out with greater enthusiasm than ever before. They were not nearly as worried by the prospect of war with America as they were by the chance that they might be called on to defend the Eastern frontier in another Kaffir War. The very able Chevalier du Prat of the Artillery took the initiative and called a meeting of all officers commanding Volunteer Corps in Cape Town on 31st January 1862, which was attended by Captain Porter (Cavalry), Captain Jones (Cape Royal Rifles), Captain Scott Tucker (Sappers and Miners), and Lieutenant Spence (Scotch Volunteers). Du Prat had already interviewed the Governor and had suggested that the Volunteers could most usefully be employed in manning the guns in the Table Bay Batteries. His suggestion that they all undergo training as coast gunners was agreed to, and a roster of duties was prepared. The Artillery were to man Amsterdam Battery, the Rifles Imhoff Battery, the 11th Foot (Imperial regulars) Fort Knokke and 50 Royal Artillery, hastily recalled from the Eastern frontier, Kyk in die Pot. Fortunately, the batteries had been rearmed with new heavy guns two years before, and the burden of instruction fell on du Prat and his adjutant, Hopkirk.

Recruiting for the Volunteers rocketed, the Artillery calling up its honorary members on 1st February and receiving 20 recruits on the same day. The Rifles found the response equally good, and on the 6th both these units, the Sappers and Miners and even the Cavalry, were hard at work daily in batches of 30 at a time, doing gun drill under Hopkirk. Lieutenant Colonel Eustace, who had shortly before retired from command of the Rifles, and Henry Jones, a former captain in the same unit, rejoined as privates. The press was able to remark gleefully that there were three generals doing gun drill in the batteries, the Attorney General, The Treasurer General and the Surveyor General, while the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Sir Christoffel Brand, was pounding a sentry's beat at the Castle in the uniform of a private of the Cape Royal Rifles!

The defences of the Bay were strengthened by the building of an earthwork at Kyk in die Pot, when 100 convicts from the Breakwater Prison were put to work on 3rd February, shifting soil. The work progressed so rapidly that by the 14th, 40 of them were withdrawn. 68-pounder guns were emplaced and on the 18th of the month, Kyk in die Pot was renamed Fort Wynyard. In May the Volunteers were still at gun drill.

Not all towns in the Colony were able to work as fast. Port Elizabeth had sufficient Volunteers to man some hastily built earthworks but had no heavy guns to emplace in them. Mossel Bay reacted with a meeting of the Town Council which resolved to raise a Volunteer corps and to send an urgent request to Cape Town for guns. With a commendable sense of realities, the Council resolved further to write to the officer commanding the Royal Naval squadron at Simonstown, requesting him to send a warship to cruise off the port of Mossel Bay, in case any Yankee commerce raider arrived to prey on shipping. Neither the Governor nor the Royal Navy obliged. The scare died down and military ardour abated rapidly. By the end of August attendance at musters was poor, and in the same month the Cape Town Municipal Commissioners forbade any further shooting on Green Point Common.


Chevalier du Prat, always on the look-out for the best for the Artillery, began pressing for the issue of the new 12-pounder rifled breech-loader field-gun to his unit. He asked for six and was able to urge their lightness and the difficulty which the Artillery had in getting horses. The new guns could be pulled easily by a team of two animals per gun and the detachment could be reduced to eight men each, instead of the 15 needed for each of the muzzle-loading 6-pounder field guns on issue. He was fully prepared to guarantee the Artillery's efficiency but, in spite of the despatch of eight guns to the Colony late in the year for the Royal Artillery, the Cape Volunteer Artillery had to stick to its old pieces. It was to take one of them to the Frontier in 1877 for service in the 9th Kaffir War!


By the beginning of 1863 keenness was evaporating rapidly. At their annual general meeting in February, the Rifles could obtain an attendance of only 35 out of a total enrolment of 150. Attendance at musters was equally bad, fines for absences were not being collected and there was even debate whether the corps should not be disbanded. The Artillery turned out the strongest at a Volunteer review in April, and the Prince of Wales' marriage in May produced enough gunners in Simon's Town to fire a royal salute, but at a final inspection in December, the Sappers and Miners could turn out only 20 men and the Rifles 40.


