Book Review: Battles of South Africa


Battles of South Africa is a gem of a book. Discovered by chance by this reviewer, it covers a series of battles and skirmishes, some military, some involving the enforcement of the law, between 1725 and 1927.  

Highly regarded by many as a literary and social historian, Couzens was awarded both the CNA Literary Award and the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award for Tramp Royal: the True Story of Trader Horn, and has several other publications under his belt.

Previous publicity blurb have correctly suggested that there are any number of books on battles in South Africa, particularly the Anglo–Zulu and Anglo–Boer Wars, and on certain individual battles or campaigns. “But surprisingly there is no general work describing a wide range of them. This book aims to plug the gap. It tells the stories of 26 battles between 1725 and 1927, written in a lively, personal style. It brings to life these battles, some critical, some curious, and recreates battles whose names are now unknown or, if known, their details forgotten,” it says.

Few, for instance, know that there was a skirmish fought in what is now the Kruger National Park in 1725 between a Dutch expedition from Delagoa Bay and suspicious local residents. Although the numbers involved were small, the incident, and disease in the Dutch settlement at what is now Maputo, forced the Dutch to depart. The Dutch were seeking gold, but a hostile climate and inhabitants convinced them to depart.

Next recounted is a spate of fighting, some naval, in Saldanha Bay. A notable incident was in July 1781 when a British force sank a Dutch convoy at its moorings. The wrecks lie there still. The second took place when the Cape was no longer Dutch and all of Europe was in revolutionary fervour. The British had marched into Cape Town on September 16, 1795, and planned to keep it. The Netherlands, although under French occupation, wanted their colony back. A force set out from Texel in early 1796 to recover it. They would be assisted by a French force – or such was the plan. But the French went to Mauritius instead, leaving Admiral Lucas to his own devices at Saldanha. There he was soon bottled up between a British force and mutinous sailors who supported the Orange (Royal Dutch) cause rather than the republican quislings. In 1806, Melkbosstrand saw the return of the British – this time for good – in one of the largest seaborne invasions Britain had undertaken until then. Seven regiments and artillery. General David Baird came ashore on the morning of January 6. Baird met Dutch commander Lt Gen Janssens in battle at Kleinberg the next day. The Dutch straddled a wagon road and a fresh water spring in the area and awaited Baird`s highlanders. His troops included a Coloured infantry regiment, French marines, Indonesian artillery and assorted other infantry, including German and Hungarian mercenaries. In all, men from 13 nationalities were said to be present.        

Turning again to the blurb, further incidents can be introduced to the reader as a set of questions: Who knows which hill was not only the site of a fierce Anglo–Boer battle but is also associated with the first novel written by an African anywhere in Africa? What military episode, where not a shot was fired, helped precipitate South Africa into the First World War?

The blurb, again rightly, adds that Battles of South Africa resuscitates often forgotten aspects of military and social history and encourages its readers to travel to sites they might otherwise ignore – such as Tafelkop, along the N3 between Vrede and Frankfort, a mystical site for the Basotho as it features in their creation myths. (The kop is the setting of Thomas Mafolo`s Moeti oa Bochabelo (Traveller of the East.) During the later part of the Boer War the kop was fortified with six blockhouses and a battery of three guns was deployed on the summit. In December 1901 the famous Colonel Rimmington and a Colonel Damant ran into a force under General Wessels. Damant and Rimmington became separated and Damant and 32 of his men were killed by ruse de guerre. Forty-five were wounded. The next February, General Christiaan de Wet and Free State President Steyn nearly came to grief at Kalkkrans. Just 600 of the party of 2000 escaped through the blockhouse line. Fascinating stuff! And the book recounts how to get to the sites as well as informed locals who can/will show one around.

As an aside, the local church in Vrede is a copy of the Notre Dame of Paris (France) in miniature.

The last “battle” recorded is that at Potter`s Hill, between Memel and Charlestown, fought between police and one Stephanus Swart, wanted in connection with a bout of family violence that left several dead.

The book ends with a most useful set of sources and most tales are accompanied by good maps… but no photographs. Couzens argues in the introduction they are one dimensional and that he is loathe to place them as they may discourage visitors. May the book and this review encourage every reader to visit at least some.

Battles of South Africa

Tim Couzens

David Phillip

Cape Town