BOOK REVIEW: Assegais, Drums and Dragoons


Well-known military writer Willem Steenkamp’s latest book, Assegais, Drums and Dragoons, A Military and Social History of the Cape 1510-1806 is a must-read for all those interested not only in “what” happened in South Africa’s military history, but also “why”.

(Steenkamp has a background in journalism, and prefers not to be called an “author”.)
The book is full of surprises and little gems, including a description of a Khoi “secret weapon” used against the Portuguese: Fighting oxen which could be controlled by calls. He delves into the key Battle of Blaauwberg in 1806, and gives the reader background on the motivation of the combatants, something often overlooked in military works.
A ground-breaking aspect of the book, at least in South African military history, is Steenkamp’s combination of military and social history, which makes for lively reading. It also demolishes much that most South African readers were taught in school and much that current ideologues claim about that time.
Steenkamp argues that the Cape under the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was much more racially and ethnically integrated than has previously been thought, and points out that the “indigenous people versus colonialists” argument is contrary to what can be gleaned from the documents of the time. Steenkamp writes:
“The pre-1652 Cape of Good Hope was not a paradise of peace and plenty…. and the constant competition for water and grazing resulted in sporadic cattle-raiding, protracted vendettas and even small wars.” (chapter two, p.18)
In a chapter on the founding of the commando system, this is especially visible when Khoina (Quena, Khoi?) clans join the early VOC commandos to track down others, in other words, form alliances rather than only act as victims. As Steenkamp says:
“There is a common belief that, generally speaking, the Cape’s early population consisted of a substantial number of increasingly marginalised Khoina and Bushmen, expatriate or locally-born whites, people of mixed white and Khoina blood and slaves of mainly Indonesian extraction. This belief … is totally erroneous.” (Chapter 3 intro)
Steenkamp also stresses that the later quintessentially South African mounted infantry “commando” owed a lot to the original concept of the dragoon, who was not, as he later became, a light cavalryman, but a mounted infantryman, who used his horse to get to and from his combat position. In fighting the agile and well-camouflaged Khoina, those early commando members had to be highly mobile and for this, the horse was indispensable to them.
Another useful aspect of the book is the way the writer describes external circumstances in some depth before linking them to the Cape’s history, rather than just briefly mention why the Dutch or British became interested in the Cape, or indeed, why the Portuguese decided not to stay.
In dealing with the key Battle of Blaauwberg in 1806, a battle the writer says has been unjustly neglected in South African history, as this contest between the British and the Dutch would impact greatly on the country’s future and its influence is still felt. Steenkamp first establishes that the indigenous mixed people had their rights recognised by the Batavian Republic in the Cape (1803-1806) and therefore were prepared to fight to defend them against the British, who were at best an unknown quantity, at worst an enemy. (In the event, the British did in fact deprive them of their rights).
Using a well-known Afrikaans saying, “Die Kaap is weer Hollands”, which means, in effect, “things are back to normal” for the chapter on the last period of Dutch rule, that of the Batavian Republic, an interesting take on the writer’s own views. “The Cape was now to be governed for (and to some extend by) its new citizens”, which makes it clear the Cape inhabitants (regardless of race) would fight hard for their new-found freedoms. 
“The Batavian Republic was governed by an ethos that was totally different from the VOCs. The most important component of that ethos was a written constitution, a great rarity in those days, and an almost unprecedentedly liberal one at that, certainly ranking with that of the new United States of America.”   (Page 180)
Not only race and ethnicity, but religion was also given official recognition. Steenkamp goes on to say:
            “It was an enormously significant moment for the Malay community in particular, whose
Islamic faith had been tolerated but not officially recognised by either the Company or the British.”
The work gives this reviewer a sense of how unfortunate the British occupation of the Cape in 1806 was and what might have been had the Batavian Republic remained in power. There is a glimpse of a possible “American Dream” that was lost here. It does appear that the new British administration of the Cape was a retrograde step socially, if not militarily.
A major difference between the way things turned out and what might have been is that the Batavian constitution allowed for a “non-racial qualified franchise” (P 180).  The official British attitude towards this type of thinking can be seen in a letter from the man who captured the territory for the British Crown the first time, back in 1795, Major General James Henry Craig, who wrote:
“It is certain that the great Body of the People are at this moment infected with the rankest poison of Jacobinism.”
The thing that got the Willem Steenkamp thinking about this whole project was the question of why, at Blaauwberg, the well-trained and experienced European soldiers of the Waldeck Regiment had broken and run, while the purportedly less-well trained and less experienced Hottentot Light Infantry and the “Malay” Corps had stood and fought.
Steenkamp found the answers in their motivation, where the recently-enfranchised Cape men were fighting for their rights, hearths and homes, while the Waldeckers felt lost in what to them was an alien environment and wished for nothing more than to go back home. In actual fact, most of the Waldeck Regiments’ Hungarian, German and Austrian troops were prisoners of the French who had been “more or less forced” to enlist and had no stake in whether the Cape was British, Dutch or independent. They just wanted to go home, which they did soon after the battle.
The book uses endnotes and a full Index, and includes four most interesting appendices, including one on precisely what to call the “Khoi”, or “Kwe”, or as Willem Steenkamp uses it, “Quena” people.
Another really interested appendix describes the quite strict discipline and typical life of a soldier at the Cape under the Dutch, which paints a realistic picture of a fairly stringent military existence, and especially for those who have had to stand guard or generally be part of a military routine, it should be quite meaningful.
Assegais, Drums and Dragoons was commissioned by the SA Infantry Association and is the first of three books aimed at describing the history of the South African Infantry. The second is expected to cover the period 1806-1912 and the final volume from 1912 to the present day.
This is a promising start for the full three-part series and certainly deserves a place on every military history buff’s bookshelf, be they historians or interested readers.
The book is published by Jonathan Ball and retails for R253.00
Willem Steenkamp
Assegais, Drums and Dragoons. A Military and Social History of the Cape.
Jonathan Ball Publishers
Johannesburg and Cape Town