Mon. May 20th, 2019

Cape Town’s ‘disappearing gun’ featured by BBC

A historical image of what the gun looked like above the blast shield.A British military ‘disappearing gun’ that disappeared in Cape Town is the topic of a new multi-media BBC Travel feature. The feature titled ‘The Mystery of Cape Town’s Disappearing Gun’ is available on the BBC Travel website. It tells the story or a rare military relic that was buried for almost 100 years and discovered […]

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A British military ‘disappearing gun’ that disappeared in Cape Town is the topic of a new multi-media BBC Travel feature.

The feature titled ‘The Mystery of Cape Town’s Disappearing Gun’ is available on the BBC Travel website.

It tells the story or a rare military relic that was buried for almost 100 years and discovered below the swimming pool of a derelict bed-and-breakfast lodge in Battery Estate in Sea Point.

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The original mechanism exposed shortly after the excavation.
Credit: Werner Hoffmann

What is a dissapearing gun?

Cape Town archaeology and heritage specialist Tim Hart, told the BBC disappearing guns were extremely unique because it had the  ability to “hide from enemy fire by lowering themselves into a gun pit. These guns were fitted with hydraulic lifting mechanisms for the artillery crew to lift the barrel from its loading position under a protective shield into a firing position and rotate it towards the target. After it fired, it would disappear back into a vault under a protective shield. These were extremely rare military mechanisms and great examples of mid-Victorian engineering.”

Hart says the massive disappearing cannon weighed several tons but it’s existence simply disappeared from memory after the property in Sea Point, where it was stationed, was sold off in the 1920s.

In early 2018, Hart was called to a building site where a construction worker had been demolishing the swimming pool at an old bed and breakfast with a digger. He discovered pieces of iron, armour plating and a large circular gun pit. Hart new immediately that what they found was a uniquely British feat of military engineering.

Hart’s research also found that there were very few of these cannon-sized ‘guns’ used worldwide. According to documents found in the Western Cape Archives and Records Service, at least three disappearing guns were brought to the Cape from England.

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An engineer’s drawing of the disappearing gun carrage. Credit. ACO Associates CC

The New South Wales State Heritage Register mentions 10 of these mountings deployed in Australia, but according to Hart, almost all of these have been demolished. Only parts of one disappearing gun from Cape Town’s Fort Wynyard military base are known to still exist. The rest, as Hart explained, simply vanished.

The New South Wales State Heritage Register mentions 10 of these mountings deployed in Australia, but according to Hart, almost all of these have been demolished. Only parts of one disappearing gun from Cape Town’s Fort Wynyard military base are known to still exist. The rest, as Hart explained, simply vanished.

When did disappearing guns arrive in the South Africa?

He said disappearing guns were brought to the Cape during a short-lived and “pretty obscure historical event in 1885.” At the time, Hart explained, Britain ruled India, Russia occupied territory in Afghanistan nearby and both countries were worried that the other wanted to extend its control throughout Central Asia.

This tension briefly brought Britain and Russia to the brink of war, and Britain feared Russian aggression in India would threaten all of its colonies – including South Africa. When the British military heard that Russia might send warships to South Africa, the British installed modern breech-loading cannons around the Cape, including three huge and mysterious ‘disappearing guns’.

This tension briefly brought Britain and Russia to the brink of war, and Britain feared Russian aggression in India would threaten all of its colonies – including South Africa. When the British military heard that Russia might send warships to South Africa, the British installed modern breech-loading cannons around the Cape, including three huge and mysterious ‘disappearing guns’.

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The gun pit from above.
Credit : ACO Associates CC

Where to see the disappearing gun in Sea Point

The site, known as Alpha 1, is considered unique. Because of the rarity of disappearing guns worldwide and the good state of the site’s preservation, Alpha 1 is recognised as a Grade 2 national heritage site, meaning it enriches the understanding of South Africa’s cultural, historical, social and scientific development.

The property’s developers have agreed to preserve Alpha 1 in its original location as a museum available to the public. Plans for the museum, which developers hope to open in early 2020, include suspending parts of the gun’s original blast shield from the ceiling. Hart and his colleague, Gail Euston-Brown, will also help create information plaques with archival images and drawings to provide context about the site’s historical importance

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