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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


SCHUTTE, Gerrit. Questions concerning the drama at Schoonder Sigt: A closer look at the suicide of Robert Jacob Gordon in 1795. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2012, vol.52, n.2, pp.209-220. ISSN 2224-7912.

Colonel Robert Jacob Gordon (1743-1795) is a famous explorer of Southern Africa, its geography, people, flora and fauna. His reputation as Military Commander of the Cape of Good Hope is, however, not so good. His resistance against the British attack in 1795 was defensive, mostly evading direct combat, and after three months he surrendered. Subsequently, some five weeks later, on the 25th of October 1795, Gordon committed suicide. South African historiography, based on prevailing rumour at the time, was convinced: his suicide was due to feelings of shame and remorse, reaction to social isolation and contempt. People accused Gordon of cowardice and his treacherous defence of the Cape, claiming that as an Orangist and Anglophile, Gordon had handed the Cape over to the British to prevent a Jacobin revolution, whereby he could be assured that the British custody would take care of the Cape until the restoration of the House of Orange. That Gordon was neither a coward nor a traitor, is the thesis of this article; and his suicide therefore had to have had another origin. Indeed, Gordon was an opponent of the 1789 French Revolution, and his Scottish stock might have him helped to cooperate with the British. But he did not neglect his duties and he was not betrayed by the British. Backed up by Commissioner Sluysken and the unanimous Political Council, he followed a defensive line of action, seeing the English opponent being the majority - in guns, men and professional experience - while he was not sure of the reliability of his own men, mercenaries and unruly burgher militia's - the countryside was in open conflict with the Company regime. For three months, Gordon kept the enemy at bay and retained his honour as a soldier, then he surrendered: as a professional soldier, he knew that prolonged warfare was useless, and would result in more victims and much damage. Fighting to the end, sacrificing oneself for one's honour or freedom of the nation - such feelings were foreign to 18th century officers. There is no knowledge of any sign of treason or sneaky cooperation by Gordon with the British army; nor is there any indication of disappointment by Gordon about the policy of the British occupier. Some forty British officers honoured Gordon by being present at his funeral. There was indeed a small number of burghers and soldiers, inspired by Jacobin revolutionary nationalism, who deplored the surrender of the Cape to the British. They wrote to the Government in the Netherlands (by now the Batavian Republic) and accused the Colonial Government of treason. In their writings they called Gordon a coward and his behaviour treasonous and declared his suicide as being the result of remorse (the British forgot their promises to maintain the rights of the Dutch on the Cape Colony), social rejection and isolation. The accusers of the policies of Governor Sluysken and Commander Gordon are well-known: a junior clerk/schoolmaster (H.D. Campagne, as Jacobin agitator expelled by the British andfor years kept imprisoned in England), an artillerist (P. W.Marnitz), an assistant (assistent - C. L. Neethling, expelled, went to Holland), and the assistant ship's doctor (onderchirurgijn - J.P. Woyer, Graaff-Reinet, active in the so-called Swellendam Republic movement). Not the type of people with the knowledge to judge the situation! Their accusations were met with no response by the Batavian Government, which approved the official report by Governor Sluysken. This was an indirect disapproval of Neethling's book which was an attack of Sluysken's report, and he and his comrades were not rewarded for their revolutionary fervour: Neethling got nothing at all, Woyer was sent to the East (where he never arrived), only Campagne got some financial help, while as prisoner in England. It is evident that the South African historiography has given much too much credit to the revolutionary propaganda and gossip of Campagne, Marnitz, Neethling, Woyer and the anonymous pamphlet written in French Apologie de Robert de Gordon (1796). Encapsulated in the anti-imperialistic paradigm, dear to colonial historians (George McCall Theal) and the Afrikaner nationalists (C. Beyers), both the British and the VOC Regime are blamed. The VOC leadership yielded to the reality, and Gordon had nothing to feel embarrassed about: the British were too strong, war is never the ultimate goal. There was not even a British plan to get hold of the Cape for ever, only to secure the Cape from the French hegemony (and the Batavian Republic was a vassal of Paris!). Not only the defence of the Cape, but also the interpretation of the mentality at the Cape, of the so-called Cape Town Jacobins and the "Republican movement" in the outermost districts Swellendam and Graaff-Reinet, have been described according to that paradigm. Their character and impact evidently are misunderstood, and both have been attributed an anachronistic ideology. In the context of this ideological historiography, everybody has explained the suicide of Gordon as idiosyncratic. However, there are many indications for another explanation of Gordon's suicide. Gordon wasn t the kind of man to suffer from gossip or the idiot accusations of stupid common soldiers. People said that his wife had rejected him, driving him to commit suicide - an all too common story. But there were other, serious problems. Since his last journey through the interior parts of the Cape, Gordon was ill. An illness that made him visibly meagre, and sometimes his behaviour was odd. His endeavours to strengthen the walls ofthe forts by hides and woolsacks were an evident example, and his riding around the Cape during the war remarkable. Some of his children, many years later, ended in a lunatic asylum. In a letter, written only two days before his death, Gordon confessed: I am almost distracted; his writing showed how emotions seemed to have overcome him. Gordon was ill. He felt that his tough body and strong mind were deteriorating - the idea to become a shadow of the man he used to be, seemed intolerable to him, and afraid of further physical and psychical decline, he took his pistol and shot himself.

Keywords : Cape of Good Hope; VOC; French Revolution; Batavian Republic; Robert Jacob Gordon; British attack; heroism; nationalism; historiography.

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