Discover some of the world’s oldest working cannons and menacing World War II artillery at the remains of forts on the Cape Peninsula
Words and pictures: Marion Whitehead
Standing on the rampart of the Chavonnes Battery at the V&A Waterfront, waiting for a man dressed in the military uniform of the old Dutch East India Company to ceremonially fire a cannon, is a rather surreal experience of time warp.
Some 300 years ago, we’d have been standing on the edge of the sea, guarding the approach to the strategic Castle of Good Hope. But today the battery’s big cannons point to the ornate Clock Tower, built by the British in the 1860s when they developed Cape Town’s docks. “And if we fired the 24-pounder, the blast wave would smash every window in sight,” says Willem Steenkamp, author, military history buff and storyteller extraordinaire, who was instrumental in establishing the Chavonnes Battery Museum.
Instead the gunners are priming three smaller muzzleloaders that point across the Cut – the channel with a drawbridge between the Clock Tower Precinct and the wharf – in the direction of the V&A Hotel, and will not pop any cannon balls into them. The biggest cannon is a 9-pounder nicknamed Van Hunks because it spews out so much smoke when it fires. “That may sound like small beer, but they make a hell of a noise and shoot out a metre-long muzzle flash,” warns Willem. “As far as I know, the Cape is the only place in South Africa where you can literally smell gunpowder, as the saying goes.”
Boom! The onlookers are delighted, but none of this would have been possible if Chavonnes Battery had not been rediscovered during excavations for the modern V&A Waterfront. Today it’s a museum tucked into the basement of a skyscraper and is a fine place to start a tour of the Peninsula’s big guns.
Willem explains that the superpowers of the 1700s – Holland, England and France – were prone to hijacking each other’s outposts and, since the Cape was the most strategic, it became one of the most heavily fortified ports in Africa. “Whoever controlled the Cape, controlled the lucrative sea trade to the Far East,” he says.
On a tour of the Chavonnes Battery Museum, Willem certainly looks the part: dressed in the uniform of a Dutch soldier of the 1720s, he and his guides regale visitors with stories of how cleverly the battery’s thick walls were constructed to absorb or deflect enemy fire from ships in Table Bay, and are quick to explain how the big 18-, 24- and 36-pounder cannons were primed and loaded.
Table Bay was so well guarded by a ring of redoubts, batteries and forts along its shores that no one dared invade directly. In 1795, the British snuck up from Simon’s Town in the south and in 1806 they anchored off Blouberg beach, out of range of the Dutch cannons, points out Willem, who in real life is a retired major in the Cape Town Highlanders.
There’s not much left of old defences like Fort Knokke in Woodstock and the Amsterdam Battery, but Fort Wynyard, in the shadow of the ultra-modern Cape Town Stadium, is still an SA National Defence Force base. It’s not open to the public, but has one of the finest collection of coast guns on the African continent, from old muzzleloading cannons to World War II artillery pieces, says John Del Monte, a former brigadier general who conducts specialist tours for Cape Heritage Concepts. “It’s one of the few places that give you an idea of all guns – coastal, garrison, heavy field and air-defence artillery,” he says during a visit.
The Castle of Good Hope is undoubtedly the Cape’s best-known fortification. The colourful key ceremony and firing of a small signal cannon each weekday at 10h00 and noon is popular with tourists. You can clamber onto the ramparts and try to imagine what it was like when the sea lapped the coastal wall, and sailing vessels loaded goods from a jetty.
“High tides often blocked the entrance, so Simon van der Stel changed it in 1682 to the one we use today on the Grand Parade side,” says tour guide Sonwabile Maxebengula. In the scary torture chamber, he regales visitors with stories of confessions wrung from prisoners and shows us a model of Jan van Riebeeck’s original mud and timber fort. “The Castle was never attacked, not even once,” says Sonwabile. “The Dutch surrendered to the British in 1795 after the Battle of Muizenberg.”
This ‘back-door approach’ to conquest started with a tale of deception in the appropriately named False Bay, says Chris Taylor, curator of the Battle of Muizenberg Open-air Museum. Standing in the remains of a small redoubt on the mountainside, with a magnificent view of the bay, he explains that, because Simon’s Town was the anchorage of choice in winter, when storms battered Table Bay and wrecked many ships, no one was suspicious when nine, heavily armed, British vessels dropped anchor there to take on supplies. “Their commander conveniently neglected to mention that Holland had been overrun by France and that they were here to take the Cape, so that it did not fall into French possession,” says Chris.
*Read the complete story on Cannons of Cape Town in the September 2014 edition of Country Life.