The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 12 No 3 - June 2002

The Defences of Cape Town

An Interesting Handwritten Record of the Defences of Cape Town
by a Captain in the Royal Engineers taken down in 1808

by Murray Graham

Some years ago, while trying to establish what documentation the Royal Engineers Museum at Chatham might have relating to the first and second occupations of the Cape by the British I was told through a contact that all they had was the following note. Readers may be interested in what it had to say and in my conclusion as to the identity of the mysterious 'Captain E RE'. I am grateful to the Museum for their agreement for me to have it published, with due acknowledgement of their ownership. The note's reference number is 2001-132:

High resolution pdf version of map

I have satisfied myself that the Capt E, RE in 1808' is likely to have been Howard Elphinstone, who is listed as No 254 in the Roll of officers of the Corps of Royal Engineers from 1660 to 1898 by the late Captain T W J Conolly, RE. The master copy is held by the Royal Engineers Library in Chatham. Elphinstone was gazetted second lieutenant on 17 October 1793; lieutenant on 5 February 1796; captain-lieutenaut 1 July 1800 (this rank was converted to second captain on 19 July 1804); and captain on 1 March 1805. His next promotion, to the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Engineers was on 21 July 1813. (The intermediate rank of major was not introduced into the Corps until 5 July 1872).

It is interesting to note that Elphinstone is mentioned in Theal's Records of the Cape Colony, Vol I(1793-6, p 146) as the second signatory under Captain George Bridges, RE, on the receipt for the Inventory of Buildings etc at the surrender of the Cape of Good Hope to the British, signed at the Castle on 20 September 1795. The Dutch signatories were Major of Artillery, George Coenraad Kuchler and Captain of Engineers, Louis Michel Thibault. Both Bridges and Elphinstone had come to the Cape with the British force sent there in 1795.

Elphinstone remained at the Cape until he left with the supporting force sent from there tojoin the main force sent from India in 1801 under Major-General David Baird to help forestall Napeleon's projected expedition to India from Egypt. He was back in England from the disastrous expedition to the River Plate in South America in 1807, fortuitously too late to have joined the British landing there. He was back again in England at the time of the conversation reported above, before he was sent out to the Iberian Peninsula to take part in the campaign there against Napoleon Bonaparte. He gets only the briefest and incomplete mention in Peter Philip's British Residents at the Cape in 1795 (David Philip, CapeTown, 1981). This reference simply repeats a mention of Elphinstone in the African Court Calendar for l80l, re-issued by the South African Library in Cape Town in 1970.

I cannot close without gratefully acknowledging the help that I received from Mrs Maggie Magnusson, the assistant librarian of the Royal Engineers Library, with details she sent me from Captain Conolly's Roll

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