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  • Knysna Living Local


Back in Time

Many people travel because they want to experience cultures other than their own. Not only are foreign visitors interested to know about where we live: they also want to know about how we live. What we do for work, how we entertain ourselves, how we worship, the art that we produce and the many other things that go into creating our unique culture, are usually influenced deeply by our history. This is as true here in Knysna as it is anywhere else.

SATOUR, the government agency that markets South Africa overseas, has chosen culture as a marketing theme for the country as a whole. The Knysna Tourism Bureau has adopted the same approach, and this is reflected in the towns' marketing slogan: Knysna. The Place of People, Beauty and Mystery.

The word people is significant because it represents the many diverse cultures that exist in this small town. These cultures are to a certain extent influenced by our environment (the beauty around us). And it is the combination of the town's history with its special beauty that creates the mystery (that certain something about Knysna which makes the town so special).

Pre-Colonial History
Very little is known about the people who inhabited the Knysna Area before about 1760, when the first European explorers passed through here. That part of Outeniqualand (as the Garden Route was then known) that lay to the east of the area that is now George was almost inaccessible. The deep gorges and high mountains that are today so easy to cross, were then almost impassable for European travelers. The little knowledge that we have of those early days comes mainly from the records of those travelers who were able to penetrate the area. It would seem, however, that there were very few people - and certainly there were no permanent settlements - in Knysna before 1770.

According to the CSIR's Grindley Report , the only archeological site in Knysna that has been recognised by the South African Museum is the cave on the Western Head (at Featherbed Nature Reserve). There is also evidence of a strandloper burial site in the area. These sites would probably have been used by wandering bands or families of Khoi (Hottentot) or San (Bushman) people.

The Name Knysna
James Callander who drew the first map of the Knysna Lagoon, is thought to have been the first European who made his home at the Knysna Heads. In an early letter to the Governor at the Cape Lord Charles Somerset), he mentions the Nysna River (the modern spelling Knysna seems to have been adopted some time in the late 1700's or early 1800's).

The origin of the name is not known. It might have come from the Khoi xthys xna (meaning the `place of timber'). It is worth noting that similar place names (which are generally associated with water) exist in other parts of Africa. A good example would be the old name for Lake Malawi: it used to be known as Lake Nyasa. Interestingly, Webster's Universal Dictionary defines the word nyanza as a noun `(African): An expanse of water, as a lake or wide river' .

Early Colonial Settlement
In 1770, the Colonial Government proclaimed the farm Melkhoutkraal (on the eastern shore of the lagoon - between the Eastern Head and what is today the Industrial Area). Its first occupant was one Stephanus Terblans, who was granted a loan permit for a period of one year . Similar farms existed at Belvidere and Brenton (which was then called Uitzicht). At that time, the north shore of the lagoon (where the town is today) was uninhabited.

The population of the district grew very slowly in the late 1700's. In 1802, however, the area was invaded by Khoikhoi warriors during the third frontier war (1799 - 1802). Some of the settlers were evacuated to Mossel Bay, and most of the farms between Plettenberg Bay and the Keurbooms River, as well as some at The Knysna (including Melkhoutkraal), were burned to the ground.

In 1804, George Rex bought Melkhoutkral and came to live here. He saw great commercial potential in the enormous forests of the area, and he immediately began lobbying the Colonial Government to establish a harbour at the Knysna for the export of timber. In 1817, the river was declared a port (although harbour facilities would only be built much later), and the first ship to try to cross the bar was the Emu. She floundered on a submerged rock (now Emu Rock), and was wrecked at the mouth. Two months later, HMS Podargus arrived to conduct salvage operations on the Emu, and became the first ship to safely enter the Knysna harbour.

In the following year (1819), John Gough was appointed as the first permanent pilot at The Heads (he was responsible for the safety of craft crossing the bar, and would row out to ships at sea to guide them in to the lagoon).

George Rex has grown into something of a legend in Knysna because of the confusion surrounding his circumstances. It is thought that he might have been the eldest son of King George III and the commoner Hanna Lightfoot. If this King and commoner were married, the marriage was done away with in favour of the King's second alliance (to a Princess Charlotte von Mecklenburg-Strelitz)

It is also possible that George Rex was sent out to the Cape to `hide' him away from the Royal court in England.