The Artillery, however, continued to be keen and began its activities for 1864 with a live shoot on 22nd January. In April du Prat announced his resignation and the Volunteers as a whole lost a remarkable man. He was one of the founders of the movement in the Colony and had been one of the staunchest and most active officers in any unit. His public spiritedness had even taken the form of organizing a volunteer fire brigade in the Southern suburbs while he had been in command of the Artillery. He was succeeded by Lieutenant Brand who was promoted to Captain, and who brought out the gunners to fire a salute on the occasion of the Queen's Birthday in the following month, the only military function which took place to mark the event in Cape Town. More Zulu troubles in June threw Natal into a panic and caused the departure of the 11th Foot (later the Devonshire Regiment) from garrison in the Peninsula to allay public fears in the other colony. At once Volunteer attendances improved remarkably and the usual offer was made to the Governor to do garrison duty. This time it was refused, as the Commander of the Forces, Lieutenant General Sir Percy Douglas, was confident that the regular garrison of one company of infantry was sufficient.


The year 1865 opened with trouble for the Volunteers of the Colony. In 1864 two regular officers had been instructed to make an inspection of the various units in the Eastern and the Western Provinces. In the former, the inspecting officer was Colonel John Bisset, an 1820 Settler who had served in the 6th Kaffir War as a burgher and who had later been commissioned into the Cape Mounted Riflemen. He had served with credit in the 7th and 8th Kaffir Wars and after a distinguished career in the British Army, he received a knighthood and eventual promotion to Major General.

In his report of January 1864, he praised the Port Elizabeth Volunteer Artillery but noted that their guns stood in the open, needed repainting and, when used for drill, horses had to be hired to pull them. He also had praise for the Port Elizabeth Volunteer Rifles as being a corps that took the trouble to make itself efficient and had a number of old soldiers and former German military settlers in its ranks. Its arms, however, were worn out and useless and were those originally issued to the German Legion. The Grahamstown Volunteer Cavalry and Volunteer Rifles appeared no longer to exist and he recommended that their arms be called in. The Bathurst Rifles consisted of the right sort of men, but the turnout for his inspection had been poor as the weather was rainy and the harvest was being gathered. Bisset's report was probably a fair one, and the Eastern Province Volunteers could hardly claim that he was an ignorant and prejudiced Englishman.

The report on the Western Volunteers was made in February 1864, by a Brevet Major Jones who appeared to like the Volunteers as little as they liked him. His report, however, was by no means unfair. He attributed the decline in volunteering to the current economic depression in the Colony, and the consequent unwillingness of the average man to undertake the expense of serving in the Volunteers.

"There are at present in Cape Town the cadres of no less than five independent corps, whose aggregate enrolled strength only amounts to 480 officers and men, and when the actual numbers which can be assembled on parade are considered, it evidently appears desirable that the whole of these five corps should be amalgamated into one battalion, for the existing diversity of dress and the attempts at Brigade movements by the combination of incongruous little detachments brings ridicule on the Volunteers at every parade."

He proceeded to deal with each corps individually. The Simon's Town Rangers were animated by a good spirit and their numbers, although few, bore a good proportion to those of the working classes from which they were recruited, and in an emergency they could be augmented by dockyard hands. It was fairly drilled in the manual of arms, platoon exercises and company movements, while its shooting was moderately good. The Cape Town Rifles, although the strongest Cape Town Corps, had falling numbers because of economic hard times and the general decay of the Volunteer movement. Arms were kept in an indifferent condition and as many were privately owned, there was little uniformity. The corps was dressed in rifle green with black leather accoutrements, but its military activities were limited to parading on the Grand Parade, marching past, firing blank and skirmishing. The Scotch Volunteer Rifle Corps was only mustered for inspection with great difficulty. Its drill was indifferent and, apart from a few good shots, musketry was poor and received no attention as part of unit training. Clothing was of an expensive national character and resulted in a great variety of dress on parade.

