‘Afford my Country an infinite Advantage’ 9 June 1795
Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘Afford my country an infinite advantage’ http://www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/Traces/Afford-my-country-an-infinite-advantage/ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.
1. The first page of a letter is shown here, with a full transcription of it appearing at the end of this Trace. It was sent from St Helena, often said to be one of the most remote islands and places in the world, although on routes by ship from Europe to the Cape, India and China, with many calling there to replenish water and food and in addition to leave and collect letters and other kinds of documents. The letter-writer in this instance, Robert Brooke, was the island’s governor of the day (appointed in 1788 and retiring in 1800). His letter is addressed to Lord (George) Macartney, a career diplomat who had left his position in China and was in process of being appointed to a governor role in the Cape. It is dated as started on 9 June and then added to and completed on 17 June 1795.
2. Macartney’s appointment was made in May, and literally at the time the letter was written British involvement in the Cape was taking a decisive turn. It is not made clear exactly where Macartney was and thus where Brooke’s letter was sent. Brooke in fact writes that he had been “obliged to write via Portugueze Ship that touches at Brazil for Convoy”; then later in the letter that he has given it to “W. Gordon a Civil Servant from Madrass who has charge of this [and] will be ready to acquaint you with all further particulars you may wish to know”; and with another but different clue appearing in the letter’s final paragraph, discussed later.
3. In addition, this may appear to be a letter in two parts, or rather one long letter but with its final paragraph appearing to concern different matters and be written in a more obsequious and less descriptive way. And also, at first sight Brooke’s letter does not seem to have much to do with South Africa or the Cape or whiteness or any of the things that the WWW project is concerned with. But it does.
4. There are six mentions of the word ‘Cape’ in it, with three of these concerning events in the oceans around that area and three dealing with events occurring on land. And looking closer, what is being reported on is something momentous, or at least the beginnings of something momentous, a turning-point in the history of South Africa, a point that had between 9 and 17 June 1795 just about been reached and its turn started. And the letter is actually all of a piece, not separate things just joined together. This can be unpacked, via these six mentions of the Cape.
“…Holland had surrendered to France and having a very good reason to hope being joined by a powerful Party at the Cape…”
5. There was a war between Holland and France around in particular their different competing overseas interests, which was more about controlling strategic locations than about trade, settlement or other factors. France had invaded the Netherlands. The Cape was one locus of competition, with France in dispute of Holland’s long-term involvement there as represented by the Dutch East India Company. Britain too had an interest, also because of strategic factors.
6. At the point that Brooke wrote his letter, he had heard by the packet-ship Swallow that the Dutch had surrendered to France and he had surmised or been told there would be support for a British initiative from a ‘powerful Party’ at the Cape, later in the letter named as a Democratic Party, a loose conglomeration of interests in opposition to the stringent controls of the VOC, the local arm of the Dutch East India Company. It was this surmise that led him to adopt the course of action that his letter goes on to explain or rather to justify to Macartney, around its next two mentions of the Cape.
“… We had hardly got to Sea when we met the swallow from the Cape…”
7. The Swallow was a fast-sailing packet-ship that travelled more quickly than heavily-laden naval ships. The Arniston, an East India ship, was on its maiden voyage and was bringing Brooke’s wife and children back to St Helena from furlough in Britain, sailing from Portsmouth to Tenereife, then St Helena, then the Cape, and thence to Madras, and beyond.
“I had letters from Admiral Elphinstone and found he was appointed to Command an Expedition to the Cape which he hoped to reach in a few Days my Enterprize therefore became needless But by the Swallow I received Intelligence that Fleet of about 20 Sail of Dutch men Indiamen poorly convoy’d were on the Point of sailing from that Place not having heard of what had happened in Holland…”
8. After arriving in St Helena, the Arniston picked up British troops to take to the Cape, as part of rear-Admiral Sir George Elphinstone having been given orders to carry out an expedition to occupy the Cape and cut out both the Dutch and the French. As a consequence of meeting these ships at sea and receiving the new information about Elphinstone’s expedition, Brooke then has a lot of explanation to do, in order to justify himself in having carried out the actions he had, which he clearly thinks might be seen as both precipitous and costly.
