Why was the Chavonnes Battery built?
The battery is often wrongly labelled as a colonial edifice. In fact, however, it arose not out of colonialism but from something completely different: globalisation.
There is nothing new about globalisation except the name. It actually started in the first half of the 17th Century with the burgeoning of trade between Western Europe and the Far East. The resulting exchange of goods – particularly spices - and services changed the face of the world.
Stout-hearted Portuguese mariners had pioneered the sea-routes to the Far East from the end of the 15th Century onwards, but by the 17th Century their place had largely been taken by three of the largest commercial companies the world had yet seen - the Dutch East India Company, or VOC (the largest of them), the English East India Company and the French East India Company. The three companies engaged in cut-throat competition for the Far Eastern trade. They had their own armies and navies, and thought nothing of capturing one or other of the hundreds of trading outposts and re-supply stations they all maintained in the Orient and along the routes there.
But they all had two common enemies: Time and distance. The Far Eastern trade was immensely lucrative, but just getting there from Europe could easily take six months. The prevailing winds required that an East Indiaman sail southwards to the coast of Brazil and then dog-leg eastwards to pass the southern tip of Africa.
By this time its supply of water would be almost undrinkable, if any was still left, and its food barely eatable. Many sailors would be ill from scurvy, caused by a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables. The ships themselves frequently needed repairs to their hulls or rigging after battling the South Atlantic storms. And another two or three months’ journeying across the Indian Ocean still lay ahead. So the Dutch East India Company beat its competitors to the draw sent out an official named Jan van Riebeeck to set up an outpost at Cape Town … and the “Honourable Company”, as it liked to call itself, was very clear about it wanted.
Van Riebeeck was explicitly instructed not to indulge in unnecessary money-wasting activities such as establishing a colony, making war on the various independent Khoina clans inhabiting the Cape or trying to convert them to Christianity. What the VOC wanted at what was then called the “Caabsche Vlek”, or Cape Hamlet, in fact, was nothing more or less than a large-scale equivalent of today’s roadside “truck stops”. Van Riebeeck was to provide passing ships with fresh water and food, flour for baking bread and fresh meat. He was to set up a ship-repair facility and establish a hospital for nursing sick sailors back to health. Van Riebeeck carried out his instructions with such diligence that within less than a decade and a half the Cape outpost had become so important to the VOC’s operations that the company’s directors, the Lords Seventeen, approved the massive expense of building the stone-walled Castle of Good Hope.
The Castle’s main purpose was not to protect the Cape Hamlet against the indigenous clans, with whom relations were usually fairly good, but to repel any aggressors, mainly the other two companies and the occasional pirates operating along the coasts to its east. And that, eventually, was why the Chavonnes Battery came to be built, although it would not see the light of day for six decades after Van Riebeeck landed at the Cape of Good Hope.
The Castle’s strong left arm
The Castle of Good Hope was a formidable state-of-the art fortress which was quite capable of giving a bloody nose to any likely attacker rash enough to attack the “Caabsche Vlek”, but it had an Achilles heel. There was little to prevent an attacker landing at any of several places on its western flank and then marching on it through the dunes where Green Point and its environs now stand. All that changed with the arrival in 1714 of the 11th commander of the Cape outpost, Governor Maurits or Maurice Pasque, Marquis de Chavonnes. In spite of his very French-sounding name, De Chavonnes was a second-generation Dutchman of noble blood whose grandfather, Joachim Pasque, Marquis de Chavonnes, had fled from France to the Netherlands after the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of Protestants in 1572.
In 1654, when the Caabsche Vlek was just two years old, his grandson Maurice was born in The Hague. A born soldier, he joined the famed “Staatse Leger” or Dutch army and eventually rose to command an infantry battalion during the 1701-1713 War of the Spanish Succession. De Chavonnes resigned after the war, entered the DEIC’s service, and was soon named to replace Cape Governor Louis van Assenburg, who had died at the very end of December 1712.
The outpost’s unprotected western flank was intolerable to an experienced soldier like De Chavonnes, and although the Lords Seventeen had instructed him to hold down expenses he persuaded them that to deter any aggressor attacking from the west it was necessary to build a strong elevated battery on a rocky promontory at the water’s edge where the lower slopes of the “Lion’s Rump” (now Signal Hill) ran down into the sea. It was a massive undertaking for an outpost as small as the Caabsche Vlek and took 11 years to complete, thanks at least partly to a shortage of lime and masons – and, no doubt, funding from the ever-parsimonious VOC. But when it was inaugurated in 1726, it was a formidable piece of work.
