28 February 2013 by Willem Steenkamp

Hout Bay’s East Fort: the world’s oldest working original gun battery

Every era of the Cape’s history has recognised the immense strategic importance of the southern tip of Africa.

Standing at the lovingly restored East Fort, along Chapman’s Peak Drive and high above Hout Bay in Cape Town, one wonders what it must have been like to be a soldier manning this globally unique redoubt in the late 1700s.

Comparatively little is known today about life at the fort, or even whether or not it was permanently manned. But it’s tempting to imagine that it was a plum posting, away from the Castle of Good Hope with its humdrum routine and harsh discipline, with plenty of time to enjoy the sunshine and the stunning view of the Sentinel, the distinctive outcrop on the western side of the bay.

But it was most probably not like that at all. In 1781, when the East Fort and West Fort (on the Sentinel side) were constructed by troops of the French/Indian Pondicherry Regiment – which had been brought to the Cape by the VOC (the Dutch East India Company) to bolster its under-strength garrison – the world was a very different place.

The northern hemisphere, Europe in particular, was experiencing great turmoil. The American War of Independence had ended only five years before, the French Revolution was only eight years hence, and the Netherlands was in deep trouble thanks to a disastrous war with Britain and simmering political discontent at home.

The once-mighty VOC, too, was in terminal decline and its English equivalent, the East India Company, on the ascendant. Halfway around the world the VOC’s crown jewel, the Cape of Good Hope, became a strategic focal point of those quintessentially European struggles – especially so for the British, whose aspirations were particularly ambitious, and whose need to continue using the Cape as a replenishment station was critical.

Enormous military significance

And so Hout Bay, until then a little-explored backwater of the Cape colony, rapidly assumed enormous global military significance. Feared to be a 'soft underbelly' of the otherwise relatively well-defended and fortified Table Bay, a decision was taken to construct defences at Hout Bay.

Building the East and West Forts must have been a horrible task for the Frenchmen of the Pondicherry Regiment, who could have been forgiven for wondering how they ended up labouring in this wild, remote place for a foreign (albeit allied) power.

There were no roads into Hout Bay – in fact, the road from the colony via Constantia Nek would only penetrate deep into the Hout Bay Valley by 1787, and Chapman’s Peak Drive itself was only completed in 1922 – necessitating supply by sea.

For the contingent at the East Fort, especially, it must have been tough. It would have been quite a slog to haul equipment and provisions up to their position, over steep and broken ground, treacherous rocks and pounding surf below them. The rough coastline would have meant a long trip, too, from the bay’s beach to the north – and no refreshing dips with which to cool off or punctuate the boredom.

Plus they would have had to contend with all manner of deadly wildlife, including lions, leopards and various snakes, and the weather. Winters were cold and wet, summers by turns baking hot and incredibly windy. And with few creature comforts either, this was hardly what any soldier would regard as a cushy posting ...

For militaria buffs, Cape Town is a historical treasure trove that vividly tells the story of European empire-builders’ machinations over several centuries.

As it turned out, the Dutch fears of a British landing at Hout Bay were not unfounded, and East and West Forts did see action – only once, 14 years later. In 1795 the British invaded the Cape and their distinguished naval commander, Rear-Admiral George Elphinstone, sent the 16-gun sloop HMS Echo to reconnoitre Hout Bay on 15 September. The gunners at both forts leapt into action and fired upon the Echo, forcing her to retreat – but with the critical intelligence that Hout Bay was fortified. 

The next day the Cape capitulated to the British, who had been engaged in a stalemated conflict with the colony's defenders for the past two months, on the False Bay side of the Cape Peninsula. The Cape became Britain's second African colony, after Sierra Leone.

The British also saw the value of the forts and extensively upgraded them. But they never saw action again, and later fell into disrepair.

Devastating fire

The East Fort was all but destroyed in a devastating bush fire in 1999, but has been painstakingly restored by the Hout Bay & Llandudno Heritage Trust – and it now boasts a singular distinction: equipped with its eight restored 1750s-era, Swedish-made guns, it is the oldest working battery of original guns in the world.

And they are fired on ceremonial occasions, sometimes attended by representatives of the countries with which the fort has a connection: the Netherlands, France, India, Britain and Sweden.

While the East Fort is unique among the military and coastal defences of the Cape for this reason, and because it was one of the few to have actually seen action, it is by no means the only remarkable installation. The immense strategic importance of the southern tip of Africa has been recognised in every era of the Cape's history, and her defence accordingly prepared.

The coastline and high ground are thus dotted with the remains of fascinating defensive positions, among them the Castle itself (one of only three five-pointed fortresses in the world, and which never fired a shot in anger) and the Chavonnes Battery in the present-day V&A Waterfront, which guarded Table Bay; the blockhouses on Devil’s Peak; the more recent Fort Wynyard in Granger Bay, which protected the harbour entrance and featured a 9.2” disappearing gun; the impressive World War II-era 9.2” gun emplacements at Llandudno and Robben Island, with their enclosed positions and modern dazzle camouflage paint schemes, and many more.

For militaria buffs, Cape Town is a historical treasure trove that vividly tells the story of European empire-builders’ machinations over several centuries. Its defences are well-charted, documented and largely preserved, and are in many respects unique – none more so than the East Fort, which still stands watch today over the peaceful harbour of Hout Bay.

Category: Culture & History

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