Whether the stories about his background are true or not, George Rex definitely did live and farm at Melkhoutkraal until his death 1839. By the time he died, Rex
  • owned almost all of the land surrounding the lagoon,
  • had been credited with being "the proprietor and founder of Knysna",
  • had donated land for the construction of a church,
  • had initiated a project to lay out the first village at the Knysna (it was called Melville, and stood in the area west of the present Long Street), and
  • had been a driving force behind the establishment of the timber industry which is still important to the town of Knysna.

  • The Port of Knysna
    The Knysna River had a checkered career as a port, partly because of the dangers of The Heads, and partly because of changes in the economic climate of the Cape Colony.

    We have already seen that the Knysna was first declared a port in 1817; that the first ship that attempted to enter the mouth (the Emu) was wrecked; and that a permanent pilot was appointed in 1818.

    In 1820, the British Navy established a dockyard on the banks of the lagoon. It seemed like a good idea because of the huge timber resources that were available locally. Its buildings were burned down twice, however, and it was closed down after only five years.

    In 1827 the port was de-proclaimed for economic reasons, and the pilot was sent away. John Rex, son of George, then acted as a voluntary pilot for the next thirty years. Only in 1858, three days before he died, was he finally, officially, appointed to the post.

    Many large ships were wrecked trying to enter or leave The Heads (often against pilot's orders, but, unfortunately sometimes because of pilot error), and the harbour mouth gained the reputation of being one of the most treacherous in the country. Still, until the completion of the railway line in 1928, shipping was the only economically viable connection with the outside world.

    In the first half of the nineteenth century, loading and unloading of ships had been extremely difficult at the Knysna. Cargo was loaded onto rafts or smaller boats and rowed to shore, or, if larger items had to be unloaded, the ship was hauled onto a sand bank at high tide, and, when the ship settled onto the mud at low tide, the cargo was put off directly onto the mud.

    In 1867 `Skipper Horn', a local businessman, completed the construction of a jetty (he built it at his own expense because he was unable to get assistance from the Colonial Government). This stone jetty (upon which the Knysna Yacht Club was later built) served the needs of the shipping community until 1883, when the Government Jetty on Thesen's Island was completed.

    The first ship that loaded cargo from the Government's wharf was the Thesen's brig Ambulant - she took on 3000 yellowwood railway sleepers bound for Cape Town.

    In 1869, the Thesen family made their first visit to Knysna. They were en route for New Zealand, when their ship, the Albatross, was damaged off Cape Agulhas. They returned to Cape Town for repairs, and were offered a charter to bring goods to Knysna. In 1870, after a number of trips to Knysna, they decided to abandon their plans for New Zealand, and to settle here. They eventually built up a business that included timber (forestry and saw milling) as well as a ship yard and a shipping line (their fleet flew the same red triangular flag with a white star that can be seen flying outside the sawmill offices on Thesen's Island today). The shipyard was known as The Knysna Boatyard, and occupied the building that is today used as Thesen's wood store.

    The Knysna Boatyard saw service during the Second World War: 640 craft were built there for the Allied Forces. The largest were ten ships of the Fairmile class - wooden submarine hunting boats - and the smallest were the long boats that were used as life rafts. After the War, the yard built fishing vessels and pleasure craft, including yachts and houseboats. It was eventually sold off to independent investors, but it was bankrupted and closed during the 1980's.

    The most famous of the Pilots at The Heads were the Benns: John, John II, Conning and Reuben. John Benn was a shipwright in Mossel Bay who was employed by Skipper Horn to come to Knysna to direct the salvage on the wreck of the Musquash, which had gone down at Coney Glenn in 1855. By the time he arrived in Knysna, the ship had broken up, but Benn decided to stay on anyway, to build a new ship - the Rover - for Horn. He went on to become, in 1868, the first of a dynasty of Pilots that would `rule' the mouth until the closure of the harbour in 1954.

    No lives were lost as a result of pilot error in all the time that the Benns worked the River mouth. It is fitting, then, that Knysna's pleasure cruiser - which is so popular with visitors and locals alike - should be named in honour of the first of these brave men: the mv John Benn.

