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An Account of His Majesty’s De Meuron Regiment Chapter 2: The Cape and Ceylon

An Account of His Majesty’s De Meuron Regiment Chapter 2: The Cape and Ceylon

An Account of His Majesty’s De Meuron Regiment 1795-1816

Chapter 2: The Cape and Ceylon 1781-1788


The Regiment Meuron mustered at the Ile d’Oléron, May 1782, ready to embark that July for the Cape, South Africa, on two vessels, The Fier and Hermione, as part of a fleet of seventeen ships. Despite being ready the fleet had to await the arrival of the ship Protecteur carrying the Admiral of the fleet, De La Motte Piquet, that had been delayed by storms. Before embarkment Charles Daniel’s brother Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Frederick de Meuron chose to stay behind with the sick and on administrative duties. Eventually the signal was given on 4th September 1782, for the fleet to depart for Cape of Good Hope, with one stop of two weeks at the Canary Isles. The Fier however ran short of rations, scurvy broke out and by November, 103 men had died and it was not until February 1783, that both ships companies glimpsed Table Mountain. On his arrival Charles de Meuron, lodged an official complaint against Captain D’Albarade, the commander of one ship, over his failure to provide proper food, and covers for equipment later damaged by sea. The argument went on for years and de Meuron later received only a fraction of his claim.

At the Cape twenty men died, and there were several desertions from the regiment a number of the latter were recaptured and one, a French recruit, died as a result of the harsh punishment inflicted. The Regiment Meuron were quartered at the time with the Regiment de Pondicherry, a French unit, formed in 1772 and stationed at the Cape of Good Hope.[1] The death of a fellow Frenchman from such a cause created considerable disquiet and upset among the Regiment de Pondicherry, sufficient to prevent further brutal punishment being inflicted by the Regiment Meuron. When a further twenty-nine deserters from the Regiment Meuron were recaptured, they were punished by banishment from Dutch service and returned to the Netherlands. Discipline chiefly relied on corporal punishment for petty offences, lower ranks were beaten with a cane across the buttocks and Non-Commissioned Officers with the flat edge of a sword.[2]

Language proved to be a difficulty as parade ground orders were first given in Dutch and then in French.

Whatever damaged equipment was salvaged after the outward journey was repaired, cleaned and fit for use by March 1783. Routine garrison duties led to boredom, inducing men to seek comfort in alcohol and probably caused the desertion of a further 45 men before May 1784. The benefit of recruiting of criminals from French prisons proved questionable when six soldiers of the regiment were arrested for counterfeiting money. After their Court Martial one man was publicly executed by hanging, and ‘five men scourged, branded and banished to Robben Island’ to serve out varying lengths of imprisonment.[3]

In just two years between 1783-1784, losses from the regiment amounted to at least 832 men, who had died at sea or at Cape Town, deserted, been imprisoned on Robben Island, or a small number repatriated to Holland.

In July 1783, Colonel Benoit Sergeans, resigned together with a spate of other officers over the command and ownership of the regiment, including the issue of Colonel de Meuron’s harsh punishment of certain offenders. It seems de Meuron was not particularly well thought of, possibly lacking some leadership qualities that others clearly thought they possessed.

Between 1783-1788 over 384 recruits were sent to the Cape to replace some losses, on thirteen VOC ships and two French vessels. The regiment had little to occupy their time and even officers sought distraction by complaining about their conditions of service or duelling among themselves and with French officers stationed at the Cape.

Charles de Meuron’s relationship with the Dutch VOC Governor at the Cape, Joachim van Plettenberg was of a strained nature and became more difficult when van Plettenberg came under severe pressure from a French-influenced Patriotic Movement. French colonists were angered by restrictions on the teaching of the French language and other constraints placed on them regarding free trade by the Dutch Company. This was compounded by the free burgher Dutch colonists petitioning the States General about problems between French citizens and the VOC governor. Caught between two opposing factions the Regiment Meuron was reportedly close to mutiny when van Plettenberg requested his discharge from VOC service and resigned on 14th February 1785, returning to the Netherlands, where he died eight years later.

Captain Jean David Louis Yorck, who joined the Regiment Meuron in 1781, after being cashiered from the Prussian army, was serving at the Cape in 1783, but arising from conduct compromising his honour, he resigned rather than face a court martial and left the regiment in June 1784. Yorck was later re-admitted to the Prussian army, achieving fame as a Field Marshal with a march by Beethoven named after him.[4]

The internal difficulties faced by Charles de Meuron continued to fester and culminated in him ordering the arrest of Major Francois Sandol-Roy, whom he believed was about to usurp his command. The Major resigned and returned to Europe.

