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SOUTH AFRICA – CAPE TOWN FORTIFICATIONS – THE PRINCE OF WALES BLOCKHOUSE – ORIGINAL MANUSCRIPT PLANS Zoom



SOUTH AFRICA – CAPE TOWN FORTIFICATIONS – THE PRINCE OF WALES BLOCKHOUSE – ORIGINAL MANUSCRIPT PLANS

 


A set of original, exquisitely executed manuscript plans of the blockhouse of the Prince of Wales Battery, one of the key components of the elaborate new defensive system that the British constructed around Cape Town (South Africa) during their first occupation of the colony from 1795 to 1803; drafted by Captain (later Major-General) George Bridges, the commanding Royal Engineer in the colony; one of only very few early original manuscript fortification plans of South Africa to ever come to market.


Author: [George BRIDGES, RE (1757/8 - 1825)].
Place and Year: [Cape Town, circa 1797 - 1799].
Technique:
Code: 68135

Part A.

[George BRIDGES, RE (1757/8 - 1825)].

“Plan and Section of the Prince of Wales’s Tower at the Redoubt or Battery”.

[Cape Town, circa 1797 - 1799].

Manuscript, black pen and ink with full watercolour and wash on wove paper watermarked ‘1794 J Whatman’ (Very Good, except cleanly segmented in half horizontally roughly along register boundary – it could be easily re-joined; else some very slight stains and toning, old vertical folds, a couple tiny marginal tears; resplendent original colours), if joined, 49.5 x 61.5 cm (19.5 x 24 inches).

 

[Accompanied by:]

 

Part B.

[George BRIDGES, RE (1757/8 - 1825)].

“Plan and Section of the Tower at the Prince of Wales’s Tower at the Redoubt or Battery”.

[Cape Town, circa 1797 - 1799].

 

Manuscript, black pen and ink with full watercolour and wash on wove paper watermarked ‘J Whatman’, fragment, being the upper register (half) of another slightly different example of Part A (Very Good, except cleanly segmented in half vertically - it could be easily re-joined; else slight stains and toning, old vertical folds, a couple tiny marginal tears; resplendent original colours), if joined, 24.5 x 61.5 cm (10 x 24 inches).

 

Present here is a set of original manuscript sectional views and floorplans of the Tower at the Prince of Wales Battery, constructed in the late 1790s to guard the south-eastern landward approaches to Cape Town (South Africa).  The plans were drafted by Captain George Bridges, who oversaw the construction of the battery, as well as the re-vamping of the entire fortification system in the greater Cape Town area.  The plans are executed to a very high degree of technical artistry, with clean lines, painted in resplendent watercolour hues. 

The Prince of Wales Battery was a vital part of the new defensive system that Bridges and his colleagues transformed to protect Cape Town.  To shore up the city’s over-exposed landward approaches from the southeast, three blockhouses were built on the slopes of the Devil’s Peak, being the Prince of Wales, York and King’s batteries, of which the Prince of Wales Battery was located on the lowest level, on the far south-eastern side of the peak’s slope. 

Each of the batteries was identical in their design and nearly identical in size.  They comprised a blockhouse fronted by a semi-circular artillery platform. 

The blockhouses were of a novel design, heavily influenced by that of Martello towers, recently ‘discovered’ by British engineers.  Martello towers were traditional Genoese batteries of a round construction that came to the attention of the British royal engineers in 1794 in Corsica, when British forces had an unbelievably difficult time taking the Tower of Mortella (so leading to the name ‘Martello’).  The British were highly impressed by the tower’s strength and versatility and elected to copy it ingenious design. 

Part A is the “Plan and Section of the Prince of Wales’s Tower at the Redoubt or Battery”, a folio manuscript sheet of two horizonal registers of plans that seems to have been cleanly cut some time ago roughly along the division between the registers into two parts (it could easily be re-joined).  The quality of the draughtsmanship and watercolouring is exceedingly high, indicative of Captain George Bridges’ refined professional style.  The upper register features two cross-sections (elevations) of the blockhouse, from different vantage points (A to B and C to D).  The lower register features floor plans of the blockhouse taken from each of its three levels.

