Fortifications at the Cape

Holland, England and France became Europe’s leading economic powers from the mid-17th century onwards. There was much commercial rivalry between them, including the invasion and takeover of each other’s outposts. They all regarded the Cape to be of great strategic importance due to its geographic location along the lucrative sea trade route to the Far East. Consequently, the Cape would become one of the most heavily fortified ports in Africa.

In 1652 the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company or VOC) established a refreshment station at the Cape. The Cape’s first fortifications were soon built as protection against both foreign and local threats.

The Fort De Goede Hoop was built in 1652 on the shore of Table Bay (where the Grand Parade is today) to defend the new settlement and its anchorage from possible foreign attacks. It also served as defence against perceived threats by the local Khoe.

The settlement expanded as the VOC claimed more land for grazing and some of their former officials were granted farms along the Liesbeeck River. The local Khoe retaliated against the dispossession of their land and other natural resources with cattle raids and by disrupting farming. A line of simple earth and timber fortifications or redoubts, connected by a timber fence, was built among the colonists’ farms as defence against such Khoe attacks.

The Khoe were only defeated after three successive Khoe-Dutch wars fought between 1659 and 1677. Afterwards the Cape’s fortifications became a defence against foreign threats, which were a result of commercial rivalry and escalating political tension in Europe.

During the first half of the 18th century the economic value of the Dutch colony at the Cape increased significantly due to new business and other opportunities for growth and development. The VOC therefore built additional fortifications – the Table Bay batteries and Sea Lines - as defence against the French and British.

By the mid-18th century Papendorp (later Woodstock) beach was defended by a fort, five batteries and a sea-wall. The Castle defences were strengthened by the large Imhoff Battery. The west side of Table Bay was protected by the Amsterdam Battery, the Chavonnes Battery and the Roggebaai batteries. The VOC built smaller gun emplacements at Simon’s Bay (later Simon’s Town), Hout Bay and Muizenberg.

The American War of Independence (1775 – 1783) saw France become a Dutch ally, supporting the American colonies against the British. The Cape was used to supply the rebel colonies’ war effort and therefore became a possible target for British attack.

The threat of British invasion increased during the renewed Anglo-French War (1781-1783). As a result, a French fleet was sent to the Cape to assist with its defence. This led to a renewed fortification building project in not only Table Bay, but also along the False Bay coastline, specifically in Hout Bay and Simon’s Bay.

French soldiers, VOC fortification workers, local convicts, slaves, and Khoe servants all worked to build a line of fortifications and defence works that became known as the French Line. These were connected by a ditch and rampart and ran from Table Bay up Devil’s Peak, becoming the boundary of the expanding town for some years.

In 1795 Britain occupied the Cape to better control the sea route to the Far East and to stop any French attempts to reach India. The British fleet approached from Simon’s Town as Table Bay was too heavily fortified by a ring of forts, redoubts and batteries. During this brief first British occupation of the Cape (1795 – 1803) British authorities strengthened and repaired existing fortifications and built new ones to ward off any French attacks.

In 1803 the Cape was briefly returned to the French-leaning Batavian Republic, which had been proclaimed in the Netherlands. However, the British wanted to ensure that their French enemies did not claim the Cape to benefit from its commercial and strategic opportunities. In January 1806 a British invasion force landed at Losperd’s Bay (today’s Melkbosstrand) to avoid the firing-range of the Dutch cannons. The small local Batavian force was soon defeated, resulting not only in the second British occupation of the Cape but also setting the scene for the expansion of British colonialism into central and southern Africa.

British Royal Engineers continued their fortification project at the Cape and by 1815 -  the year France was finally defeated by Britain and its allies - there were more than 28 fortifications in and around Table Bay alone.

By 1827 most forts and batteries along the Cape Peninsula were no longer maintained. Some were decommissioned and dismantled as the British Cape colony was no longer under threat from other European nations.

Today only a few of the dozens of Dutch and British fortifications built in Cape Town and around the Cape Peninsula from the 17th century to the 19th century remain.


During Dutch and British colonial rule cannons (also called guns) were brought to the Cape for use along its coastal defence networks.

All foreign ships entering Table Bay were expected to fire salutes of blank shots in greeting and to signal non-aggressive intentions. Coastal fortifications would answer these salutes in acknowledgment. A ship that neglected to do this could expect to be met with defensive cannon firing.

In addition to defending the Cape, cannons were used in signalling networks because the sound of these guns being fired travelled faster than dispatch riders on horseback.

Three different signalling networks were in place at the Cape:

The gun alert network consisted of a cannon on Robben Island, one on Lion’s Head and one on Signal Hill. They alerted authorities that a ship or ships had been sighted sailing towards Table Bay. Residents were alerted that their products were possibly needed as provisions for the continued journeys of these ships.

The gun alarm network incorporated more cannons placed towards Simon’s Bay and Hout Bay. These guns alerted authorities that enemy ships were sighted arriving from either direction.

The third network was used to mobilise residents living in the interior to report for military duty in defence of the Cape at times of foreign enemy attacks. This network had guns placed towards the Swartland, the Boland and the Overberg.

These signalling networks were discontinued when more modern means of communication became available during the later nineteenth century. 

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