    In 1954 the harbour was officially closed. The railway line and improved roads and fast vehicles had made communication by land cheaper, more efficient and much safer than by sea. Today the lagoon is used mainly by pleasure craft, and a fleet of about 11 small commercial fishing boats.

    A Mysterious Ghost Ship!
    In April, 1881, John Benn and his crew discovered and abandoned three- masted schooner at the mouth of the Noetzie River. No valuables or signs of life were found on board, and the masts and rigging were bleached white from the sun. It was obvious that she had been adrift and without crew for some time. The ship's log was missing, but her cargo log was intact (the last entry showed that the ship had carried guano in 1876). A scrap of paper dated 1880 was found, but no clues were left behind to explain what had happened to the crew.

    The ship was identified as the Phoenix previously known as the Ville Pierre out of Point Pierre on the island of Réunion. It is an old sailors' superstition that renaming a ship brings bad luck. Could this have been the cause of the mysterious disappearance of the crew? We may never know!

    The Phoenix was attached by the customs officer, and sold at auction for £15.

    Millwood's Gold
    In 1876 a farmer named Hooper discovered a gold nugget in the river at Karawater. He took it to the village chemist, who analysed it, confirmed the find, and passed it on to the government roads engineer, CF Osborne. Osborne in turn sent it off to the Colonial Government, who granted 100 for further exploration.

    It was not until 1885 that Osborne returned to Karawater to continue prospecting for gold. He found a gold-bearing reef on a tributary of the Karatara River, and recommended that the area be opened for pegging. Although the Rand was proclaimed a goldfield in the same year, diggers came to Knysna anyway, in the hope that Millwood (as the new town became known) would become a successful mining area.

    In 1886 Millwood's first newspaper, the Millwood Sluice Box was published for the first time (and was soon followed by both the Millwood Eaglet and the Millwood Critic). Formal buildings began to appear where only tents had existed before: these included four hotels, six shops, a committee room and an agent's office. The goldfields had, however, still not been recognised by the Government, and the diggers and businessmen were officially considered to be trespassers.

    In January 1887 the government finally acceded to the diggers demands, and Millwood was proclaimed a goldfield, with Patrick Fletcher as the Inspector of Mines. That year's (official) production of gold was 655 ounces.

    1888 was the high point in Millwood's history, with over 1000 permanent residents living there. At mid-year, however, the gold began to run out and the businesses to feel the economic pinch.

    By May of 1889, the total recorded yield from Millwood was 2360 ounces, but very little gold was discovered after this. At the end of 1890, CF Osborne wrote that only one company - manned by only one manager and one digger - was working the goldfields. He noted that, to service their needs, there were three shops, five officials, three constables, an inspector and a registrar. Soon, even these people were gone. It was not until 1924 that the Government finally, officially, abandoned the Millwood Goldfields.

    The Knysna Municipality
    The first village laid out at the Knysna was Melville, and the second was Newhaven, which was laid out by John Sutherland in 1845. It lay to the east of the present day Long Street, with Melville to the west. These twin villages existed side by side until 1881, when it was decided that they should merge. In November of that year, a meeting was held at which a chairman and 4 commissioners were elected to act as councilors pending proclamation of the new municipality by the government.

    The Governor at the Cape recognised the new Municipality of Knysna under Proclamation No 217 of 1882. Thomas Horn was elected chairman of the first official Council, which held its first meeting on 14 March 1883.

    Municipal matters moved slowly in the early days: the decision to install a water system for the town was taken in 1898, but it was not until 1926 that the water actually flowed! And it was not until 1924 that street lighting was installed (27 electric, and 27 paraffin lanterns).

    In May 1927 a public meeting was held to discuss the idea of starting a `Publicity Bureau', and in October 1929 the Knysna Publicity Association was formed. It was housed in an old school building (now demolished) in the church grounds. 736 visitors came to its office in its first year of operation (compare this with the 54 471 visitors to the Bureau in the year ended July 1997).

    In 1996, the Publicity Association changed its name to the Knysna Tourism Bureau to fall in line with the requirements for accreditation under the new Western Cape Tourism Act (Act 3 of 1997).

    Throughout most of the twentieth century, the make - up of the council largely reflected the political climate of the country.

