Review: Julian Stockwin’s “Conquest”

Conquest coverDramatic retellings of the struggle between Great Britain and France under Napoleon often end with Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, as if everything naval in the Napoleonic Wars that happened after the great battle was hardly more than a long epilog. But as author Julian Stockwin and many historians see it, the battle opened the gates to a worldwide empire, and in Conquest, Stockwin puts his hero, Capt. Thomas Kydd, at the spearhead.

Kydd, his best friend Nicholas Renzi, and the crew of the frigate L’Aurore join an historic 1806 British expedition to seize the Dutch colony of Cape Town, near the Cape of Good Hope. The Dutch—under the thumb of the French—send out a force of local militia and mercenaries to meet British regulars at a place called Blaauwberg, where the Dutch are defeated by the redcoats. The British (with Kydd along as a naval observer in Stockwin’s story) conquer Cape Town with hardly a shot fired, and the century-plus history of British domination of the region begins.

Stockwin treats the story of the British conquest of Cape Town, at least from Kydd’s point of view, as Britain’s opening move in the European race to empire. In reality, it was just one stop in a long march toward European, particularly British, domination of Africa and beyond. The characters express the common hypocrisy of conquerors; they were serving a higher purpose (their country’s safety) in taking by force what wasn’t theirs. What’s more striking is the Dutch burghers’ almost complete acceptance of their fate; as Stockwin interprets it, flying the Union Jack was good for business. Furthermore, the decision-makers see themselves as wise, just, and merciful, never mind they just killed more than 350 defenders at Blaauwberg. Apparently, these unfortunate souls got in the way of what Americans would later call “manifest destiny.”

Stockwin invents an engaging, well-paced adventure which pits Renzi against a mysterious and beautiful French noblewoman. But the author misses a better storytelling opportunity that could have balanced a somewhat lopsided narrative. We hear almost nothing directly in Conquest from the true-life antagonist in this incident, Jan Willem Janssens, the Dutch governor of the colony. As commander of its military, he withdraws after the Battle of Blaauwberg with his ragtag army to the hinterland. Who was this man? Why didn’t he surrender quickly, as other commanders under him did? In another universe, Janssens might have started a guerrilla war against the British, if only Renzi and Kydd hadn’t stopped him. But that fiction will need to wait for another book.

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