The Cape, the Rabbit, and the Man from Java

In preparing AmaBhulu for publication, I had no choice but to cut certain sections from the text in order to keep the sheer size in check. In the event, I fitted the work into the allowed 630 pages with just one inch to spare.

One section that really broke my heart to leave out was the intriguing story of the Cape, the Rabbit, and the Man from Java who tried to help. It is a fantastic piece of history that no one ever hears about. It would make a superb movie, what with discontented frontiersman, native armies created by imperial Englishmen, Napoleon supporters, men sailing to the Far East for help, secret weapons shipments, false flag operations, and desperate efforts to undertake insane journeys. And, through it all weaves an intriguing man, tracked by British spies in Napoleon’s time along with a strange but dedicated man from Java who tried to help the Afrikaners at Graaff-Reinet. One just cannot make up this stuff. It proves that reality is often more impossible than fiction. This is why I love history…. but read on.

♦ The British take the Cape

In June 1795, the citizens of Graaff-Reinet near the eastern frontier of the Cape of Good Hope chase their Dutch East India Company (DEIC) magistrate, Honoratius Maynier, out of office. He departs for Cape Town where he complains to the commander at the Cape, Commissioner Sluysken, who has never once visited the frontier town. Maynier has already previously besmirched the name of the citizens of Graaff-Reinet and there is no love lost between him and the people of that town. In Graaff-Reinet, the men call out their own little republic and elect their own representatives.

JamesHenryCraigAs fate would have it, the Brits choose precisely this moment to arrive at the Cape. In fact, the messages about the troubles in Graaff-Reinet and the message from the Brits at anchor in False Bay arrive simultaneously at the desk of the flustered Sluysken. He has not been informed of the changes in Europe by his seniors. Holland is now the Batavian Republic and a French ally and the Dutch Stadholder (king, for all practical purposes) has fled his country for England. He now lives in Kew outside London! The Brits have been tasked to temporarily occupy the Cape in the name of the Stadholder who has supposedly requested this in his so-called “Kew Papers”. The proposed occupation is ostensibly to keep the Cape out of Napoleon’s hands. Sluysken does not believe any of this. Three months later, the Brits under general Craig (above) take the Cape by force. In early 1796, Craig sends magistrate Frans Bresler to Graaff-Reinet to represent British Authority on the Frontier.

♦ Uproar in Graaf-Reinet

When Bresler arrives in Graaff-Reinet on 9 February 1796, the Republicans of Graaff-Reinet allow him to stay at the magistrate’s home, but will not allow him to take office. They organize a full meeting of their elected representatives on 22 February. On that day, Bresler reads them his commission from General Craig and announces that he shall hold a first meeting of the old DEIC District Council in the afternoon. When the attendees ask whether the democratically elected Representatives of the People will be admitted to that meeting, Bresler states that he is not allowed to acknowledge them.

When Bresler attempts to run up the British “spider” flag outside the drostdy (magistrate’s offices, below), the citizenry haul it down and present him with a memorial. In this document they declare that they would much rather have as magistrate a “born Englishman” than a “secretly partial Afrikaner”. They obviously completely distrust Bresler, who returns to Cape Town where he tells the governor that the fly in the ointment in Graaff-Reinet is the district surgeon Jan Pieter Woyer. Jan,  Bresler tells the governor, is apparently an ardent supporter of the French Revolution.GRdrostdy

And here matters rest for a while as the next act unfolds just north of Cape Town. In the meantime Jan Pieter Woyer, having raised the expectation that help will be somehow forthcoming, has disappeared – but where to?

♦ Disaster in Saldanha Bay

The Netherlands, now known as the Batavian Republic, has meanwhile agreed with the French that a Batavian Dutch squadron and a French squadron will rendezvous near the Cape and retake the Colony. In the event the French do not meet up with the Dutch squadron and the Dutch are hopelessly undone by the British at Saldanha Bay north of Cape Town on 17 August 1796. The German crews of the Dutch ships were largely mercenaries and promptly switched sides. In reality it was a rather ignominious Dutch capitulation and there were very few casualties indeed.

With this, the last hope for the men of Graaff-Reinet disappears and they send a letter of submission to General Craig on 12 November 1796, specifically entreating him not to select a magistrate from the old DEIC government, and specifically not Bresler. The author’s own ancestors are signatories to this document. Craig has already dispatched his newly enlisted Khoekhoe army to suppress the “White Graaff-Reinet Boer Jacobins”, but recalls it and grants a general amnesty to all but Jan Pieter Woyer, who is still mysteriously missing.

