21 June 2008

Cape Town's old defender revived

A gun battery that defended Cape Town's western flank from enemy ships 270 years ago has been restored and opened to the public. The Chavonnes Battery, the oldest coastal gun battery built in the Cape since the Castle, was re-opened earlier this year. The battery safeguarded Cape Town's western flank from 1726 to 1861, until Queen Victoria's second son, Prince Alfred, tipped the first load of rocks into the sea for a new breakwater. Large parts of the battery were demolished and the rubble and rock were used for the new construction. What remained was further destroyed when coal bunkers and later a fish factory were built over it. Cape Town's Table Bay anchorage was well-protected by the Castle built by the Dutch East India Company in 1666; but the station set up in 1652 for the benefit of ships travelling to and from the Far East was vulnerable to attack on its western side by its arch-rivals, the English and French East India Companies. In 1710 a rocky outcrop on the beach below Lion's Head was chosen to build a new battery. Work was only completed in 1726 due to a shortage of lime and masons. The Chavonnes Battery was named after its originator, Governor Maurits Pasque de Chavonnes. Ships could not pass after nightfall. If they tried, three warning shots were fired and the culprits were forced to retreat and drop anchor for the night. This continued until the British decided in 1856 to build the new harbour and breakwater near the battery. Archaeological excavations began at the Concentra fish factory in 1999. 18th and 19th century paintings indicated this was where the battery must have been. The BoE financial services group was planning a new office block on the site and adapted the plans to accommodate the ruins in the basement of the new building. Excavations revealed old stone walls and paving under the concrete floor, the remains of the 3.3m high sea wall and the supporting stone buttresses on the inside. A well was also found. 18th century Dutch artefacts and a four pounder Dutch cannon were also found. Now visitors can walk on suspended walkways among the old stone ruins where, centuries ago, the sea lashed against the walls and cannons stood. The Chavonnes Battery is at the Clock Tower Precinct, V&A Waterfront.