Part B is a fragment (the upper register only) of another example of the above, but with a slightly different title.  Curiously, it has also been cleanly spit in half, seemingly some time ago, but in this case vertically through the image in the area between the two cross-sections.

It was then common practice for engineers in the field to make multiple finished manuscript copies of the same subject for distribution to various military and crown offices, as well as perhaps retain images for their own personal records.  Indeed, it seems that Bridges brought examples of many of his plans and maps home from the Cape, as several of his works preserved today at the National Archives U.K. feature the annotation “Brought home by Majr Bridges, 1801”. 

The design of the tower at the Prince of Wales Battery is influenced by that of a Martello tower, and in this respect, it is of a transitional construction.  Unlike a Martello, this tower has the square form of a conventional 18th Century British blockhouse with a triangular roof, similar as those built across the British Empire.  However, like a Martello, it was composed of thick masonry walls and three floors with rooms custom designated for powder magazines, storerooms, officers’ and soldiers’ quarters, as well as cisterns and storage areas for food; fireplaces were built into the walls to facilitate cooking and heating, while the upper floor were accessed by a ladder.  The machicolated (slotted) external walls of the lower levels allowed the blockhouse to be defended by musket fire, while the top floor could host heavy artillery pieces (the Martello towers featured a different roof deign which allowed rotating artillery pieces to fire upon a 360° arc).  The Prince of Wales Tower, like the Martello towers, could host a compliment of as many as 24 men to endure sieges of considerable length, as it was ‘self-contained’, with secure supplies of food, water and ammunition, while the thick walls protected it from both enemy fire and forms of harsh weather.  The tower would have been fronted by a small crescent-shaped battery platform, forming a fine defensive position for a strategic, yet isolated location guarding what was previously a the ‘blind spot’ in Cape Town’s defences.  Notably, Bridges also oversaw the construction of two true Martello towers in the Cape Town area, the tower at Simon’s Town, as well as the Craig Tower.  Subsequently, Bridges also oversaw the completion of the Martello tower at Hambantota, Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

While the present manuscript plans are unsigned, they can be safely attributed to Captain George Bridges.  First, they correspond in both their content and style to Bridges’ signed “Plans and Sections of the Tower at the Prince of Wales’s Redoubt or Battery”, 1799 (U.K. National Archives), which is of the exact same size as the present Part A.  Also relevant, but of a different perspective, is Bridges’ “Position, Plan and Section of the Battery of the Prince of Wales’ Battery”, circa 1797 (Western Cape Archives, Cape Town).  Moreover, Bridges was the obvious author of plans of the battery, as he was recorded in many contemporary sources as having personally overseen its construction (as well as that of the other similar batteries).  Additionally, to confirm the dating of the present plans, they are drafted on sheets of wove paper watermarked ‘J. Whatman’, with the sheet of Part A featuring the date ‘1794’.  This is precisely the type of paper stock that was issued to the Royal Engineers during 1795 Cape Town Expedition.

The Prince of Wales, as well as the York and King’s Batteries, remained in active service until 1827, whereupon the introduction of modern rifled artillery made them obsolete.  In 1829, their ownership was transferred to local colonial authorities, who decommissioned them, allowing their masonry to be used for other purposes.  Today only the foundations of the Prince of Wales Battery remain, for it was by 1925 deconstructed to construct an adjacent civilian building.  However, the blockhouse of the King’s Battery survives largely intact to the present day, and thus provides a faithful example of what the Prince of Wales Blockhouse would have been. 

Not surprisingly, all original manuscript fortification plans from South Africa from the period in question are exceedingly rare.  While some survive in archives in institutions in London and Cape Town, examples of any kind hardly ever appear on the market.  The present example is of exceptionally high quality, drafted by one of the most important military engineers in Cape history.

