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Invasion of the Cape Colony (1795)

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Invasion of the Cape Colony
Part of the French Revolutionary Wars
Cape Peninsula.jpg
Cape Peninsula region
Date 10 June–15 September 1795
Location Dutch Cape Colony, Southern Africa
Result British victory

 Batavian Republic

Dutch East India Company Dutch Cape Colony
 Great Britain
Commanders and leaders
Dutch East India Company Abraham Josias Sluysken Kingdom of Great Britain George Elphinstone
Kingdom of Great Britain James Craig
3,600 1,800

The Invasion of the Cape Colony was a British military expedition launched in 1795 against the Dutch Cape Colony at the Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of Southern Africa. The Dutch colony at the Cape, established in the seventeenth century, was at the time the only viable South African port for ships making the journey from Europe to the European colonies in the East Indies. It therefore held vital strategic importance, although it was otherwise economically insignificant. In the winter of 1794, during the French Revolutionary Wars, French troops captured the Dutch Republic, which was reformed into the client state of the Batavian Republic. In response, Great Britain launched operations against the Dutch Empire to prevent the use of its facilities by the French Navy.

The British expedition was led by Vice-Admiral Sir George Keith Elphinstone and sailed in April 1795, arriving off Simon's Town at the Cape in June. Attempts were made to negotiate a settlement with the colony, but talks achieved nothing and an amphibious landing was made on 7 August. A short battle was fought at Muizenberg, and skirmishing between British and Dutch forces continued until September when a larger military force landed. With Cape Town under threat, Dutch Governor Abraham Josias Sluysken surrendered the colony. Elphinstone subsequently strengthened the garrison against counterattack and stationed a Royal Navy squadron off the port. Almost a year later a Dutch reinforcement convoy reached the colony only to find that it was badly outnumbered, and surrendered without a fight. The British Cape Colony continued until the Peace of Amiens in 1802 when it was returned to the Dutch. In 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars a second British invasion recaptured the colony after the Battle of Blaauwberg and it remained a British colony until the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910.


The French Revolutionary Wars, which began in 1792 following the French Revolution, expanded in January 1793 when the French Republic declared war on the Dutch Republic and the Kingdom of Great Britain.[1] This brought the war to the Indian Ocean, where both Britain and the Netherlands maintained lucrative empires. Trade from these empires was menaced by French privateers and warships operating from Île de France, (now Mauritius)[2] but it was protected in the waters off Southern Africa by the presence of the Dutch Cape Colony. Situated at the Cape of Good Hope, the Cape Colony had been established in the seventeenth century to offer a harbour for shipping traveling between Europe and the East Indies, and in the 1790s it remained the only such station between Rio de Janeiro and British India.[3]

The Cape Colony was administered from two towns, the larger Cape Town on the wide Table Bay facing west and smaller Simon's Town on False Bay facing south. Neither bay was sheltered from Atlantic storms and both were notoriously dangerous, with winds, currents and rocks posing considerable threats to shipping.[3] Beyond its importance as a resupply port for East Indies shipping the colony had little economic value in the 1790s,[4] and was defended by a garrison of approximately 1,000 Dutch regular soldiers supplemented by Boer militia and local Khoikhoi units, commanded by General Abraham Josias Sluysken and Colonel Robert Jacob Gordon, in total around 3,600 troops. This garrison was centered on the Castle of Good Hope and operated from a series of coastal fortifications which protected Table Bay. False Bay was more weakly defended, covered by only two lightly armed batteries.[5]

In the winter of 1794, French soldiers invaded the Netherlands and captured Amsterdam. The French National Convention reconstituted the Dutch Republic into a revolutionary client state named the Batavian Republic, although the Stadtholder William of Orange fled to Britain.[6] There he issued the Kew Letters instructing his colonial governors to cooperate with British occupation forces.[7] At the urging of Sir Francis Baring, the Secretary of State for War Henry Dundas authorised a mission to ensure control of the Cape Colony and eliminate the potential threat it posed to the East Indian trade.[8] The Admiralty sent two battle squadrons to the Cape on 3 April 1795, one under Vice-Admiral Sir George Keith Elphinstone and the other under Commodore John Blankett, carrying a small expeditionary force of 515 soldiers from the 78th Regiment of Foot under Major-General Sir James Henry Craig. A larger force under General Alured Clarke was instructed to follow these squadrons on 15 May with troops and supplies for a longer campaign, with orders to hold at Salvador until requested.[5]


Extent of Dutch Cape Colony in 1795. Cape Town is at bottom left.

