Natures Valley, Tsitsikamma – photo public domain Paul Venter
How can education exclude one’s home area? Unfortunately, it often does. Ryno Joubert’s history of Southern Cape forests should be taught in schools. The road to regulation, through woodcutters and colonialism, was tough, recognition..
Although Joubert’s research isn’t political, the reader would early note that many modern South African ‘leaders’ emphasis on black versus white’s right to the land is simply rhetoric at harsh expense to truth. The Khoi and San (Khoisan) occupied the Outeniqua region (Garden Route) for thousands of years before any other.
The now extinct San were semi-nomadic hunter-gathers whereas the Khoi were farmers. The forest was respected.
European conquest would make the Khoi their employees or slaves. The notable exception was a small scattered group called Strandlopers (beachcombers) who lived in caves on the Gamtouwerland (Tsitsikamma) coast, an area mostly unexploited due to steep gorges.
The first Europeans to appear were Portugese sailors shipwrecked in 1630. They survived in Piesang Valley for 8 months, trading with the Khoisan. The Dutch visited the Overberg forests in 1688 and, the following year, witnessed the forests of what is now known as Swellendam.
In the early 18th century, timber was running out in Cape Town. Although Outeniqualand and Gamtouwerland were favoured for exploitation, the daunting Hottentots Holland Mountain (whhich was on the way) made transportation impractical.
However, a small cattle outpost in Outeniqualand began sending semi-prepared timber to the Cape Town. More European settlers arrived, cutting timber for their own use. A need for regulation arose as trees were being felled with no new plantings.
In 1775, Anders Sparrman, a Swedish scientist, estimated that hunting had reduced the elephant population to under 500 and that they had mostly ‘escaped’ to the forests further inland.
A Woodcutter’s Post was established at the Zwart River (near the present-day town of George) in July 1777.
Lieutenant William Paterson visited ‘Outeniqualand’ in November 1777, and wrote about the extent of the forests as follows:
“The woods are very thick, and produce some of the tallest trees I have ever beheld…The mountains are extremely steep, and many of the most stately trees grow out of the naked strata of the rocks…These woods have their beginning to the north of Mossel Bay, and extend about 120 miles to the east, ending at a place called Sitsicamma. Between the woods and the Indian Ocean lies an extensive plain well inhabited by Europeans, who traffic mostly in wood which they bring in planks to the Cape.”
In 1778, Governor van Plettenberg named Plettenberg Bay after himself. Before the turn of the century, timber was being shipped.
Attempts to control the timber industry was poorly tried by both the Dutch and English as they ‘took turns’ occupying the Cape. The British would become the dominant power by 1806 but it would take another half a century to better regulate the timber industry.
That’s mere summary of the first of Ryno Joubert’s reports. Much else followed. A navigable path through the Knysna Head had yet to be discovered. Knysna would become its own magisterial district. The demand for timber, and thus the exploitation of the forests, would grow as the Dutch built wagons to escape Cape Town. Survivors of the Great Knysna Fire of 2017 will find interest in the similarly devastating fire of 1869. Giant yellowwood trees vanished. Stinkwood became scarce. Buffalo become extinct. Alien pine trees were planted. Christopher Harison, a retired Army officer with no forestry training, would become a saviour for conservation.
To read all in full, download them from:
- History of the Southern Cape forests (pre-modern to 1795)
- History of the Overberg and Southern Cape forests (1795-2011)
History and conservation lovers will find that to be an educational treat.