©The Tale of Knysna

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Note: My late Grandfather John Grey Read explained to me that his “book” was called “The Tale of Knysna” rather than a full “History” because although most of the content is historical and accurate, in keeping with his “Bushcutter” or “Woodcutter” heritage where many “Yarns” were told, he has used his poetic licence to weave some in, often leaving the reader pondering about the portion he had just read! He always said to me when reading from his original writings, if you believe it, it could well be true! (With a mischievous grin on his face)

Granddad (mostly known as Uncle John) wrote: During the years 1907 two 1915 I farmed on the farm Keurboom's River where I lived in the bachelor's quarters known as “The Cabin”

My late Grandfather, James Read, lived close by in the old portion of the establishment later known as Read's hotel and as I was always greatly interested in the unwritten history of Knysna and it’s surroundings, I induced him to relate to me his experiences along with the invaluable information which he had obtained from the generation which preceded him, his father, Captain James Read and other old men whom he knew when he was a lad. I shall call him James.

James was a remarkable man in many ways. He possessed an iron constitution, but his most wonderful gift was a perfect memory (Photographic memory). He had a visual memory or mental vision and when he related his experiences you felt that the man was not only recalling from the facts but that he was actually seeing them happen.


After a battle in January 1806 on the shores of Table Bay, the Dutch garrison of Cape Castle surrendered to the British under Sir David Baird and in 1814, the colony was ceded outright by the Netherlands to the British crown.

He wrote:

James's father (Cpt James Read) came from Glasgow. He was a naval officer of high rank and was sent out to the Cape in 1806, when Britain took over the Cape, to take up statistics of all the forts from Cape Town to Durban. (Port Natal). He landed at Plettenburg Bay, which was then a seaport and inspected the old Fort, the ruins of which are still to be seen in the basin below Van Plettenburg’s monument.

So fascinated was he by this district that on his arrival home after the completion of his mission he resigned his Commission in the Navy and migrated to this country in 1808 settling at Witterdrift about 8 miles from here (Keurbooms River) where he opened the first shop in that part of the world.


There is a difference of opinion regarding the origin and occupation of Cpt James Read.

Many pick up the book, British Residents At The Cape 1795 to 1819, a collective book of residents names, which the author admits is not exhaustive and as such cannot be absolute in it’s content. Picking a name in a list and claiming that is “our Cpt James Read” is easy, but as with everything it proves nothing without links and corroborating supplementary evidence proving linage as commonly used in Genealogy research.

However, I happen to have a very reliable source that states otherwise. Having said that it is clear a lot more research needs to be done regarding the three seriously contested versions.

First version (Currently most popular)

Was he the “shipwright” referred to in British Residents on page 338: READ, James, ass. Naval builder. Arr. 18/02/1808 in Table Bay in HMS Abundance ex Spithead Reference

Second possible version (Supported by a cutting from the Argus at the time of IWO Reads Golden Wedding Anniversary)

 Was he the descendant of a Reverent James Read sent out by the London Missionary Society in 1800 to assist the famous Dr Vanderkemp to covert the Hottentots?

Third possible version (As dictated by my Grandfather the grandson of the very son of Cpt. James Read and passed down by word of mouth)

Or was he in fact the Royal Navy Cpt James Read as documented by my grandfather John Grey Read (Uncle John)

IWO ReadKew Navy Archives

Masster Rank Appointment

He wrote:

When James’s father, Cpt James Reed died his son James was four years of age and his brother, Ignatius, was two years of age. Although James was a young man when his father died, he could still name and apparently see the 14 Oxen which drew the hearse to Knysna!

When Cpt James Read died his mother married a bad man who was very cruel to him and his brother Ignatius. This brute made the boys lead for his transport wagons without boots and in tatters. Whenever the boys passed through George a certain Mr and Mrs O'Connell used to send for them, befriend them and give them clothes. James always wondered why these strangers should have been so kind to them and only many years later after their death was he told that these O'Connell’s had migrated to South Africa in the same ship which brought out his father!

A few years after James's father (Cpt James Read) died, a tutor arrived from Scotland to teach the boys. He came unannounced, so it was evident that his late father must have made provision for such an eventuality before his death. The stepfather was furious and would not allow this tutor to teach the boys and he was obliged to eventually return to Scotland and the boys grew up practically illiterate, as there were no schools in those days. The nearest church then was at Cape Town and later at Swellendam.