 

Historical Context: The First British Occupation of the Cape of Good Hope (1795 – 1803)

During the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802), which subsequently dovetailed into the Napoleonic Wars, France and Britain fought a global contest in theatres on five continents.  Importantly, Cape Town, the centre of the Dutch colony of the Cape of Good Hope, guarded the sea routes from England to India, the jewel of the British Empire.  At the end of 1794, France invaded the Netherlands, overthrew its government and created the Batavian Republic, a French puppet state.  The Dutch colonial regime in the Cape swore loyalty to the new regime, while the British received intelligence that France intended to land considerable forces there, threatening to transform the Cape into a lethal danger to British-Indian shipping.  This menace would be combined with the established threat of French privateers that preyed upon British vessels in the Indian Ocean from their base on the Ile de France (Mauritius).  Whitehall believed it imperative that the Cape Colony be captured, and the French designs thwarted.

In April 1795, the British organized an invasion force under Admiral Sir George Keith Elphinstone, consisting of 1,800 men, carried by 5 ships of the line and 2 sloops.  Aboard was General Sir James Henry Craig, who was to both command the land forces and to lead an interim colonial government should the mission be successful.  Also present was Captain George Bridges, the Commanding Royal Engineer, who was to play a vital role in analysing the Cape’s defences, identifying any weaknesses.

Meanwhile, the VOC (Dutch East India Company) regime at the Cape was commanded by Governor-General Abraham Josias Sluysken, supported by force of 3,600 troops, of which only

1,000 were regulars.  Cape Town’s defences had since 1786 been dramatically improved under the supervision of Louis-Michel Thibault, a professional architect and military engineer in VOC service.  However, while the venerable star-shaped citadel of the Castle of Good Hope and the ‘French Lines’, a string of batteries that protected the cities eastern flank, ensured that Cape Town would be difficult to attack directly from the sea, the colony’s defensive systems had serious blindspots.

The British expedition arrived off the Cape on June 10, 1795.  Bridges and other officers recognized that False Bay, the large inlet that was the underbelly of the Cape, was poorly defended.  On July 14, they landed their main force at Simon’s Town, on the western shore of False Bay, about 40 km south of Cape Town. After a parley with Governor Sluysken, the two sides forged what can only be described as bizarre truce, which allowed Bridges and his engineers to freely roam the surroundings of Cape Town, analysing the Dutch fortifications.

On August 7, the Anglo-Dutch negotiations faltered, and Craig’s men advanced to attack the Dutch forces during what became known as the Battle of Muizenberg, near the pass that led to Cape Town’s vulnerable south-eastern approaches.  This ushered in a protracted weeks-long event that initially resulted in a stalemate.  In due course, the British received massive re-enforcements under Major-General Alured Clark, in the form of 4,000 troops.  This allowed them to close the net, forcing Sluysken to surrender the colony on September 15, saving the British from having to attack Cape Town.

The Cape Colony was now under British occupation, although it was not be formally ceded to their sovereignty.  Whitehall, recognizing the Cape’s strategic importance, hoped to retain it permanently under any post-war settlement, so proceeded to upgrade the area’s military and transportation infrastructure as if it would forever be part of the British Empire.  Craig was appointed to be the colonial governor, and he charged Captain Bridges with overseeing an ambitious military engineering programme.  This included the strengthening of all existing Dutch fortifications, including the Cape Castle and the French Lines, as well as the creation of a new line of positions on Devil’s Peak (notably including the Prince of Wales, York and King’s Batteries), as well as shoring up the defences around False Bay.  Additionally, Bridges and his team oversaw the creation of many new roads and bridges.  The British regime was eventually aided by Louis-Michel Thibault, who had defected to their side.

Following the Peace of Amiens (1802), Britain and France (along with the Batavian Republic) agreed to end their mutual hostilities.  The accord was savagely attacked in many quarters in Britain, as it was viewed as an unnecessary capitulation.  Britain was compelled to cede most of its recent conquests, including returning the Cape Colony to the Netherlands, a transfer which occurred in 1803.  The British officers and troops who had worked so hard to conquer the Cape and to improve its defensive infrastructure were understandably furious that their efforts were now seemingly all for not.

However, and perhaps predictably, British and France once again came to blows, as from 1804 the Napoleonic Wars commenced with terrific melodrama. 