9. That is, Brooke had decided following consultation that “it was well Worth while to make an attempt, to get Possession of the Place by supporting in time the Party above mentioned”, which led him to take a considerable amount of money, some hundreds of troops and a hundred seamen (in today‘s terminology, marines) and a number of ships. But then, to use his word, his enterprise became ‘needless’ because of Elphinstone’s expedition. His justification was that Dutch East India ships about to arrive had not heard about what was in effect a revolution in Holland, with the new Batavian government entering an agreement with Britain about its possessions and opposition to France.
10. Thus, as Brooke goes on to explain around the next mention of the word Cape, he indicates that he had in fact acted courageously in order to defend British interests against the French.
“If we were not beforehand with the French at the Cape the Democratic Party must overpower the other & Loss of the place thereby might prove most especially detrimental to our Dearest Interests in the East…”
11. Brooke having been “most desirous of Risk” in acting as he had is presented as part of him defending and if possible extending the strategic interests of Britain, in securing the Cape as a port of call for ships between Britain and “the East”. The following paragraph continues his justification by anticipating and rebutting critical comments from “Cold hearted people” concerning “Why did Mr Brooke venture to go to any Expence or risk on the companys or his own Account without having received positive Orders to act or without his being absolutely obliged to do so”. His timidity in these respects was, he writes, overridden by “my Conscience my Gratitude and my Zeal in the Cause of my Country”.
12. The bottom line of Brooke’s explanation, then, is that he acted as he had for entirely patriotic reasons connected with furthering the best interests of Britain as this had been indicated by the intelligence available to him at the time. And this view he states was shared by everyone he had consulted with.
“Capt Essington has sent in… a Dutch India man called the Hougly very richly laden, she parted from her companion in the gale of wind off the Cape…”
13. There is much activity of diverse kinds described or commented on in Brooke’s letter. Ships come and go, governments change, conflicts happen, people arrive, new information is provided, the weather becomes immoderate. As well as the possible “Loss of the place” (the Cape) to the French, there is also the presence of “20 Indiamen of whom we had received Intelligence, [and] if they got Safe to our Enemy’s Ports in Europe it would give news to the Dutch Company now under the Direction of France”.
14. The letter comments on this, that, “if we could get Possession of them it will throw them into Despair… [and] afford my honble Masters and my Country infinite Advantage over them”. It is the French control over the Dutch East India Company’s fleet that provides another reason for Brooke‘s actions, then, that he wanted to stop it “reestablishing their Affairs abroad”, which would be in French interests, and so the various actions he details having taken against Dutch India Company ships.
“After this the weather has grown immoderate & a Danish ship brings the news that she parted from the Dutch Fleet on this side of the Cape, but was not certain if they designed calling in or not…”
15. The Dutch fleet was a threat in a number of respects including because its commanders probably did not know about events in Holland. So if it docked at the Cape (at Simon’s Town), it would be likely to support French interests – and obviously oppose Elphinstone’s expedition. Thus the further course of action described, in dispatching warships against the Dutch fleet and the Swallow to India, was to show the Dutch East India Company there that “their India Company must now be ruined” and so they would want to give up VOC settlements at the Cape.
16. Brooke’s letter by implication was sent either on the Arniston or the Swallow; it is not certain which but most likely the Arniston. It was given to the charge of W. Gordon, a career magistrate in the Madras High Court, and after Cape Town this would be the Arniston’s next port of call. The implication here is that the letter would be handed over in Cape Town, before Gordon continued his journey.
17. The end paragraph of the letter starts with effusive thanks to Macartney and concerns the relationship of patronage between them, particulaly “your having most particularly interested yourself in my behalf”. Although the letter concludes with a request from Brooke that Macartney would recognise that all his actions were about serving his country and therefore would as a consequence “compleat your generous purpose in my Favour”, this hint at hoping for further patronage seems rather a lost cause, for two reasons.
18. The first has already been discussed, and is that Brooke’s actions could as much be seen as precipitous and costly as they could patriotic and zealous, and certainly they became irrelevant, needless.
