SCOTTISH regiments once fought more often for the King of France than the King of England. Holland was another country regularly bullied by English dominance over the North Sea, and many Scots went into battle on the Dutch side, which for them was also the side of true religion or honest philosophy – and not the same as the English side.

The three northern neighbour nations of the English were also noted for contributions to learning and culture that later became useful to their enemy. I have been looking at the documents left behind by Robert Jacob Gordon, a man of Scottish blood who was born and baptised into the Dutch Reformed Church in 1743. His family were military emigrants to the Netherlands over several generations in the 17th and 18th centuries.

His grandfather had been burgomaster of a Dutch town while his father chose a military career, rising to the rank of major-general in the Dutch army’s Scots Brigade. He also enrolled young Robert, the sixth of his seven children, at the age of 10. After a couple of years at university, the son returned to the brigade in 1761 to be promoted to lieutenant and then captain.

But really Robert has to be remembered not as a common-or-garden Scots mercenary, rather as an outstanding representative of the European Enlightenment. His main personal achievements came from going on longer expeditions over southern Africa than any other explorer of his time, in the couple of centuries after the Dutch founded Cape Town in 1652. Of his six journeys, four between 1777 and 1786 are covered by journals only recovered in 1964. On unknown lands he left his mark.

He named the Orange River to the north and introduced Merino sheep to the Cape Colony. A master of French, Dutch and English, he also spoke the main native languages.

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Gordon was drafting a great map of South Africa, and this was what prompted him to take immense trouble over recording altitude, compass readings, hours travelled and other details. For most of his journeys he followed routes well-travelled by native traders, sometimes linking up in convoys. He carried his own equipment in a single wagon, while he relied on horseback for himself, ranging across the veld, to observe, to record and occasionally to go hunting.

Gordon spent 20 years at the Cape. In that time he amassed a vast quantity of material, both visual and verbal, concerning the topography, fauna, flora, meteorology, geology and population of South Africa which, taken together, give an astonishingly complete and detailed view of the country during the final decades of the Dutch regime.

In 1776, Gordon was commissioned into the Dutch East India Company’s army and posted to Cape Town as second-in-command of the garrison.

Little is known of his first trip about the Cape in 1773-74, made at his own volition. On his return to Holland he frequented scientific and Enlightenment circles in The Hague. He had been asked to send detailed reports on the colony directly to the Stadtholder; but the only surviving writings are his letters to Willem’s principal adviser, the griffier (or secretary of state) Hendrik Fagel. For the rest, he codified his material on his Great Map, which was by far the most accurate to have been produced till well into the 19th century.

Though many of his contemporaries believed him to be preparing a publication about South Africa, his military duties appear to have frustrated him.

Gordon carefully wrote up his journeys in daily entries to his travel journal, which covers the 1770s in great detail. By the time an Anglo-Dutch War broke out in 1780, with Holland aiding the American revolutionaries, Gordon had already travelled over the greater part of the colony and verified most of the course of the great river which then formed its northern border, named the Orange in honour of the Stadtholder Willem V. Gordon described and dissected hundreds of indigenous animals and plants, ordered measured drawings to be made of them and sent their details to correspondents all over Europe. He also learned the main native languages and dialects, and recorded the customs and religious rites of the indigenous peoples.

The achievement is all the more remarkable in that Gordon collected and classified the objects of his studies almost single-handedly, showing equal skills as a botanist, zoologist, ethnographer, linguist, geologist, cartographer and draughtsman, helped only by a small group of untrained servants and semi-skilled soldiers.

It is worth noting too, though, that even in this back of beyond, Gordon might run into wandering Scotsmen.

The most useful was William Paterson, who he came across in the wilderness looking for the chiefs of the Xhosa nation. A native of Montrose, Paterson was interested in botany as a boy and trained as a gardener for the Countess of Strathmore, who afterwards sent him to Africa to collect plants. He arrived in Table Bay in 1777 and made four trips into the interior till he left in 1780. In 1789, he published A Narrative Of Four Journeys Into The Country Of The Hottentots And Caffraria.

Paterson afterwards joined the army to serve in India and Australasia.

He arrived in Sydney in 1791, and for two years served in command on Norfolk Island. There he collected botanical, geological and insect specimens to send home. In 1794 to 1808 he served as lieutenant-governor of New South Wales.

GORDON took full command of the Cape garrison in 1780 and was promoted colonel in 1782 – a higher rank than any of his predecessors had enjoyed. After the end of the fourth Anglo-Dutch War, he was able to make a fifth and final voyage, from November 1785 to March 1786, to correct his former measurements and observations with an improved quadrant and other equipment.

But the revolutionary uprisings in the Netherlands from 1786 and in France from 1789 bred political uncertainty requiring greater military vigilance.

Ultimately, the colony was caught unawares after the French invasion of the Netherlands and the Stadtholder’s flight to London in 1795. When a British force arrived at the Cape that year claiming to represent the Stadtholder, Gordon was torn between his loyalty to the House of Orange and his duty as employee of the Dutch East India Company which, to his dismay, he discovered to be subject to the French-controlled Batavian Republic.

What could Gordon do? His first reaction was to comply with the instructions from a potentially hostile force, which would be sensible enough even without the background politics and the threats they implied.

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The trouble lay in the personal convictions of the few thousand Dutch soldiers and civilians at the Cape. They did not like the English, nor relish being occupied by an enemy force. They expected Gordon to fulfil the obligations of a Dutch military officer and fight the foreigners who had arrived out of the blue. Anything else would be treason. The reluctant Gordon became an outcast and a target of derision and violence. On October 25, 1795, he committed suicide at his house Schoonder Sight (still identifiable in western Cape Town).

After his death, his widow attempted to sell his papers in London and to publish them in Paris, but to no avail. Having spent almost a century in a British collection, Gordon’s collection of visual material, consisting of 455 drawings and maps, mainly in watercolour and extensively annotated, were acquired for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 1914. In 1979, his travel journals and other papers were purchased by the Brenthurst Library in Johannesburg. These two learned institutions practise co-operation between Europe and Africa, in both Dutch and Afrikaans.

There would be scope for Scotland to lend a hand too.