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stepping stones of maritime history


4th Anglo-Dutch war

In 1781, Holland became involved in the American War of Independence by joining France and Spain in declaring war on England. All Dutch shipping at the Cape - mainly richly laden East Indiamen en route to Holland - was ordered to remain together until a well protected convoy could be assembled to escort them home.

Battle of Saldanha bay

Given the difficulty of defending Table Bay Cape Town in the event of an attack, five VOC merchantmen on the homeward bound trip, the Hoogkarspel, Middelburg, Honkoop, Paarl and Dankbaarheid, and on vessel the Held Woltemade on the outward trip went to Saldanha Bay to shelter.

Orders were given that the ships were to be destroyed if they could not escape capture. Each captain was instructed to load his vessel with combustibles, and if capture seemed likely, to set fire to his ship. Most of the Dutch commanders and crew did not take this order seriously. Captain van Gennep of the Middelburg was the only officer to comply with these instructions by preparing his boat to be set alight.

On 21 July 1781, the English Commodore Johnstone, sailed into Saldanha Bay. His vessels disguised by flying French flags. The Dutch were initially jubilant, mistaking the English vessels for the long-awaited reinforcements. And then saw the French flags being hauled down and English colours run up.

The english fleet opened fire on the anchored Dutch ships. The Dutch hastily tried to set their ships alight and cut their cables to run the vessels ashore. The English, however, were prepared for fire fighting and quickly extinguished the fires as they boarded the abandoned vessels.

The only exception was the Middelburg. The vessel was soon fiercely ablaze, and the flames spread through the hull to the powder magazine, whereupon she exploded and sank. The Middelburg was the only Dutch vessel in Saldanha Bay that day not to fall into English hands. The loss of six Indiamen and their cargoes was a serious financial blow to the already struggling Dutch East India Company.


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