♦ From Batavia with Love

When Jan Pieter Woyer disappears from Graaff-Reinet in March 1796, many of the frontiersmen hope that aid from abroad will shortly reach them. Woyer has been confident of French assistance and has, in fact, gone to procure it. When a Danish ship anchors in Algoa Bay, he obtains passage to Dutch Batavia – Jakarta in Indonesia (Do not confuse Batavia in Indonesia with the Batavian Republic in the Netherlands, but the former is loyal to the latter). There he makes the case to Governor-General Van Overstraten that only guns, powder and ammunition are required for the frontiersmen to put up a stiff fight against the British. It seems reasonable to conclude that any conflict on the frontier will undermine the British defense of the Cape. Having delivered his message, Woyer again disappears from the picture for some time. A very interesting man indeed, as District Surgeons go.

Earlier, on 5 December 1795, the citizens of Batavia presented the governor with a memorandum. One of the points raised in this wide-reaching document is that they distrust the British. In this respect they refer in particular to the events at the Cape of Good Hope some three months earlier. One of the signatories was a man named “J de Freyn”.

Governor-General van Overstraten decides to send to Graaff-Reinet all the aid he can muster. He cannot spare any soldiers, but he does approve thirty-six thousand pounds of gunpowder, eight pieces of field artillery and fifty bales of clothing material for shipment on a 68-foot DEIC brig named the Haasje (Little Rabbit), which is waiting at anchor. The little ship has already done sterling service in the Far East.

On the 19th of February 1797 the Haasje sails with a crew of twenty European and twenty-four Malay men. The present author suspects the term “Malay” is used here in the official records to indicate indigenous Javanese, rather than men from what will be called Malaysia in the 21st century. The term was still used in that fashion in South Africa in the 20th century. The captain, Jan de Freyn is the mixed-race son of a Dutch officer and a Javanese woman. We do not know whether it is the same De Freyn who signed the memorandum above. Oddly, the ship also has a rather special pilot on board. The crew believes they are bound for Ternate, the famous main “Spice Island” off the northeastern tip of Celebes (Sulawesi in the 21st century). Indeed, the ship duly sails east into the sunrise.Haasje_route

Only the Governor-General and the captain know the real destination. Just before the island of Bali, the Haasje suddenly turns south, and heads for the Strait of Bali where it has served before. Such a high level of secrecy is maintained that the pilot who conducts the brig through the strait is not set ashore lest he should make the true course known. After all, there are Royal Navy spies and agents in all significant ports on the planet.

♦ Disaster yet again

On approaching the African coast, the ship encounters a violent storm. The Haasje is so badly damaged that she has to put into the port of Delagoa Bay in Portuguese East Africa for repairs on 3 May 1797. To De Freyn’s horror there is no help to be found, because two French frigates have destroyed the castle in 1796 and the Portuguese garrison of 80 men has fled up the river. The garrison is waiting there to be rescued and is in a terrible state.

Lying at anchor in the bay is a whaler named the Hope, flying the American flag. The men of the Hope become rather friendly with De Freyn and he eventually confides the real purpose of his mission. He wants to try to communicate with the Afrikaner frontiersmen at Graaff-Reinet, but, if that fails, he would have his vessel repaired and proceed to Algoa Bay. It is to be seriously doubted whether De Freyn comprehends even vaguely what communicating overland from Delagoa Bay to Graaf-Reinet actually entails in 1797. He also likely cannot tell a late 18th century American accent.

♦ To Graaff-Reinet…or not

De Freyn now takes the Haasje some distance up the river to the domain of a black chief named Kapela. Setting his men to work on repairing the ship, he first dispatches one of Kapela’s people with a letter to the Graaff-Reinet men. We have to assume that effort fails pretty quickly, because he then sets off trying to reach them personally. He turns back after three days because of the threatening attitude of the local people. Considering what horrors lie further ahead, he is a lucky man indeed to be forced back.

When a Portuguese warship arrives at Delagoa Bay a day or two later, the master of the Hope obtains help in the form of men and guns. The reason for this is simple: The Hope is not an American ship, but a British one abusing the American flag. The Royal Navy excels at false flag operations. In 1781 they defeated a Dutch fleet at Saldanha Bay by pretending to be French.