When James’ father died, he left a huge sea chest that contained all his documents. Whenever the stepfather required writing paper, he used to take one of those documents, tear off the vacant portion throwing the balance into the fire. One day, when he was in a particularly vile mood James saw him turn out all the papers from the chest and burn the lot. Thus, in one fell swoop he not only disinherited the children, but also ostracised them from all living connections at home. James’s father captain James Reed held the high rank as a freemason, but the surplus was lost and we shall never pick up the broken thread again.


As the boys grew up, first James and then Ignatius deserted their home and placed their feet upon the bottom rung of life’s ladder. They struggled against adverse circumstances until eventually between the two of them they bought the whole of Keurboom's River, divided it and there they lived the rest of their days.


Baron Joachim van Plettenberg, who was a Governor of the Cape of Good Hope, arrived here via the Langkloof. He spent his first night in the area at the house of Cornelis Botha, who had established himself as a farmer in the area and lived in the Piesang River Valley.

Van Plettenberg Post

Van Plettenberg decided to name this bay after himself; finally, this name stuck. He erected the possessional stone of the Dutch East India Company on the hill that overlooks Central Beach.

Van Plettenberg was immediately worried about the Dutch settlers’ zealous destruction of the natural surrounds, especially the forests. He proposed to the Lords XVII of the Dutch East India Company that a timber harbour and control post be erected to prevent the over-use of natural timber in the area. Consequently, a Commandant of the Swart River woodcutter’s post, JF Meeding, was appointed to manage the timber resources on behalf of the Dutch East India Company.

It was around this time that the Dutch gave Robberg its name as well; it means “mountain of seals”, named after all the seals that live on and around it. For the next 30 or so years, these white settlers would discover that their acceptance by the locals was far from certain.

Replica of the possessional stone erected in 1778 by then VOC governor of the Cape, Baron Joachim Van Plettenberg at Plettenberg Bay (Above the Old Fort)

Credit Lugerda

Grandfather Wrote:

James attempts to buy Keurbooms River

The Jerling’s were the first white owners of this farm they apparently had no record of the first members of their family that had migrated to Africa, nor did James know when they first acquired the property.


A woodcutter’s post was established at Plettenberg Bay in 1787 when Johann Jacob Jerling, an early inhabitant, was commissioned by the Dutch East India Co. to build a storehouse for the timber that was felled and which was ear-marked to be exported.

He wrote:

James tells an amusing story of the first attempt he made to buy Keurbooms River. Old Mrs Jerling was a vicious woman and beside her seat hung a seacow sjambok which at the least provocation she made good use of.

In those days the settlers, who often paid dearly for the ravages of their rough hard lifestyle, where at times cruel in their retaliation to the extent that life itself was not respected under provocation, even the ladies of the time we're not the angelic things they are today.

As an example, a certain woman living in the area, one day having killed two of her slave girls, poked one into her large Dutch oven, immediately after taking out her daily bread bake. The following morning, on opening the door, she saw the maids bare teeth, her lips having contracted on  account of the intense heat, she exclaimed “Lag jy nog” (still smiling, are you) then slammed the oven door closed again.

On another occasion, one of her sons shot another slave girl. As he was passing the slave girl was standing opposite the door of the house and apparently for some reason annoyed him, he simply lifted his shotgun and deliberately shot her. In those days there was no law and such crimes passed unheeded!


People in our advanced 21st century reading this may cringe, but put in context, living in the 16th century wildest outback Africa, life had very little value.  We must remember even in first world places like London and Paris, duel’s were fairly commonplace! (Fought to the death!)

He wrote:

To return to my story about the purchasing of this farm, one of the Jerling sons that was a great friend of James (Read) wanted him to buy a portion of Keurboom’s River. Eventually he persuaded James to approach his mother, as his father, the Old man Jerling had virtually no say. Knowing that he was dealing with an extremely tough old Girl, James manoeuvred himself into a position where he could beat a hasty retreat.

