Fortifications are any structures built with the aim of protection against an enemy.

Defensive Precedents in South Africa

The building of fortifications and defensive lines are as old as European colonisation in South Africa. Only those defences directed against incursion by the native inhabitants will be dealt with here, although there were others, such as the French Lines (known also as the Zonnebloem or Munnik Line, or the Nieuwe Retrenchment)1 to protect the Cape from possible overland attack by the British. Ideally the Dutch would have preferred an island as a trading post. Initially St Helena was considered but found unsuitable. The first fantastical plan of Commissioner Rijkloff van Goens2 was that the Cape

'van't vasteland van Afrika sal konnen affgesneden werden, daermede wij van alle quellingen souden bevrijt zijn, die noch daegelijcx subject blijven van de beestachtige inwoonders te vertraagen.'

an idea never executed.

The idea of "frontier" rather than "border" with the associated type of sporadic attack by marauding bands or raiding parties determined the nature of the defences. Since the inhabitants were often dependent on their own resources the defences were often of a domestic scale. The first defensive line to the east, erected by van Riebeeck against the Khoi, begun in 1659, was formed from pickets connected in a crescent by planted hedges and erected fences, known as the 'circkel van den Caapsen omslaght'. Immediately the Liesbeeck Valley became disputed territory and the 'Crommeboom' was erected, formed from the brushwood, or creckelbosch, of the cleared 5km section of forest on the south-eastern slopes of Table Mountain. The Liesbeeck itself formed a natural barrier and the remnant portion on the north to the coastline was protected by a palisade fence. It was however Van Riebeeck's intention to replace all this with a planted almond (Brabejum stellatifolium l. proteaceae) hedge3, a task begun in 1660, yet made rapidly redundant by the eastward spread of the Trekboers and by the eighties of the C17 it had become obsolete.4 Remnants are preserved as a national heritage resource known as 'Van Riebeeck's Hedge'.

The Trekboers, in settling the hinterland, had adopted their own means of defenses of a domestic scale. Lichtenstein5, on his travels in the early C19, observes in the Swartberg

'two farms, where we first saw a specimen of the precautions which had been taken against the inroads of the Caffres. They consisted in high earth walls, run up all around the house at the distance of five (1.52m) or six feet (1.83m) from it: at the four corners were a sort of towers with port holes for guns, resembling bastions, which gave the whole an appearance of a fortification: the opening opposite the house could be barricaded. Many farmers by this kind of fortification saved their houses. In the way from hence to Algoa bay we found almost all the houses put into a like state of defence;'

It is interesting that this observation, quoted by both Kannemeyer6 and Lewcock7, has not lead to any further discoveries, either in reports or illustration, or remains of this type of fortified farmhouse, although Lichtenstein does follow his observations with the comment that when the Xhosa

'did get possession of one of these defended houses, their rage was vented more furiously than upon the free-standing ones.'

By the second decade of the C19 the Eastern Frontier stretched as far as the Great Fish River. It had been rumoured that a Portuguese fort had been located at the mouth of the Kowie, and Thompson8 on his travels tried to locate its ruins. He reports

'We could perceive no vestiges of the Portuguese fort said to have been erected here in former times. Other travellers, who possessed no means of crossing the river, may possibly have been deceived by some rocks on the left bank, which at a distance certainly have a striking resemblance to the ruins of a fort.'

By 1816, three years prior to the 5th Frontier War, pickets had been erected along the Great Fish River northwards from the coast in order to consolidate the defences of the Frontier. The second line of defences were the military posts, farms and river crossings. The securing of kraals was considered of particular importance in the Eastern Frontier:

'Throughout the whole Colony it is highly necessary to secure the herds and flocks at night, in folds and kraals fenced round generally with a strong hedge of mimosa or other thorny bushes.'9

Alexander himself refers to the native techniques of the defences of the kraals:

'They keep one or more bundles of dry mountain grass near their kraals, and when danger is supposed to be near, the bundle is lighted; it burns for considerable time, throwing a brilliant light for many yards round, and discovers the enemy.'10

Other defences of cattle had been noted by travellers through the district. Thompson11, speaking of Theopholis, the mission to the "Hottentots" near the mouth of the Kasouga, noted

'This place had been repeatedly attacked ... during the late war, but had been successfully defended by the vigilance and intrepidity of its Hottentot inhabitants; who, for the security of their numerous cattle, (the principal object of Caffer cupidity), had industriously fenced the common kraal of their village with a very strong lofty palisade. The stakes of this fence, consisting chiefly of Caffer boom (Erythrina caffra) which grows abundantly struck root, and thrown out flourishing branches, which gave the palisade an uncommon and agreeable effect.'

Campbell12 notes that at Theopholis, additional to the palisade of coral trees which had each post planted fifty to seventy-five millimeters apart so that fire could be delivered from between them:

'they have form [sic] a projection from the middle of each side from which they can fire upon such as may advance up to the fortification.'

The Settlers then developed their own improvements of the native defences by adding bastions to the kraals.

'This way of building customary here is used because every corner of the kraal can be reached with a gun if they should be raided by Bushmen, and so that wolves and other beasts of prey cannot reach the sheep at night and they are able to protect their animals without endangering their lives.'13

After the expulsion of the Xhosa from the Zuurveld, Graham set out with a view to establishing 'such a system of defence as shall prevent a recurrence of the innumerable murders and thefts...' His plan was to set up a network of fortified positions all along the frontier, with constant patrols, and to this end he decided on thirty posts where troops were to be permanently stationed '... deep into the newly-won territory, groups of as few as ten men... were shown a spot in the bare veld and told to construct a fort, either with timber palisades or a breastwork of earth.' A typical post was described as a collection of huts 'surrounded by a mud wall and a ditch. The wall had loopholes, and small bastions at the angles, sufficient to resist any attack...'14

All undergrowth in the vicinity of posts was to be cleared away.15

The Xhosa were readily repulsed when attacking properly fortified posts, so that their most successful offensives were not directed against the troops garrisoned there but against the isolated homesteads16. The settler farmers were therefore drawn into the defensive system merely by being the target of attack, and hence the requirements of having to fortify the farmsteads. With the outbreak of the hostilities of 1835 the nature of these defences had to be more conventionally military since the indigenous tribes had also acquired firearms, and had used them in their attacks.