A letter from Charles Daniel de Meuron to his brother Pierre, dated Cape Town 22nd April 1785, gives a flavour of what he felt was his predicament:

I only experience contradiction, worries and injustice….denial of what is due to me. I see nobody, being constantly engaged with regimental matters. Being of ill health I am never 24 hours without suffering and I can’t sleep at night. I am alone in charge and can’t be everywhere. The climate is an obstacle to exercise.[5]

The Colonel had an assistant, Cadet Albert Fivaz,[6] who used an office in a house shared with two officers, Captain-Lieutenant Meuron-Motiers and a Lieutenant Francois Raymond who had joined on foundation and served until his death in Ceylon in 1790.

Three years after the regiment’s arrival at the Cape, Colonel Charles Daniel de Meuron prompted major change by relinquishing the command of the regiment in March 1786, believing that his presence at home would better enable him to manage the regiment as a ‘family asset’ between the VOC and the Netherlands States General. Lieutenant Colonel Jean Meuron-Bullot, was appointed in temporary command until Lieutenant Colonel Pierre de Meuron, arrived at the Cape.

Upon his departure de Meuron’s household goods and property were sold by auction. Seventy-two pictures in ornamental frames, 14 lacquered Chinese chairs, 24 red chairs, 12 yellow chairs, assorted lounge armchairs, various other pieces of furniture and clocks, several hunting guns, 11 horses, three carriages, 2,357 bottles of wine, in addition to ten cases of wine, two cases of Bordeaux, 226 bottles of Danish beer, 314 bottles of Brandy and 11 named slaves of different nationalities. Doubtless de Meuron felt that this was in keeping and commensurate with his rank and status.[7]

Command of the regiment passed to Pierre Frederic de Meuron on his arrival at the Cape in October 1786, and he was appointed Colonel-in-Chief on 1st April 1787. The new Colonel’s stay at the Cape was to be relatively brief and not without controversy, as his appointment found little favour among the existing officers, reigniting incidents of duelling and the Colonel himself challenged twice, fortunately without injury.

After the Treaty of Paris in 1784, the Dutch East India Company began a process of restructure to their colonial garrisons and the Luxembourg Regiment, in garrison at Ceylon was to be disbanded and replaced by the Regiment Meuron.[8] In late 1786 Pierre de Meuron, was advised that ships would be leaving Holland in May 1787, bringing the German Wurttemberg Regiment[9] to the Cape, replacing the Regiment Meuron. Before leaving for Ceylon, difficulties over the Regiment Meuron’s contract forced the Dutch Governor of the Cape, Cornelis Van de Graaf to write to the Netherland’s States General, requesting that they liaise with the regiment’s proprietor, Colonel Charles de Meuron, as the VOC refused to replace the regiment’s muskets which had become ‘worn out and might be of little use.’[10] This episode was an early indication that the VOC would fail to carry out its proper obligations or functions in accordance with the contract it had signed with Charles de Meuron.

The Wurttemberg Regiment disembarked from four vessels at the Cape on the 9th and 10th February 1788, and the Regiment Meuron  of 800 men embarked on the same ships bound for Ceylon.[11] De Meuron had also been ordered to reduce the number of French officers in the regiment as the Dutch had since joined the Triple Alliance with Britain and Prussia.

There is some difficulty created by previous authors regarding the exact dates of service and movements of the Regiment Meuron from the Cape and to Ceylon. Julian James Cotton records that the regiment landed at Cape Town in January 1782, and goes on to state that in the same year it was involved in expelling the British from the fort at Trincomalee, Ceylon in August 1782. He continued that the regiment were then despatched with a French fleet to Cuddalore, India in July 1783, where a small French and Mysore garrison was beleaguered by a British force in under General James Stuart. That siege was abandoned by the British on the commencement of peace preliminaries, and the Regiment Meuron  supposedly returned to the Cape.

The weight of other evidence however, points to the Regiment Meuron never leaving the Cape between its arrival in 1783 and its departure for Ceylon in February 1788.[12] It is highly unlikely that the regiment was deployed at the events at Trincomalee in 1782 or Cuddalore in 1783, having regard to the date of the regiment’s founding in 1781, the regimental recruitment process not completed until May 1782, their departure from Europe in September 1782 and arrival at The Cape in February 1783. The distances supposedly travelled between the Cape, Trincomalee and Cuddalore and a return to the Cape involving journeys of over 13,000 miles, create difficult questions over the dates and timescales in Cotton’s document. Nor is there any mention of these earlier deployments in a handwritten document addressed to Lieutenant General Alured Clarke[13] and Lieutenant General George Harris by Pierre de Meuron dated January 1800, outlining the formation and ‘subsequent situation’ of the regiment.[14] Records held at The Cape and Néuchatel, make no mention of any departures of the regiment to Ceylon until 1788.[15] Unfortunately, the same questionable deployments have been repeated in other sources.[16]