    Apartheid and Forced Removals in Knysna
    In 1948 the National Party was swept into power in Union-wide elections. Their racially-based policies had profound effects on all the peoples of Southern Africa, both within, and beyond our borders. Knysna was not excluded from their experiments in social engineering.

    In 1956, the Group Areas Act was created. It divided the country into areas where the different race groups would be forced to live apart from one another. This act was frequently used to remove entire communities from their established homes to new - often remote - areas which were considered `appropriate' for those communities. These forced removals continued well into the 1980's.

    In Knysna, it was decided that coloured people should be moved to the area that is now known as Hornlee, on the east side of town. The decision was not popular with the community. Besides being faced with the horror of forced removal from their homes in places such as Salt River and Old Place, the people were reluctant to accept Hornlee as their new home. Amongst other things, the high water table in Hornlee was expected to create engineering problems that would increase building costs.

    The people of Salt River were mostly poor and often badly educated (or uneducated). None of them owned their homes, and eviction orders were easily obtained. Resistance here was sporadic, isolated and mostly passive.

    A group called the Waaksames (the Vigilant Society) was formed to fight the decision to move to Hornlee. They petitioned the Government to make land at Eastford available to the community, but their efforts were unsuccessful.

    By 1970, the first houses had been built in Hornlee, and by 1973, most of the coloured people in the Knysna area had been moved there.

    In the Grand Apartheid Plan, few black people were recognised in the Western Cape, and consequently no official black residential areas were proclaimed in Knysna. It was only in 1987 that Kayalethu was established (with only 150 houses).

    Nor did Knysna escape the effects of the struggle for democracy. In one of the more visible events of the 1976 student uprising, the Percy Mdala School buildings, which were housed in the Full Gospel Church complex, were burned down, although the church itself was spared (the school was at that time known as Thembelitsha Primary).

    On April 27, 1994 South Africa began her first ever democratic elections in what the world's press hailed as a miraculous moment in our history. Nelson Mandela was installed as the country's first democratically elected president, and a Government of National Unity was formed.

    Knysna's first democratic council elections were held on November 1, 1995, and a 68 percentage poll was recorded. The first democratically elected mayor was Councilor Thembe Mfene. The other elected councilors were Alan Kock, Henry Avontuur, N Siyona, Ralph Stander, Enrico Campher, F Dixon, Paul Thesen, M Peyi, B Pienaar, N du Plessis, T Holmes and W Best. They took office on the day of the election, and operated in terms of the Municipal Ordinance (20 of 1974), as well as the Transitional Local Government Act.

    The effects - and damage - of the policies of Apartheid are still visible in Knysna and, although members of the community have embraced the new democracy with gusto, it is expected that reconstruction will take many years.

    Percy Mdala: One of Knysna's Outstanding Citizens
    In all of Knysna's history, few people can have served their community with the devotion that Percy Mdala did.

    Percy Mdala came here in 1956 to work for Bishop Stainton, who was then Rector of St George's. He taught at St. Paul's Caradoc, which was housed in the church hall at Salt River. When Mdala arrived there, the school had about 25 pupils, and was supported financially by the Anglican Church. It received no funding from the Government's Education Department. Mdala and his colleague, a Mr Ganga, started a programme of house visits in the area to encourage children to attend the school. They were so successful that two more assistant teachers were appointed to serve the growing numbers of pupils.

    On rainy days, the Salt River flowed so strongly that children could not cross it to come to school. Percy Mdala would go down to the river and carry the pupils across, one or two at a time. At the end of the school day, he would carry them back again so that they could make their way safely home.

    The school received much support from Mr & Mrs. JDM Philip, and became known as "Philips Lower Primary School'. It was finally recognised for a subsidy from the Government. The sad irony was, however, that forced removals soon affected the population of Salt River to the extent that the school had to be closed down because all of its pupils had been taken away from the area.

    A new school was started in Thembelitsha in 1971. Mdala was its first principal, but he resigned within the first year of its opening (he had, for many years, been the only properly trained black educationalist in Knysna).

    After his retirement, Mdala remained active in the fight for black education.
    His memory been honoured by naming the new high school, which opened in 1992, Percy Mdala High School.