The experiences of the recent Napoleonic wars, and specifically the provision of defensive structures, proved fruitful in meeting the circumstances at the Cape.


  1. Oberholster, J. J. 1972. The Historical monuments of South Africa. Cape Town: Rembrand van Rijn Foundation: 25
  2. Boeseken, A. J. 1974. Jan van Riebeeck en sy gesin. Kaapstad: Tafelberg: 129
  3. Ooberholster, 1972: 49
  4. Bergh, J. S. & Visagie, J. C. 1985. The Eastern Cape frontier zone 1660 - 1980. Durban: Butterworth: 1
  5. Lichtenstein, H. 1928. Travels in South Africa in the years 1803, 1804, 1805 and 1806. Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society: 253
  6. Kannemeyer, 1955: 262
  7. Lewcock, 1963: 168
  8. Thompson, 1962: 22
  9. Thompson, 1962: 28
  10. GTJ. 20 August 1835. Supplement
  11. Thompson, 1962: 18
  12. Campbell, Diary manuscript copy Africana Library Johannesburg, 238 quoted in Lewcock, 1963: 168
  13. Jooste, N. J. s.a. Versterkte plase in die Fort Beaufort-distrik en omgewing. BA (Hons), University of Fort Hare: 14
  14. Maclennan, 1986: 131
  15. Maclennan, 1986: 135
  16. Peires, J.B. 1981. The House of Phalo. Johannesburg: Ravan: 141-2


Fortifications – Domestic Scale - Military Traditions in South Africa

Captain (later Sir) JE ALEXANDER, the author of the article published in the Graham's Town Journal, epitomises the breadth of experience upon which a professional soldier could draw and on which the injunctions in his article are founded. It is interesting to note that Alexander himself was a Scotsman, of Clackmannanshire,1 which is some one hundred and fifty kilometers from the English border. The similarities in the history of the two regions, namely the border region of England and Scotland and that of the Eastern Frontier of the Cape had not escaped the notice of Godlonton2:

'Numerous frontier forrays were continually taking place, very much resembling in character the border maraudings which figure so conspicuously in the annals of Scotland and the north of England.'

and so the aside 'like one of the ancient peel houses on the borders of England and Scotland' in Alexander's article.3

ALEXANDER, on his arrival at the Frontier, was already widely travelled through previous postings, which explains the precedents to which he refers in his article. He had seen active service in the Burman War (1824) - 'As in India, hedges of aloes and prickly pears might be introduced here...', in the Persian army in the war against Russia (1826) - 'In Persia the mills at a distance from the village are each provided with a tower ... 30 feet (9.14m) high' - , the Russian-Turkish war in the Balkan (1829) - 'The Cossack look-out houses on the north side of the Caucasus, to observe the approach of an enemy during the day, are merely platforms raised on posts', the Muegelite war in Portugal (1833-4) - 'The most economical way of rendering a house defensible is building it on the Spanish plan ...'. He had also visited the Americas and studied the Essequibo - 'After the French acquired Canada, their system of defence against the Indians was an easy and most effectual one'.4

Jooste5 has touched on the issue of the similarity in construction of defences at the Eastern Cape, particularly the peripheral walls and loopholes. He cites the instruction in the 'Aide Memoir of a British Soldier' (not found in his bibliography)

'The interior opening of the loophole can be of the same form in both these conditions [horizontal or vertical], for a man to use his musket conveniently; it should not be less than 2 feet [600mm] wide and 1 foot six inches [450mm] high.' There is also the 'Wellington Barrack' to which Alexander refers which 'is excellent; for thus every barrack or house may be made a strong post: between every window is a loophole, closed with an inside shutter when not require; a loopholed wall 10 feet (3.05m) high surrounds the yard, with towers at the angles, or its line so broken as to give a flanking fire. Firing from a window exposes the person; while loopholes between the windows secure the defenders.'

This was obviously of seminal importance for the prototype which Gilbert evolved.

The expertise of the military, although with a limited number of skilled builder/architects, is reason for a certain uniformity in the defensive designs of the fortifications and those adopted for domestic use. A study of the military instruction and practice of British forces, both at war and in the Colonies might broaden an understanding of the evolution of fortifications in the Eastern Cape.

The British Settlers took to fortifying their farmsteads after the Sixth Frontier War (1834-5), and did employ corbelling to protect wellheads, such as the example of Southwell, here constructed in brick. There is however no evidence of such fortifications being covered in corbelling, even though the deliberate torching of thatched roofs by the attackers might have encouraged the settlers to resort to such a technology.


  1. Jooste, s.a.: 14
  2. Godlonton, R. 1852. Narrative of the Kaffir War, 1850-51-52. Graham's Town: Godlonton and White: 4
  3. For a discussion of English built precedent, see Fisher, r. & Booysen, J. 1994. Fortified frontier farmhouses: English precedent for the Eastern Cape. South African Journal of Cultural History. Vol. 8. No. 1: 1-12
  4. Suid Afrikaanse Biografiese Woordeboek, 1977. Vol. III
  5. Jooste, s.a.: 39