Britain was determined to re-capture the Cape of Good Hope and towards the end of 1805 dispatched a force of over 5,000 troops under Lieutenant-General Sir David Baird to achieve this objective.  Ironically, Bridges and his men had done such a good job with their engineering works that Baird considered a direct assault upon Cape Town from any angle to be untenable.  On January 6-7, 1806, the British landed their forces a good distance to the north of Cape Town.  The Dutch Governor Jan Willem Janssens unwisely decided to leave the safety of Cape Town with his force of only around 2,000 men to comfort the British army in the open country.  At the Battle of Blaauwberg (January 8, 1806), Baird’s force easy overcame the defenders, ensuring that the colony was shortly surrendered to British control. 

This time the British would retain enduring sovereignty over the Cape Colony (a role confirmed by the Congress of Vienna in 1814) and would work to further maintain and improve the city’s defensive perimeter, ensuring that Cape Town would never again be attacked by any adversary, foreign or domestic.

 

George Bridges: Leading Military Engineer and Cartographer of the Cape

Major-General George Bridges, RE (1757/8 - 1825) was one of the most important figures in military engineering and cartography during the first British occupation of the Cape of Good Hope.  He was a native of Walsingham, Norfolk, and as a teenager entered the Woolwich Military Academy, where he studied engineering and draughtsmanship.  He graduated in 1776, becoming a Second Lieutenant; he joined the Royal Engineers in December of that year. 

In December 1777, Bridges was posted to the West Indies, a volatile theatre during the American Revolutionary War, whereupon his assisted in planning the bombardment of enemy positions; drafting and building plans of forts; and executing regional surveys of various islands in the Lesser Antilles.  He returned to England in 1785, and was promoted to First Lieutenant in March 1786, and Captain in September 1793.

In May 1795, Bridges was appointed the Commanding Royal Engineer for Admiral Elphinstone’s expedition to take the Cape of Good Hope.  This was a highly important role, as the success of the mission rested heavily an analysing the strength of the Dutch fortified positions around Cape Town.  In the wake of the successful British conquest of the Cape, in September 1795, Bridges led an expert team that included James Carmichael-Smyth, one of the great cartographers of the region.  Bridges was likewise a highly accomplished surveyor who made many excellent manuscript topographical maps of the Cape region, many of which are today preserved at the U.K. National Archives.  Bridges remained at the Cape until 1801.

In late 1802, Bridges was promoted to Major and appointed as the Commanding Royal Engineer in Ceylon, a highly valuable colony that the British had conquered from the Dutch in 1795-6.  The defences of Ceylon’s major centres required radical upgrading, as the security of the colony was threatened by potential French and Dutch naval invasion, as well as landward attack from the mighty Kandyan Kingdom that donated the interior of the island.  Bridges (who was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in 1805) remained in Ceylon for eight years, whereupon he oversaw the completion of extensive and advanced fortification projects, many of which were inspired by those he built at the Cape.

After over thirty years in difficult field assignments on three continents, Bridges returned home and assumed a senior administrative role in the Royal Engineers’ headquarters.  In 1813, he was promoted to the rank of Colonel, and finally Major-General in 1819.  He passed away at Greenwich on June 1, 1825, at the age of 67.

 

References: Cf. [Similar Bridges Plans in Institutional Collections:] George Bridges, “Plans and sections of the Tower at the Prince of Wales's Redoubt or Battery”, Mss., 1799 (U.K. National Archives: MPH 1/705); George Bridges, “Position, Plan and Section of the Battery of the Prince of Wales’ Battery”, circa 1797 (Western Cape Archives, Cape Town: E 3487); [Historical Background / Context:] Ute A. SEEMANN, ‘Forts and Fortifications at the Cape Peninsula 1781-1829: A survey of defence works with special references to the Hout Bay forts’, Masters Dissertation, University of Cape Town (September 1993); Ute A. SEEMANN, Fortifications of the Cape Peninsula, 1647-1829 (Cape Town: Castle Military Museum, 1997).

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