The Volunteer Engineers (Sappers and Miners) were composed of mechanics, officered by civil servants, and were well drilled when they could be mustered. The long Enfield rifles on issue were not popular and proved too cumbersome when the sappers were engaged in digging. Their uniform was like that of the Royal Engineers and was much worn. Apparently it was also proving too expensive for many of them, and Government assistance was wanted to acquire it. Their shooting was also only moderate. The Cape Volunteer Artillery was the one corps to come in for praise. Its spirit was better than any in Cape Town, its guns were kept in a good shed in the Castle ditch and were drawn by hired horses, (probably a reference to Gunners Sorey and Roe), with harness which was the property of the corps. Ammunition was supplied for practice at Government expense, and Major Jones reported that he had seen a shoot carried out at a range of 800 yards in a regular manner. The guns and carriages were in a fair state, considering the length of time they had been in possession of the Volunteers, but the latter would be the better for a coat of paint. So far the money voted for the purchase of horses had not been used, and they were hired when needed, being harnessed two to a gun. The last corps investigated was the Stellenbosch Rifles. The commanding officer had to report that he had been unable to find anyone to parade, and Jones advised that the arms were all unserviceable from rust. His final recommendation was that all the Cape Town Corps should be merged into a single unit with a standard uniform.

Understandably, dynamite like this was not released immediately, and the Cape Town Volunteers were not made aware of the contents of the report until February 1865, a year after it had been made. A very stormy meeting on the 18th of the month had to be adjourned after the Governor, the Commander of the Forces and Major Jones had come in for vociferous criticism from all ranks, in the best volunteer tradition. The report was reconsidered on 7th March and it was resolved that the decision to amalgamate the various units be left to each corps, which in practice meant that each corps continued to go its own way. In September the Artillery dined in celebration of their anniversary, secure in the knowledge that they at least had much to be proud of.

The subsequent history of most of the other units was short, and within a year or two most of them had ceased to exist.

A few figures illustrate the rise and fall of the Volunteer movement in the Colony in the first period of its existence.

In 1861 there were 35 units with a total strength of 1814 all ranks. The following year's total was 28 units and 1165 men. By 1863 the numbers were 24 units and 1234 men. The numbers then began to diminish:
1864 .. 17 units and 963 men
1865 .. 13 units and 723 men
1866 .. 7 units and 532 men
1867 .. 5 units and 329 men
1868 .. 5 units and 320 men

In 1869 the movement had reached the nadir of its existence with only five corps left, the Cape Town Cavalry, 36 strong; Prince Alfred's Own Volunteer Artillery, 65 strong; The Duke of Edinburgh's Own Volunteer Rifles 100 strong; the Port Elizabeth Volunteer Artillery, 32 strong, and the Port Elizabeth Volunteer Rifles, 49 strong.

Somehow the small hard core managed to keep these few units alive, and 1870 heralded the beginning of better times for the movement. A scant 10 years later, the Volunteers were to give the Colony sterling service in a five-year series of frontier wars, and by then the lesson had been learned that their first commitment was the defence of Colonial territory. South Africa's fine tradition of citizen soldiering had been given the solid foundation on which today's regiments have been built.

1. Still in existence as Prince Alfred's Guard.
2. Now Cape Field Artillery.
3. Disbanded in 1888.
4. The town of Durbanville was originally known as Pampoenfontein. Later it received the name D'Urban, changed to Durbanville in the l880s to obviate confusion with Durban, Natal.
5. The editor of Punch.
6. See "Captain Robert Granger and the Scotch Volunteer Rifle Corps", Africana Notes and News, Vol. 14 (1960-1961), P. 266 for further detail.
7. It may be noted that a keen regiment of New York Volunteers, known as Zouaves set out in 1861 to fight in the American Civil War in exactly this uniform.

Cape Monitor - 1855-1862.
Cape Argus - 1857-1865.
Cape Colony Blue Book - 1858-1870.

Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home page

South African Military History Society /