Old Mrs yearning was sitting in a favourite armchair so he stood in the doorway and said “Auntie, will you sell half of your farm to me please?” Grabbing her sjambok she retorted “Jou kaalgat” (you penniless waif) where will you find the 500 Rix dollars with which to buy half this farm?

Needless to say, it took some considerable time before James could again muster up enough courage to approach her! He told me, he feared neither wild beast or snake, but Old Mrs Jerling was in a class of her own!

500 Rix dollars around this time would be the equalivent of roughly a year’s wages for a skilled tradesman, for a labourer who knows, years of work!

Rix Dollar

He wrote:

500 Rix dollars may seem ridiculously cheap for half of Keurboom’s River but let it be remembered that James averred that at that time money had mysteriously vanished, where to nobody knew and I often heard him say that in the whole of the Plettenburg Bay Area no household could muster a single Rix dollar! Incredible as this may sound there is no doubt that such was the case. James said that these conditions prevailed for many years and then, apparently without rhyme or reason, money once again flowed freely, timber boomed and prosperity came to all.









Land of little value

James related that in his youth land was apparently of little intrinsic value and farms were swapped for objects of little value and there are instances on record where farmers on being offered more land refused to accept it as a gift.

Hans Van Huyssteen who owned his late Grandfather’s farm at Boschfontein, adjoining Wittedrift, told me the following story which illustrates how little land was valued back then.

When Governor Van Plettenberg used to visit Plettenberg Bay to see his landdrost he frequently spent the night here with my (Hans Van Huyssteen’s) Grandfather and then the following day he would take the governor through to the residency, the ruins of which may be seen to this day. (1950)  On one of these occasions my Grandfather and the governor were sitting in this room on old hand-hewn yellowwood flooring boards which were originally laid down using stink word dowel’s because when these floors were laid, wire nails had not yet reached Africa. Governor Van Plettenberg said, you have been a true friend to me and I wish to show my appreciation in a material way. The days of free land are passing so if you desire more land, go out and place your beacons wherever you wish and I shall sanction it. My Grandfather thanked the governor but told him that he did not desire to have more land as he already had more than he needed. Ask me any other favour and it shall be granted, Governor Van Plettenberg replied. Old man Van Huyssteen  replied, yes governor I shall ask one favour of you, that is,  if when I take you to the residency tomorrow you find the landdrost drunk, do not dismiss him. The governor did not reply. The following day on the arrival at the residency they found the landdrost drunk. Governor Van Plettenberg sacked him and made the old man Van Huyssteen landdrost in his place, the very thing he wished to avoid!

The Swapping of farms in the Knysna, Plettenberg Bay and Keurbooms River District

My sub editor and myself Defer about the word swap. He, been a great English scholar, says that the word swap is a slang word and I should rather use the word barter. We do not agree about this certainly not in the context of South Africa. for example if I take a bag of sweet potatoes to the store and I tell the merchant I wish to exchange these for some coffee, he will ask me at what price I value my sweet potatoes. I value them at around 10 shillings Then he will give me 10 shillings worth of his commodity in exchange. This in South Africa certainly in the Knysna area we cool “barter”.

However, I'm very fond of horses. A Mr. Smith visits me riding a magnificent White Horse which embl so splendidly that Mr. Smith is often lulled to sleep a upon it’s back. By Jove I exclaim I must have this horse Cromer regardless of the price. So offer this Mr. Smith 10 pounds for it. No he says nothing doing I offer him £20 for the horse. No he replies the horse is not for sale. Well old chap I say, I shall give you my excellent team of oxen end the waggon for your horse. top comment I accept replies Mr. Smith. This is what we Bush cutters call swapping. It is an exchange in which values are of secondary consideration. That in essence explains why I differ with my sub editor on the use of the word swap and barter.

One of the most interesting land deals in those early days, was transacted between the Royal Rex and a certain Mr Gerber. Mr Gerber owned the whole of Westford which is a tract of land riparian to the Western banks of the Knysna River from Belvedere up as far as the Old Fort or Drift. It is reported that Mr Gerber gave Royal Rex The whole of this property for the hind tongs of his Ox Wagon! Some years later Mr Gerber visited the Royal Rex Who was then living at Westford. Mr Gerber was riding a beautiful White Horse in the royal Rex wanted this horse very badly. Give me Westford proclaimed Mr Gerber and the horse is yours!  Done said the Royal Rex and thus they re-swapped Westford. I regret that I cannot recall the name of this White Horse, but I remember that he was a “pacer”

Insert: Pacers. Far more common on the racetrack than trotters, pacers move the legs on the same side of their bodies together: It's a lateral gait rather than a diagonal one.