Ceylon, had been occupied by numerous invaders over the centuries before the Portuguese arrived early in the 16th century and were in turn displaced by the Dutch in 1638. The island was partitioned into two distinct areas. The Coastal areas and ports were held and governed exclusively by the Dutch after 1695, whilst the hinterland region known as Kandy, occupied by the natives of Ceylon, under their feudal monarchs, the Kings of Kandy.[17]

The Regiment Meuron arrived at Ceylon in mid-1788, and records at the British Library show that the two brothers, Captain Simon de Sandol- Roy and his brother, Lieutenant Colonel Francois de Sandol -Roy, regarded as two of the more talented officers, resigned their commissions. This is subject to dispute, as the two brothers are also shown as having resigned from the regiment while still at the Cape in 1785 and 1787, from where Francois Sandol-Roy had resigned after being arrested and Simon de Sandol-Roy transferred to a Dutch regiment.[18]

After disembarking, five companies of the Meuron Regiment garrisoned Fort Colombo, two companies at the Trincomalee fort and one at Fort Galle, other companies appear to have been posted elsewhere in the Coastal district, additionally a small detachment was stationed at Cochin, India which was under nominal Dutch VOC control.[19] The regiment’s role in Ceylon was the protection of Dutch officials, ensuring the stability of  company interests, particularly the cinnamon trade and the security of property. Although tensions existed between the King of Kandy and the Dutch occupying the coastal areas, the regiment spent their time in Ceylon in comparative inactivity. There was only one major incursion into the Ceylon Kandyan interior in June 1791, after the King threatened to prevent the annual cinnamon harvest. An expedition comprised of 120 soldiers of the Regiment Meuron, 180 Malay troops, 900 lascars and porters, commanded by Colonel Pierre Frederick de Meuron, marched towards the King’s palace and capital. Having once gained the interior, the regiment ran into difficulties during the monsoon and atrocious conditions, causing them to turn back.

During that year 1791, Charles de Meuron, dispirited by his treatment at the hands of the VOC and recognising that the Swiss had diplomatic ties and a presence in Britain, visited London where he was introduced to King George III, and also took the opportunity to meet up with an old acquaintance, Hugh Cleghorn, Professor of Civil and Natural History at St. Andrews University. The meeting resulted in correspondence from Cleghorn to Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, President of the Board of Control for Indian Affairs, who had political oversight of matters appertaining to India and the East India Company. Cleghorn’s letter explained that Charles de Meuron ‘was disposed to quit the Dutch East India Company and to put his regiment at the disposal of the King of England….,’[20] but no further action at that time was undertaken by the British authorities.

In 1793 the British requested the Dutch authorities in Ceylon to provide troops to assist the British in consolidating the conquest of the French enclave of Pondicherry, south of Madras, which had changed hands at least twice between Britain and France. Two companies of the Regiment Meuron, under Captain Georges Bernard, were sent as requested to Pondicherry on 22 August 1793, the day that the French garrison capitulated.[21]

The Dutch Governor of Ceylon, Willem Jacob Van Graaf, a brother of the Governor at The Cape, was appointed Director General of the Dutch Settlement In India and based at Surat in 1794, shortly before the Dutch Republic, now heavily influenced by Revolutionary France, became the Batavian Republic.[22] Before leaving office, Van Graaf listed out the military establishment of Ceylon to his successor in a memorandum dated 15 July 1794:

Our military force consists of the following: 11-companies of National Europeans, 10-companies of the Regiment Meuron, 5-companies Regiment de Wurtemberg, 5-companies of Malays, 9-Companies of Sepoys, 9-companies of artillery, not including a few invalids, old Europeans or natives detached to outposts. [23]

Van Graaf returned to the Netherlands, with an escort from the Regiment Meuron, comprising of Captain Samuel Gigaud, Lieutenant Jean Baptiste, Vautier, with sixty-two men on board a squadron of four men-of-war. After a year both officers were dead and only thirteen of the original escort returned to Colombo. The new Dutch Governor, Johan van Angelbeek was escorted by two companies of the Regiment Meuron under Captain Pierre Lardy,[24] from Cochin, India to Colombo.

The year 1795 was to prove decisive for the Regiment Meuron as their corporate paymasters, the VOC, was on the verge of bankruptcy and the regiment suffered substantial arrears of pay. Furthermore, the British would invade Ceylon to remove Dutch military control from the Coastal Districts, principally because it was believed that Ceylon would become a base of operations for Revolutionary France, a strategic threat to British shipping and communications with the East India Company.