19. The second is explained in this paragraph itself, and is that his fellow officers had opposed Brooke‘s appointment to the St Helena governorship. Presumably Mrs Brooke had herself had to do considerable damage limitation when she was told this by Macartney, and Brooke is here attempting to clear himself within the terms of his patronage relationship with Macartney. It also implies that Macartney and Mrs Brooke might have both been on the Arniston, although this may be a mistaken reading. But the point is that the whole letter is composed in the terms of their wider relationship and its bonds of patronage, and that Brooke couches it as him hoping his present “serving my Country” would outweigh the officers’ opposition, just as he hoped earlier in his letter that it would outweigh his costly precipitousness.
20. But what happened then?
21. Sir Robert Brooke (1744-1811) was an employee of the East India Company, had served in Bengal, and held the rank of lieutenant-colonel, specialising in military administration. His career seems to have stalled, perhaps as a result of the matters dealt with in this Trace. He remained governor of St Helena until his retirement in 1800, with his twelve year term there unusual among its governors, who were more usually in place for two or three years. He was, however, a pro-active and efficient governor who engaged in many public works programmes. In 1800, with his wife Anna Mapletoff and seven children he returned to Britain.
22. In 1795, France occupied the Netherlands, prompting Britain to want control of the Cape to better prevent any potential French naval threat to India. Under Elphinstone, a fleet of nine British warships anchored at Simon’s Town with some hundreds of troops on board on 10 June 1795. Attempts at peaceful settlement failed, even though William of Orange had requested ceding the Cape to Britain as part of opposing Bonaparte, but this was rejected by the resident Boer citizenry. Then the troops were disembarked and an invasion began on or about 4 August 1795. Following the Battle of Muizenberg of that date, Britain took control.
23. The Batavian Republic had become a vassal state of France, and when relations (temporarily) changed with France, the Cape then reverted to Batavian rule in 1803 under the terms of the Treaty of Amiens. In 1806, however, the Cape was re-annexed by Britain after the Battle of Blaauwberg: another story and another Trace. But in June 1795 a turning-point had been reached and it is traced in Brooke’s letter.
Transcription – please provide line numbers when quoting
- Island of St Helena ^begun the^ 9th June 1795
- closed 17 June.
- Lord Visct. Macartney K. B.
- &e &c
- My Lord –
- On hearing by the Sceptre (which came too late to Convey home the first
- fleet) that Holland had surrendered to France and having very good reason
- to hope being joined by a powerful Party at the Cape and my Garrison being
- very strong I held a Consultation with the Captain of the Sceptre the
- Gentlemen of Council and the Captains of the Companys Ships in Harbour
- and it was unanimously agreed that it was well Worth while to make an
- Attempt, to get Possession of the Place by supporting in time the Party
- above mentioned before they could be em ^over^powered by these
- attached to the French In Consequence I embarked with some Treasure
- belonging to the Company and some borrowed money 300 Choice Troops
- and near 100 Voluntier Seamen with the Sceptre 2 of the Companys Ships
- lightned for the Purpose and one Sugar Ship we were but four Days in
- preparing We had hardly got to Sea when we met the swallow from the
- Cape and the Arniston with Mrs Brooke & two of my Children in it from
- England By the Storeship I had letters from Admiral Elphinstone and found
- he was appointed to Command an Expedition to the Cape which he hoped
- to reach in a few Days my Enterprize therefore became needless but by
- the Swallow I received
- [continued next pg]
- Intelligence that a Fleet of about 20 Sail of Dutch men Indiamen poorly
- convoy’d were on the Point of sailing from that Place not having heard of
- what had happened in Holland on this the Ships returned to St Helena and
- we disembarked our Treasure. Field Prizes &ca but at the Requisition of
- Captain Essington of the Sceptre I left the 300 Troops on Board, 60 Artillery
- on board his ship and the rest all trained to Artillery Practice on the other 3
- Ships belonging to the Company, these ships had also been reinforced with
- Artillery Ammunition &ca the whole immediately proceeded to cruise to
- Windward mean time we worked night & Day on Shore and in the Harbour
- to get other of the Companys Ships in readiness to join and Strengthen the
- Cruizers but the Wind blew so fresh, that the first we sent out viz the Lord
- Hawkesbury & the next the Africa were obliged to put back not being able
- as yet to weather the Island –
