Die Damhuis


Melkbos, (originally called Losperds Bay) seems to be an overlooked historical gem. It is the site of one of the oldest buildings in South Africa and was witness to the (often forgotten) Battle of Blaauwberg.

Firstly let’s take a look at the oldest building in Melkbos, die Damhuis (now a restaurant of note). In 1780, the French had some troops posted along the Cape Coast to help the Dutch should there be a British invasion. A citizen, Mr Christiaan Brand, had allowed these troops to travel over the property he owned at Papendorf. In return, he was given a piece of land, situated at Melkbos, by Governor van de Graaff in 1781.

Mr Brand went on to build a homestead on this land, calling the farm De Melkbosch. The buildings he constructed included a fish shed, initially called Visschuur.  The construction and design of the building is typical of the time, with the walls being built from sand, hay, cow manure, local stone and even whale bones (as Mr Brand had been a whaler).  The building name was changed from Visschuur to Die Damhuis as the water from a nearby fountain would dam outside the house. Interestingly the fountain still exists although the dam was paved over when Beach Road was constructed. At some point Mr Brand changed the building to a residence.

The building has since been declared a national monument, and is indeed a treasure!

The Battle of Blaauwberg

This battle was very brief but the consequences thereof were far reaching for the people of the Cape as the British took control of the Cape Colony away from the Dutch and put it back in British hands.

It took place on 8 January 1806 and only lasted a few hours. Roughly 7000 men took part (approximately of which 5000 were British). Several hundred were declared dead and wounded.  For those of us that are animal lovers we must not forget that many horses were unfortunately also wounded or killed in action.

This battle formed part of the Napoleonic wars as the British wanted control of the Indian Ocean (and therefore needed control of the Cape), as it played a very important role in the trade route to India at that time. The problem was that the French wanted control of the Cape for the same reasons and hence the battle for the control of the colony.

The French had taken control of Holland ousted and set up the Batavian Republic. So although the Cape Colony had originally been controlled by the Dutch, when Holland became a French vassal, the colony was effectively under French control at the time of the Battle.

The British were led by Lieutenant General Sir William Baird. The opposition (Batavian) force was led by Lieutenant General Jan Willem Janssens of the Batavian Republic (at the time of the battle, Janssens was the Cape Governor and hence commander of the armed forces at the Cape). The French had sent troops to assist Governor Janssens (in addition to those few already stationed at the Cape) but the British won the race and arrived first.

On an interesting side note, Mr Brand and his family had to vacate their home at De Melkbosch during the battle, which took place almost on their doorstep. Some soldiers caused damage to their home and stole some of their belongings. Mr Brand later claimed compensation for the damage caused by the soldiers.

The Batavian contingent was made up of (amongst others) French, Burghers, Hottentots, Hungarian mercenaries (Waldeckers), Germans and Austrians. The British won and succeeded in taking over the Cape Colony. Lt. Gen. Janssens withdrew his troops a few hours after battle commenced.   

Lt. Gen. Sir Baird marched with his troops to Cape Town. Colonel van Prophalow had been ordered to defend Cape Town city but had virtually no troops so he immediately surrendered to the British, having no choice but to do so. On 10 January the orders of Capitulation were signed at Papendorp (now Woodstock) by the Colonel and Lt. Gen. Baird. A few days later on 18 January, Lt. Gen. Janssens also signed, thereby formally ceding the Colony to the British.

Note: some of the sources consulted for this article differ on details, such as the number of men in battle etc. However, the salient facts are clear and one gains an appreciation for Governor Janssens, who seems to have been a man determined to do everything in his power to defend the Cape Colony. It is just a pity that he did not have sufficient troops to support him in his efforts.

Mandy van Deventer

samilitaryhistory.org, battle.blaauwberg.net, en.wikipedia.org, capetownhistory.com, ancestors.co.za, diedamhuis.co.za