New Wa­ter­front walk brings blasts from Cape Town’s past

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - GOODFUN -

HENRIËTTE GELDENHUYS

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.

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