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The nearest run thing you ever saw: the Battle of Waterloo

The Cape of Good Hope

The exiled Napoleon, on learning of the terms of the November 1815 Treaty of Paris, reacted with contemptuous incredulity to their moderation, finding it inconceivable that Castlereagh had not pushed home Britain’s advantage as victor to make significant territorial gains, both in Europe and beyond. For Castlereagh, however, the aim of the treaty was to secure a lasting European peace, and for this a balance of power and a stable France, still possessed of many of its pre-war colonial territories, were essential.

This did not mean to say that Britain left the 1815 conference tables empty-handed in terms of territorial gains. On the contrary, its control of several former French or Dutch possessions was confirmed, and Britain thereby gained Ceylon, Guyana, the Ionian Islands, Malta, Tobago, and perhaps most important of all, the Cape of Good Hope. The location and nature of these gains indicate Castlereagh’s prime concerns in 1815:  to safeguard Britain’s naval domination of the Mediterranean, to secure the sea route to India and to bolster an empire which was then based on trade, rather than colonisation.

Title page and fold-out colour frontispiece showing Table Bay, with Table Mountain and Cape Town in the backgroundTitle page and fold-out frontispiece showing Table Bay, with Table Mountain and Cape Town in the backgroundA Dutch colonial possession since 1652, the Cape of Good Hope had first been seized by British forces in 1795, following republican France’s invasion of the Netherlands and establishment of the Batavian Republic as a client state. Briefly restored to the Dutch in 1802 by the Treaty of Amiens, it had been retaken by the British in 1806. 

Preoccupied with its war with France, Britain initially saw the Cape primarily as a strategic staging post on the route to its Indian possessions. However, as the title page of Richard Fisher’s book suggests, by 1818 the Cape’s potential value as a civil settler colony was becoming apparent.

Fisher points to the immense scope it offered to ‘the spirit and enterprize of thousands, who by the sudden and unexpected return of peace, will want employment’, and in 1820 a programme of assisted emigration brought 4,000 British settlers to the eastern Cape. The British government hoped thereby not only to bolster the colony against attack by the indigenous Xhosa people but to further the Anglicisation of Cape society, countering the prevalent Dutch Boer culture.

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