New Waterfront walk brings blasts from Cape Town’s past
THREATS from Indonesian pirates and officials intent on hijacking any available outpost led to Cape Town’s shoreline being fortified with a battery and heavy artillery.
And today the Chavonnes Cannon Battery Museum in the Clock Tower Precinct of the V& A Waterfront is the first stop on a historical walking tour of 22 sites, launched recently at the popular tourist attraction.
The 45-minute tour is led by military expert Willem Steenkamp, accompanied by tour guides all dressed in 18th century outfits and tricorne hats.
The tour includes the Clock Tower, the Time Ball Tower, the swing bridge, Bertie’s Landing, the SAS Somerset defence vessel, the Breakwater Prison and the Victoria Basin.
During the early 1700s the battery was the guardian of Cape Town, with all arriving ships being required to report there.
A lookout on Lion’s Head would warn the Castle of approaching ships, and a signal system was in place to let the Cape’s defenders know whether they were friendly. If they weren’t they faced the big cannon of the Chavonnes Battery, which could blow them out of the water.
The Cape had become an essential halfway stop for trade vessels between Europe and the Far East.
Along with such valuable goods as porcelain, silk, cloves, teak and mahogany, merchants traded in spices such as nutmeg, which was readily available in Indonesia but sold at great profit in Europe, where people believed it would prevent them catching the bubonic plague (Black Death) which ravaged the continent until the 1700s.
The Castle of Good Hope and the Chavonnes and other Cape batteries were built to form a ring of protection around the coast, thanks to the business practices of the British and French East India companies.
“The companies used to hijack each other’s outposts. So if you had an important one, you damn well fortified it,” Steenkamp tells visitors.
The Castle protected the anchorage, but its guns could not fire far enough to protect Cape Town’s western flank, so the Chavonnes Battery was built there as the first of many independent gun batteries.
Steenkamp says the batteries were “quite lethal” because they fired from a stable platform, from mounted large- calibre cannon which easily outgunned the East India companies’ ships, which had light guns since their main enemies were Indonesian pirates who “were more like the Somali pirates of today, with small boats and light guns”.
Batteries like the Chavonnes mounted huge guns firing round shot weighing 18, 24 or 36 pounds, and they could be heated in the batteries’ ovens to set ships on fire.
Examples of such guns can be seen at the Chavonnes Battery, including three of the originals on the ramparts – an 18-pounder, a 24-pounder and a 36-pounder. Inside there are also examples of Indonesian pirate guns.
The battery vanished in 1860 when it was buried during the building of the Alfred Basin, Cape Town’s first docks.
In 1999 it was excavated and rebuilt when the Board of Executors, now part of Nedbank, built its new head office on the site.
Visitors can see how the original walls were built on the rocks on the water’s edge, and in the indoor section the skeleton of the battery is laid bare.
The battery was built between 1715 and 1726 by the then governor of the Cape, Mauritz Pasque, the Marquis de Chavonnes. Aside from the Castle it is the oldest surviving fortification in Cape Town. When it was built there was nothing but pristine coastline around it. Today it is in the heart of the waterfront, next to the Clock Tower and Nelson Mandela Gateway.
The three-storey Chavonnes Battery is a museum and venue for private functions.