The Battle of Cape Town

Also known as the Battle of Blaauwberg, this small yet significant battle was fought around what is modern day Cape Town on the 8th of January 1806. It was the battle that helped establish British rule in South Africa and one of very few battles of the Napoleonic War fought outside of Europe.

The Background of the Battle of Cape Town

At the time of the battle the Cape Colony was controlled by Holland (called the Batavian Republic at the time), a country which had been defeated and then allied with France in the early years of the Napoleonic Wars. The sea route around the Cape was an important part of the British trade and war infrastructure at the time and to protect it the decision was made to attack and occupy the Cape Colony. This would not only protect the trade route, but would deny the French access to the riches of the Far East.

The Fleet Assembles

A British fleet was assembled and dispatched to the Cape in July 1805 to prevent any further garrisoning of the Cape Colony by the French. It was made up of 60 ships including the 64 gun man-o-war HMS Diadem, the 32 gun ship HMS Leda and two brigs called the HMS Encounter and HMS Protector. The fleet itself was commanded by Commodore Sir Home Popham who was supported by Major-General David Baird and 6500 troops.

First Encounter

The first ships in the British Fleet reached the Cape on Christmas Eve 1805. They immediately attacked and damaged two French supply ships off the Cape Peninsula. This put the Cape Colony Garrison, under the command of by Lt Gen Jan Willem Janssens, on full alert. However, his forces had been stripped down by his commanders in Europe and all of his best forces had been sent back to Holland. This left him with a small force of poor quality soldiers and foreign mercenaries hired by the Batavian government for the purpose of defending the Cape. These forces were in turn backed up by local militia and a “Hottentot” regiment. There were also 240 French Marines under the command of Colonel Guadin Beauchene from the ships Atalante and Napoleon.

The British Land at Melkbosstrand

After an abortive landing at what is now Camps Bay and delays caused by rough seas, two British infantry brigades under command of Lt Gen Sir David Baird, landed at Melkbosstrand just north of modern day Cape Town on the 6 and 7 January 1806. Lt Gen Janssens mobilised his combined forces to intercept them, but knowing that victory was impossible he decided to fight for both his and the Batavian Republics honour.

The Battle of Blaauwberg Begins

Lt Gen Janssens intended to first attack the British on the beaches so as to inflict as much damage as possible before withdrawing to the interior. However, the well trained British troops disembarked and marched upon Cape Town before the Batavian and French forces could reach them. The British therefore reached the slopes of Blaauwberg mountain and took the high ground a few kilometres ahead of Lt Gen Janssens. Janssens was forced to halt his troops and formed a line across the veld facing the much larger and well trained British force.

The battle of Blaauwberg began at sunrise with short, sharp exchanges of artillery fire. This was followed by the unexpected advance by Janssens’s militia cavalry. Volleys of musket fire were fired by both sides forcing one of the mercenary units hired by the Batavian Republic to turn and run. Seizing the moment the British immediately ordered a bayonet charge. This disposed of the units on Janssens’s right flank and he was forced to order his remaining troops to withdraw.

Losses on Both Sides

Although soundly beaten, the Batavian troops inflicted a fairly high number of casualties on the British. The final dead and wounded totals on both sides consisted of:

Batavian Troops
353 in casualties and desertions out of 2,049 on the field of battle

British Troops
212 casualties out of 5,399 men on the field of battle

The Aftermath of the Battle

After the Battle of Blaauwberg Lt Gen Janssens moved his remaining forces inland to a farm in the Tygerberg area. The British continued their march on Cape Town and reached the outskirts of the city on the 9th of January 1806. The commandant of Cape Town, Lieutenant-Colonel Hieronymus Casimir von Prophalow immediately sent out a white flag to prevent any damage to the colony and handed over the outer fortifications to Lt Gen Sir David Baird. Formal terms of surrender were then negotiated later in the day.

General Janssens had not yet surrendered himself and his remaining troops, but after a number of days and a further 211 desertions he agreed to capitulate. The final Articles of Capitulation were signed on 18 January 1806 and the Cape Colony became part of the British Empire until South Africa became independent in 1931.