Blankett and Elphinstone united off the Cape on 10 June 1795 and anchored in Simon's Bay. There messages were sent to Sluysken offering an alliance against the French.[9] The Dutch governor was inclined to resist however, evacuating the civilian population from Simon's Town in early July and making preparations to raze the town. To prevent this, Craig landed 800 soldiers and Royal Marines on 14 July,[10] who occupied Simon's Town while the Dutch withdrew to the pass at Muizenberg, through which passed the road to Cape Town.[11] For the next month the two armies observed an uneasy truce, broken by occasional patrols and sniping. During this period, Elphinstone and Sluysken continued negotiations for the surrender of the colony. These negotiations were stalled by disputes in the colonial government regarding the legitimacy of the deposed William of Orange and suspicion concerning British intentions. While the debates continued, British envoys were permitted free movement in Cape Town, making detailed observations of the defences.[9]

Elphinstone became concerned that the Dutch positions were too strong for his forces to overwhelm, and on 19 June he sent HMS Sphinx to request assistance from Clarke's fleet. On 7 August, with negotiations stalled, Elphinstone ordered an attack on the pass at Muizenberg.[12] Craig's forces were supplemented with 1,000 sailors from Elphinstone's squadron redeployed on land under Captains Temple Hardy and John William Spranger.[13] Among this force were a number of American citizens who immediately deserted to the Dutch and were promised repatriation.[14] At noon on 7 August HMS America, HMS Stately, HMS Echo and HMS Rattlesnake opened fire on Dutch forward positions. Return fire from Dutch field guns killed two men on America and wounded three more,[15] but Craig's troops were able to advance against the Dutch positions and seize them, the Dutch defenders falling back in confusion.[16] A second attack by soldiers of the 78th captured a rocky height nearby and a Dutch counterattack the following morning was driven off by Hardy's sailors and marines.[15]

The Dutch fell back to Wynberg but British forces were not strong enough to advance, suffering shortages of food and ammunition. Elphinstone's positions were however improved by reinforcements, which arrived in the Arniston on 9 August, as well as disorganisation in the Dutch command resulting in stalemate.[16] The British commander subsequently authorised the seizure of five Dutch East Indiamen merchant ships at anchor at Simon's Town on 18 August. Skirmishing continued throughout the month, with stronger Dutch attacks on 1 and 2 September followed by a larger planned assault on Simon's Town on 3 September in which Sluysken committed all his reserves including 18 cannon.[15] That morning however 14 East India Company ships were seen arriving in Simon's Bay and the attack was cancelled. These ships were the reinforcement fleet under Clarke, who landed 4,000 troops from the 78th, 93rd and 98th Regiments of Foot and a unit from Saint Helena,[10] at Simon's Town for an overland campaign against Cape Town.[16] Clarke's army then advanced against Dutch piquets, losing one killed and 17 wounded in skirmishes.[10] To support this operation, Elphinstone sent America, Rattlesnake, Echo and the Indiaman Bombay Castle to blockade Cape Town and provide artillery support.[17] Outnumbered and surrounded, Sluysken requested a 48-hour truce from Clarke, but was given a 24-hour ultimatum to surrender. With no alternative, the Dutch governor passed control of his colony to the British on 15 September 1795,[17] although he allowed approximately 40 British deserters in Cape Town, mostly impressed Americans, to escape into the countryside before the deadline passed.[14]

Elphinstone's order of battle

Elphinstone's squadron
Ship Rate Guns Navy Commander
HMS Monmouth Third rate 74 Royal Navy Vice-Admiral Sir George Keith Elphinstone
Captain John Elphinstone
HMS Victorious Third rate 74 Royal Navy Captain William Clark
HMS Arrogant Third rate 74 Royal Navy Captain Richard Lucas
HMS America Third rate 64 Royal Navy Captain John Blankett
HMS Stately Third rate 64 Royal Navy Captain Billy Douglas
HMS Echo Ship-Sloop 16 Royal Navy Captain Temple Hardy
HMS Rattlesnake Ship-Sloop 16 Royal Navy Captain John William Spranger
Source: James 2002 [1827], p. 300


Total British losses were four killed and 54 wounded.[10] Captured in Table Bay were the Dutch East Indiaman Castor and the 14-gun naval brig Star, which was renamed HMS Hope.[18] Elphinstone's substantial squadron remained on station at the Cape to deter efforts to recapture the colony. Parts of this force were subsequently deployed to bolster British forces in the Indian Ocean.[19] The blockade of Île de France was restored and Arrogant and Victorious were sent to the Dutch East Indies where they would fight an inconclusive battle with a French squadron off Sumatra in September 1796.[20] Elphinstone himself sailed for Madras, where he received reports that a Dutch force had sailed from the Netherlands to retake the Cape Colony. The admiral returned to Cape Town, assembling a large squadron to await the Dutch arrival. Further reports revealed the strength and progress of the Dutch and Elphinstone had ample time to prepare his squadron for their arrival and increase the garrison ashore.[21] The Dutch Rear-Admiral Engelbertus Lucas spent almost six months on the passage and gathered no intelligence on British defences. Thus when he arrived off the Cape he was soon discovered by Elphinstone in Saldanha Bay and intimidated into surrender without a fight.[22]

No further attacks on the Cape Colony were made during the course of the war. Elphinstone returned to Britain in October 1796 and was subsequently awarded the title of Baron Keith for his service in the capture and defence of the Cape, a reward that historian C. Northcote Parkinson calls "on the whole, easily earned".[23] At the Peace of Amiens in 1802 one of the treaty terms returned the Cape Colony, along with all captured Dutch colonies except Ceylon, to the Batavian Republic.[24] The peace was short-lived, and after the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars in 1803 a second British invasion was planned, executed in 1806 and victory secured following the Battle of Blaauwberg.[25] The Cape Colony remained part of the British Empire until its independence as part of a unified South Africa in 1910.



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