These factors, together with an extraordinary offer to the regiment’s proprietary owner, Charles Daniel de Meuron, who after some hard bargaining at his summer residence on the shores of Lake Néuchatel, agreed to accept a proposal, committing the Regiment Meuron to a significant transition of allegiance.

The British had previously attempted to achieve the transfer of the Swiss regiment to British allegiance, when Lord Robert Fitzgerald, the British Minister plenipotentiary in Bern from 1792 to 1795,[25] had been commissioned in 1793 to persuade the Swiss how valuable the Regiment Meuron could be to British interests in India and for the Cantons to join a coalition against the French. Lord Fitzgerald was confronted with the ‘immutable principle of Swiss neutrality’ and smouldering Dutch resentment over British dominance in the East, ensured that his mission foundered with no further action resolved.[26]


[1] Formed in 1772, the regiment underwent many name changes and finally disbanded in 1989.

[2] A. Linder, The Swiss Regiment Meuron at the Cape and Afterwards. (Cape Town: Castle Museum, 2000)

pp32. Vide Lord Harris Archive 0624/0614/13, P.F.De Meuron, Memorandum.

[3] Cape Archives Register ref CA, VC 33 6, 7. 2.1783; A. Linder, The Swiss Regiment Meuron at the Cape and Afterwards. (Cape Town: Castle Museum, 2000)

[4] G. de Meuron, Le Regiment Meuron, p.331; britannica. com, Yohan Yorck, Count von Wartenburg; A Linder The Swiss Regiment Meuron at the Cape and Afterwards. (Cape Town: Castle Museum 2000) p.109

[5] A. Linder, The Swiss Regiment Meuron at the Cape and Afterwards. (Cape Town: Castle Museum 2000) p.36

[6] G. de Meuron, Le Regiment Meuron, p.308.  Albert Fivaz remained in the regiment until 1800 when he was placed on half pay.

[7] A Linder, The Swiss Regiment Meuron at the Cape and Afterwards. (Cape Town: Castle Museum 2000) 114-117

[8] F. A Schrikker, Dutch and British colonial intervention in Sri Lanka, 1780 – 1815: expansion and reform. (Netherlands: University of Leyden, 2007.) The Luxemburg Regiment had been sent to Ceylon in 1783

[9] A Mercenary regiment founded in 1786.

[10] Archives de l’Etat Néuchatel,, Arch. Fam. Meuron Dossier No. pp.41-42, cited in G. de Meuron, pp.365

[11] Ibid. ref pp.36-7 vide Archives de l’Etat Néuchatel,, Arch. Fam: Meuron Dossier No. 42-11 Letter to P.F. de Meuron 22/4.1785

[12] A. Linder The Swiss Regiment Meuron at the Cape and Afterwards. (Cape Town: Castle Museum 2000) ref, 4.7 pp.38-40; Archives de l’Etat Néuchatel,, Arch. Fam: Meuron Dossier No. 48-11 Letter 28/0I/1788; G. de Meuron Le Regiment Meuron, pp.53-58

[13] T. Heathcote, The British Field Marshals ((London: Leo Cooper, 1999) pp.89-90

[14] Kent County Council, Lord Harris Archive; U624/ 0614/13, ‘Remarks on the Formation and Subsequent Situation of the Regiment de Meuron,’ January 1800.

[15]A. Linder The Swiss Regiment Meuron at the Cape and Afterwards. (Cape Town: Castle Museum 2000) Makes no reference to the regiment leaving the Cape until 1788.

[16] British Library Africa and Asia Collection MSS EUR F370/1619.

[17] J. Tennant, Ceylon (Sri Lanka: Tisara Prakasakayo Ltd, 1977) A reprint of 1859.  2 vols. Vol. II. Chapter I.

[18] G. de Meuron, Le Regiment Meuron p.327; Linder, The SwissRegiment Meuronat the Cape and Afterwards, (Cape Town: Castle Museum 2000) p.82

[19] E. Thornton, A Gazetteer of the Territories under the Government of the East India Company (London: W Allen, 1854)

[20] A Clark, An Enlightened Scot, (Duns: Black Ace Books, 1992) p.97

[21] Pondicherry was returned to France in 1814 until independence in 1954.

[22] The Triple Alliance of 1788 collapsed in 1791.

[23] Asia and Africa Collection, British Library General Reference 12275.aa.19. Calcutta Review 1903

[24] Lardy is often referred to as Captain and a Major in different texts but remained a Lieutenant in both Army lists of 1801.


[26] L. Forrer, A Few Notes on Swiss Officers and Mercenary Regiments in the Pay of England. C. 1945