Sad to say, however, the man who had created it was not there to see the battery fire its triumphant inaugural salute. On 18 September 1725, with the battery only a few months from completion, De Chavonnes fell ill and died after just one day, aged 72.
Why was the battery so deadly?In the early 18th Century, ships were the equivalent of today’s airborne forces, because they could land troops at any spot along a hostile coast where boats could go ashore. But a well-found shore battery like the Chavonnes Battery posed a deadly danger to any such amphibious operation.
It was a stable firing platform, so that its gunners could bring accurate fire to bear on hostile ships, or rain grapeshot on boats trying to land troops to its left or right. It could mount heavier guns than many ships because it had fewer weight limitations and had more ammunition readily available because space was not a problem either. Its stone-faced walls could ward off any projectiles a ship could fire.
The famed Cape chronicler Otto Mentzel – himself a soldier in the Castle garrison from 1733 to 1741 – later wrote that it “is best situated for a bombardment of enemy ships. It is built upon rocks and surrounded by them, while its guns are placed low down over the water. If the gunners did but train them in a directly horizontal position on their carriages … it would scarcely be possible for them to miss an enemy ship, while the holes that the balls would make would be close to the water-line, and therefore very dangerous”. The battery could dish up multiple other miseries. In addition to ship-killing solid round shot it could fire bar shot or chain shot to destroy sails and rigging, or grape and canister shot which fanned out in a deadly shotgun-like spray after leaving the muzzles of its guns. Two shot-ovens also allowed its gunners to fire round shot brought to red heat – a terrible threat to wooden ships with their huge spreads of highly inflammable sails.
Its main weakness was that it was vulnerable to attack from the rear, like most batteries of its type. This was never addressed, but its later next-door neighbour to the east, the Amsterdam Battery, was capable of all-round defence.
If you want peace, prepare for war…
Although De Chavonnes died before the great battery was completed, his work was done. Over the next 70 years there was a vast expansion of the Cape’s defences; the Chavonnes Battery was the first of a chain of coastal fortifications which would eventually protect not only Cape Town’s and its flanks but its “back door”, the road over Kloof Nek from Camps Bay. With one minor exception, though, none of them ever fired a shot in anger, and were probably not fully manned except on rare occasions (for example, the Chavonnes Battery’s usual peace-time complement was a small permanent garrison which would be augmented from various sources during times of emergency).
But the first duty of any armed force is not to fight wars but to avoid them by deterring any aggressors. And the fact is that during its first 143 years the Cape outpost was not once attacked by anyone. The big guns grinning from its batteries’ ramparts were a deterrent in themselves.
The many names of the Chavonnes Battery
The battery might have been the brain-child of Maurice Pasque, but it did not get its current name till almost two decades after his death. It was variously known as the “Grote Batterij”, or Great Battery, the “Water Casteel”(Water Castle), the “Water Schanz” (Water Breastwork) and the “Mauritius Battery”, a play on his first name. It was only officially dubbed the “Chavonnes Battery” in 1744, a long-overdue honour, but one which has lasted for more than 270 years.
Who were the people involved in the battery?
The answer is, men and women from almost every walk of life. Firstly, of course, there were the gunners themselves. They were men recruited from many nations – German, Dutch, French, Swedish, Irish, to name only a few nationalities. They probably included Eurasians from the Far East, since the Company did not worry much about a man’s race (Governor Simon van der Stel, for example, was of mixed ancestry.
So were many of the part-time soldiers of the Burgher Militia, since there had been much inter-marriage between Company servants and freed slaves from half a dozen different countries after 1658. In De Chavonnes’s time all free males – including freed slaves - within the jurisdiction of the outpost were liable for some form of part-time military or paramilitary service. The indigenous Khoina were not liable for service, although many served voluntarily for a number of reasons.
Artisans of various kinds worked at the battery off and on, and there was usually a contingent of convicts sentenced to hard labour to do the dirty work. No doubt they preferred the lock-up at the Chavonnes Battery to the miserable huts on Robben Island where some of their colleagues were sent to collects and burn sea-shells for lime. There would have been some slaves, and no doubt hawkers with their yoked baskets came to call, as well as fish-wives from the now-vanished fishing village of Rogge Bay, and periodically officials of the “Honourable Company” would make their appearance for anything from inspections to ceremonies.