Knysna History

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March 17, 2016



The story of Knysna begins with her legendary forests.

For it was the demand for timber by the early Cape governments and the Royal Navy in the late eighteenth century that led to the investigation into the possibility of the perilous entrance, created by two enormous rock features, being used as an entrance to a harbour.

Records of previous centuries’ voyages are dominated by Portuguese explorers, as they focused on spice trading. Efforts were concentrated more on the north east of the continent, and as such not much attention was paid to the Southern bays of Africa. Although mention is fleetingly made of bays that seem to indicate today’s Mossel Bay, Gericke’s Point and Robberg there is no solid description of any geographical similarity to Knysna. The first suggestion is a reference in 1575 to Lago Carrado, which translates into ‘calm lake’. This is backed up by a passage in the same year, speaking of “two rock cliffs not far from each other, and between them is an opening or little bay.”

From the middle of the seventeenth century, as the decline of the Portuguese empire began, British and Dutch trader began sailing around the southern tip of Africa, in an attempt to make use of the Indian Ocean channel and hopefully negating the grip held on the spice trade by the Portuguese. The increased number of ships sailing on this route resulted in the Dutch East India Company establishing a presence in southern Africa, with a station being set up at the Cape of Good Hope. Once settled, explorers were sent out in an attempt to find new land suitable for farming and trading. Although there is evidence (the presence of beacons erected by the explorers) to support that areas close to Knysna were discovered, Knysna itself remained impenetrable and unknown.

It was in 1777, after reports of endless stretches of beautiful forests in the Outeniqua and Tsitsikama foothills had reached the Cape, that a Woodcutter’s Post was established at Swart River. Woodcutters were employed to meet the increasing demand for high-quality timber in the Cape, where resources had virtually been exhausted.

The following years saw continued interest in the timber industry and the supply provided by the beautiful hardwood forests. Sources reveal that the timber was being sailed out of Plettenberg Bay, and although there are records of various guests in the Knysna area, there is surprisingly no recognition of the potential for the gap created by the heads serving as the gateway from the lagoon to the sea. John Barrow, in a report dated 1797 seems to have been the first person to realise this opportunity, as he wrote how the passage could perhaps “admit small vessels”. Debates were to continue for many years, with the general opinion at the time being that the passage through the Heads was far too dangerous, unless the loose stones and rocks found at the entrance to the lagoon were removed.

In 1808, Staunch – a British ship – was due to enter Knysna through the Heads, but upon arrival found the seas far too dangerous. At the time, George Rex was the new owner Melkhoutkraal, a prominent farm in Knysna with beautiful views of the lagoon and the Heads. Rex had much faith in the entrance created by the Heads being used as a passage to the harbour, and it was much to his disappointment when it was concluded that the entrance was suitable only for small boats.

There were to be many more hurdles for Rex, as reports continued to rule the passage through the heads impossible. Finally, through constant applications to the authorities, Rex found his enthusiasm matched by the newly appointed Naval commissioner at the Cape, Sir Jahleel Brenton, in 1816. Brenton seized an opportunity to use a discharged vessel, on her way home to Britain to be sold, to conduct surveys on the infamous entrance.

The plan was never for the captain to make an effort at entering through the Heads, but greeted by perfect conditions he could not resist and made a run at it. The result was the Knysna Heads claiming her first victim and the Emu was wrecked. Tragedy turned to triumph, however, in an ironic twist that saw the rescue boat – podargus – actually successfully sailing through to the harbour! The effect of this success was far-reaching, as full-blown surveys on the Knysna channels were launched. It is thought that it was during this period that George Rex was involved in placing piles of stones on the rock which brought the Emu to her knees. (the rock is today known as Emu rock).

More research followed and optimism slowly began rising. It was clear that the entrance to the lagoon was becoming increasingly more attractive as an option to sail through and in 1817, Captain Robert Wauchope was sent to Plettenberg Bay where he then travelled by land to Knysna in an effort to provide more insight on the channel. His documented opinions supported the growing theory that the channel had enormous potential. Wauchope showed great initiative in his findings, notably recommending the creation of a Pilot’s building on the Eastern Head, with a beacon to serve as a landmark for ships at sea. He also suggested the introduction of a flag system, whereby various coloured flags would be used to signal different scenarios within the harbour. On top of this, he recommended the placing of beacons to mark the deepest part of the channel, and thereby the safest route for ships to travel.

With the beacons and Pilot House in place, the Knysna Heads were looking far less formidable, and a gateway to the lagoon was born.

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