Gateway to the Classics: The Struggle for Sea Power by M. B. Synge
The Struggle for Sea Power by  M. B. Synge

At the Cape of Good Hope

"I hear the sound of pioneers,

Of nations yet to be."


T HE capture of the Cape of Good Hope was an important result of the battles of Camperdown and Trafalgar. The first of these destroyed the sea power of Holland, the second secured it to England.

Slowly but surely the little colony founded by Van Riebeek at the Cape had grown and prospered. Let us take up its story from those early days.

For some time, the colonists had been content to stay under the shadow of Table Mountain, but as the years passed on, the younger colonists became adventurous. Musket in hand, to drive back the native Hottentots of the country, they began to explore inland, until little settlements sprang up in all directions. They were presently joined by some 300 French Huguenots, who had been driven from their country and taken refuge in Holland. At first these people clung to their French language and service of the French church, but soon the Dutch forbade this, and they talked and worshipped with their neighbours. Not long after their arrival, a terrible outbreak of smallpox swept whole tribes of Hottentots away, and the inland country was clear for the European colonists. Farther and farther inland now they spread, over the mountains to the pasture land beyond. The grass was thin, and it was necessary to graze the cattle over wide stretches of ground. Thus they became more and more cut off from the coast and from the far-off homes of their ancestors. With their wives and children they followed the cattle from spot to spot: their children were untaught, their wives forgot the neat and cleanly ways of their Dutch forefathers. At last they reached the Great Fish River and came in contact with the Kaffirs. These were the natives, who occupied the lands from the Zambesi to the Great Fish River. They consisted of a number of tribes, constantly making war on each other, who appear later under various names of Zulus, Swazis, and Basutos.

All the colonists fretted under the misrule of the Dutch East India Company. They were worried with petty laws and obliged to pay heavy taxes; the farmers were told exactly what to grow, and forced to give up much of their produce. The company had broken faith with the natives, and had imported a number of slaves into the colony, which had no need of negro labour. When, therefore, in the year 1795 the news spread, that English troops were in possession of Cape Town, the idea of change was not wholly unwelcome. The English came as friends of the Dutch, in their united struggle against the French. The Prince of Orange was an exile in England, and the English carried a letter from him to the Dutch officials at the Cape.

Conquerors and conquered came of the same stock. Of all the nations in Europe, the people of Holland are closest to those of Great Britain. True, 1400 years of separation had altered the history of each, but many points of resemblance were left. Both were a liberty-loving people, both were Protestant, both had Viking blood in their veins. Moreover, it was as simple for the Dutchman to learn English, as it was for the Englishman to learn Dutch. Here is a quaint picture, of how the colonists from the surrounding districts came into Cape Town, to take the oath of allegiance to George III. of England.

Over the Dutch castle flew the English flag. Within was the English governor. The gates stood open. First came the Dutch officials, all dressed in black, "well-fed, rosy-cheeked men with powdered hair." They walked in pairs with their hats off. They were followed by the Boers or farmers, who had come in from distant parts of the colony. They were splendid men, head and shoulders above their neighbours, and broad in proportion. They were dressed in blue cloth jackets and trousers and tall flat hats. Behind each, crept a black Hottentot servant, carrying his master's umbrella. The Hottentot was small: he wore a sheepskin round his shoulders, and a hat trimmed with ostrich feathers.

For nearly eight years, the English ruled. Then came another peace between France and England after the battle of Copenhagen, by which the Cape was given back to Holland, now subject to France. The old Dutch East India Company had by this time disappeared, for since the battle of Camperdown, Holland had lost command of the sea. For the next three years, the Cape was hers again. Africa is a land of surprises: once more she was to change hands.

The Cape had been "swept into the whirlpool" of the European conflict raging with Napoleon. More than ever now, England felt the importance of possessing the Cape as a naval stronghold, as a half-way house to her ever-increasing dominions in India. The power of the sea was now hers beyond dispute. The victory of Trafalgar made all things possible. So she sent an expedition to South Africa. Early in the new year of 1806, sixty-three English ships came sweeping into Table Bay. But a gale was blowing, and the heavy surf rolling in to the shore, made landing impossible for a time. The Dutch prepared to defend Cape Town, but they had not the means or the men. It was the height of summer, and the Boers of the country could not leave their farms. So the English took the Cape, and once again the British flag flew from the top of the castle ramparts.

A few years later the English occupation was acknowledged, and Holland sold her rights for the sum of £6,000,000.

The English governors were men of high character, and anxious for the welfare of the new colony. Reforms were introduced, schools were built, the slave-trade was forbidden, justice administered. The Dutch law was allowed to remain as it was, and it is to-day the common law of all the British colonies in South Africa.

It seemed as if an era of peace and prosperity were about to begin, and there seemed no reason why the history of the happy union of English and Dutch at New York, in America, should not repeat itself.

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