- Thus situated not knowing whether we shall prove successfull and being
- obliged to write by a Portugueze Ship that touches at Brazil for Convoy I
- trust that you Sir (as well as every other of my Indulgent Friends) will have
- the Goodness to speak in my Favor on this Critical Emergency and impress
- Peoples Minds with this Truth that nothing but the Magnitude of the
- different objects in view to the Interest of the honourable Company & that of
- my Country could have induced me to have adopted such lots and decisive
- measures but it Appeared Clear in the 1st Instance that if we were not
- beforehand with the French at the Cape the Democratic Party must
- overpower the other &
- [continued next pg]
- that the Loss of the place thereby might prove most especially detrimental
- to our Dearest Interests in the East, the Object therefor was considered as
- most desirous of Risk to attain but perceiving Our Measure wisely
- Anticipated from home it seemed our Duty not to turn Our Attention to the
- second Object that of 20 Indiamen of whom we had received Intelligence, if
- they got Safe to our Enemys Ports in Europe it would give news to the
- Dutch Company now under the Direction of France and enable them
- Possibly to attempt reestablishing their Affairs abroad Whereas if we could
- get Possession of them it would throw them into Despair, and enfeeble
- them in such a Manner as to afford my honble Masters and my Country
- infinite Advantage over them –
- Notwithstanding all this I fear it may be said by cold hearted People why did
- Mr Brooke venture to go to any Expence or risk on the companys or his own
- Account without having received positive Orders to act or without his being
- absolutely obliged so to do In answer I can only say that believing if the
- British Ministry or the Court of Directors were present to give Orders they
- would such as I have put into Execution – of Course in Defiance of timidity
- my Conscience my Gratitude and my Zeal in the Cause of my Country
- impelled me irresistibly to Exertion –
- Since writing the above Capt Essington has sent in accompanied by the
- Swallow a Dutch India man called the Hougly very richly laden, she parted
- from her companion in a gale of wind off the Cape, ca I have returned the
- Swallow, I sent the Busbridge India man with his boats full of Voluntierd
- Sea men
- [continued next pg]
- & Soldiers from the Garrison after having taken proper measures to secure
- the Prize –
- After this the weather has grown immoderate & a Danish ship brings the
- news that she parted from the Dutch Fleet on this side the Cape, but was
- not certain if they designed calling in or not, but he believed he would not
- altho’ they might come near the Island –
- I have ordered out the Epex, ?Carby Castle Asia & Lord Hawkesbury to join
- Cap. Essington the 3 former to go to windward the latter to leeward that the
- Dutch may not escape if they come within sight of the Island, & I have
- reinforced the above India Men with Men Guns &c –
- If my measures prove successful I shall dispatch the Swallow, first to look
- into the Cape if possible to give information to Admiral Elphinstone & next
- to proceed to India with all dispatch to encourage the Companys Servant
- there & make the Dutch men apt to give up their settlements than they
- would otherwise be from the idea of the folly of opposition on considering
- that their India Company must now be ruined —–
- 17th I have the happiness to inform you that the Sceptre with three of the
- Honble Company’s Ships brought in seven Dutch Indiamen last Night, three
- of them very large, they fired at our Ships and boats the remainder of the
- Dutch Fleet has not yet made its appearance we Fear they are past W.
- [continued next page]
- a Civil Servant from Madrass who has charge of this will be ready to
- acquaint you with all further particulars you may wish to know
- Mrs Brooke has informed me of all your goodness to her, also of your having
- most particularly interested yourself in my behalf she is ^has^ further
- mentioned to me that my attaining my Rank and emoluments here as she
- believed you wished, was opposed by some of my old Brother Officers. I
- know not how to account for this but by recollecting that in my Youth I
- opposed them successfully at the critical period of the Officers resignation
- in Bengal but perhaps now that I have been so fortunate in once more
- serving my Country you may to enabled to compleat your generous purpose
- in my Favour if it can be done, it perhaps may be at a moment like this,
- whilst the matter is fresh, on your goodness I place my entire reliance, at all
- events I humbly beg leave to assure you, My Lord that to the latest hour of
- my Life I shall remain
- with the truest Gratitude and Respect
- Your most devoted and most
- faithful of Servants &c
- Rob Brooke
- St Helena }
- June 17th 1795 }
Last updated: 29 December 2017