Aided by the Portuguese with suitable weapons, the men from the Hope attack the Haasje on the river on 28 May 1797. De Freyn quickly offloads two artillery pieces and the gunpowder and then scuttles the Haasje. He obtains some help from Kapela’s warriors, but it is insufficient and his men are not soldiers. The British take possession of the two field pieces along with twenty-two thousand eight hundred pounds of gunpowder. The remainder of the cargo is plundered and carried away by the natives while the skirmishing is going on. Nothing really changes in Africa.

After the battle the men of the Hope re-float the Haasje, and Alexander Dixon, chief officer with a prize crew of five men takes her to the Cape, arriving on the 11th of August 1797.

De Freyn and “some of his men” (see note below) are left behind to fend for themselves in a very dangerous place.

♦ De Freyn’s next move

After another vain attempt at making his way to Graaff-Reinet overland, de Freyn and his men return to Delagoa Bay. Eventually they obtain passage to Table Bay on a whaler. There, De Freyn protests against the seizure of the Haasje by the falsely marked Hope in a neutral port. He also accuses the British of intentionally marooning him and his men in savage country. The British response is to arrest him and send him to England as a prisoner of war. They will exchange him three years later in March 1800.

The folks at Graaff-Reinet were none the wiser as regards the gallant efforts of the half-Javanese Captain Johannes de Freyn to come to their aid. They never even knew he existed.

NOTE 1: According to De Freyn’s own report  (as per De Opkomst van het Nederlandsch gezag in Oost-Indië, Volume 13) he reaches Delagoa Bay on 2 May 1797. His overland journey gets to within one day of the outlying white settlements of the Cape of Good Hope, according to his black guide.  He states that he finds “Hottentots” there. However, there his group of around forty men is attacked by 500 native warriors and his guide is killed. That forces him to turn back. It is after this that the Haasje is attacked by “two British cruisers” after treasonous behaviour by the Portuguese governor, who earlier helped them. His report also states that he was left to fend for himself with one single servant and that the two men survived on their own for four months before they managed to get berths on a “fishing boat”.

The present author finds it impossible to believe that he could have been in “(Gonaqua?) Hottentot territory” (around 900 -1000 km south of Delagoa Bay) ON FOOT after only 17 days of travel through dangerous country. One assumes that De Freyn was either misled by his Black African hosts and helpers, or he simply embellished his own efforts in his report. Perhaps he really believed Graaff-Reinet was that close. On the other hand, de Freyn was a very reliable and experienced man with a superb record of naval service in the Far East. His name may be found associated with a number of actions. So, one is left scratching one’s head.

NOTE 2: The letter to the Burghers of Graaf-Reinet given to de Freyn to deliver to the men of the town has survived and may be read HERE.

♦ And Jan Pieter Woyer?

By August 1797 Woyer is in the Netherlands. Here, he repeatedly makes huge efforts to raise help for the Graaff-Reinet men. But, it is all to no avail; the Dutch have lost interest. His overtures to the East India Committee—the body that succeeded the DEIC— fall on deaf ears, despite all his efforts from August to December 1797. He also launches an effort against the unfortunate Commissioner Sluysken, who had surrendered the Cape. Over this period, Woyer is identified as a colleague of the present author’s own ancestral brother, PJ Delport, erstwhile Kommandant of Swellendam, who was banished from the Cape Colony, the land of his birth, for refusing to take the oath of loyalty to the British King.

Instead of answering Woyer’s request for help for the Boere of Graaff-Reinet, the authorities pay him a sum of 102 Guilder in recognition of his efforts and offer him the role of Captain-Lieutenant (Military) in Batavia. Woyer, a Dane, accepts this. However, he delays his departure to petition one more time on behalf of the Graaff-Reinetters. After being told in direct terms to “get a move on”, he tries to make his way to Batavia. He will never get there.

The tale of his struggles to get to Batavia is a long and painful one, involving two periods as British POW, two lengthy stays in the United States, being beaten up very badly as POW by a British officer, lengthy stays in hospital, both in the US and as British POW, and desertion in the US by his non-supportive Dutch compatriots who sail off with all his possessions. The last we hear of him is in October 1802 in the US where he hopes to get passage to Java in an American ship. The British government at the Cape is somehow warned that he might try to visit South Africa and it would be necessary to watch his movements closely.  Clearly the British have excellent military intelligence in the United States in the early 1800s.

Here we finally lose track of the intrepid Jan Pieter Woyer.  His compatriots in Graaff-Reinet probably never knew about his efforts on their behalf.