Seven Reasons Why Knysna was Settled So Early

In all the land there is probably no district as interesting and as rich in folklore as is the Knysna district. “Knysna” Is a phonetic misrepresentation of the bushman word meaning “fern”

Insert:  The Khoikhoi named a local river in the area by a word that sounded like "Knysna" to the early Europeans. Scholars offer several translations of the Hottentot term - place of wood, fern leaves, or simply straight down, referring to the steep sandstone cliffs, called The Heads today.

He wrote:

Knysna was settled early as it held a great lure that enticed early settlers to come to its inviting shores. These attractions may be summarised as follows:

• The sheltered harbors of both Plettenberg Bay and Knysna.

• The healthy climate, mild and fresh.

• The constant heavy seasonable rain.

• The fertile soil, rich in nutrients encouraging the flora and fauna.

• The abundant supply of “timber”

• The lofty Outeniqua and Tzitzikama mountain ranges which formed a natural barrier against the marauding hordes of savages as they could not pass safely through the then unbroken forests and the trackless gorges.

• Lastly the undefinable “soul” of the place, which gets in your blood and never leaves!


Many people, born and bred in this environment like myself (John Read) cannot live contentedly elsewhere. This seems to apply even more to the poor than to the rich. For 25 years I exiled myself from my native soil but never a day dawned when I yearned to be back home again.

The magnetism which draws us Knysna Bushcutters back to our roots include the thundering waves, the freshness of the morning air, the silence of the forest depths which seem to speak to us, along with the glory of those mighty Sentinels which God privacy against the harshness of the arid north. These to us or irresistible and eventually we retrace our footsteps against or with our own will.

I have met aged couples walking back to Knysna and this was often their simple tale, “Our Daughter married a well to do up country men and paid a fish up there and offered us a permanent home living with them. They have been very kind to us, but after an absence of a year we decided that we would rather come home to poverty than live away from Knysna!”

Some people comment who do not understand common look up on this homing susceptibility in our souls as a disease common, but to me it is a beautiful romance with this place. The exile straining his eyes from yonder lofty mountains, to bridge the gap between himself and the sacred  haunts of his youth!

The Royal Rex

No tale of Knysna will be complete without an account Of the Royal Rex, on whose tomb at the old place (Melkhout Kraal) Or inscribe the significant words “ Founder and Proprietor of Knysna”

My Grandfather John Grey Read wrote: George Rex was the son of George 111  of England. During the reign of George 11 his son, Prince Frederick was Heir Apparent. Prince Frederick had his son George who married a commoner, a certain beautiful actress Hannah Lightfoot. At the time of this marriage George was 21 years and Hannah Lightfoot 35 years of age. Refer the genealogical tree as depicted by my Grandfather John Grey Read.

James 1st England married Anne of Denmark (Anne of Denmark (Danish: Anna; 12 December 1574 – 2 March 1619) was the wife of King James VI and I, and as such Queen of Scotland from their marriage on 20 August 1589 and Queen of England and Ireland from 24 March 1603 until her death in 1619.)

Note: James 1st England was the son of Mary "Queen of Scots" Stuart Scotland England and Henry "Lord Darnley" Stewart, Earl of Ross 1545-1567

CHARLES 1 (1625 – 1649) English Civil War

The son of James I and Anne of Denmark, Charles believed that he ruled by Divine Right. He encountered difficulties with Parliament from the beginning, and this led to the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642. The war lasted four years and following the defeat of Charles’s Royalist forces by the New Model Army, led by Oliver Cromwell, Charles was captured and imprisoned. The House of Commons tried Charles for treason against England and when found guilty he was condemned to death. His death warrant states that he was beheaded on 30th January 1649. Following this the British monarchy was abolished and a republic called the Commonwealth of England was declared.

THE COMMONWEALTH declared May 19th 1649

OLIVER CROMWELL, Lord Protector 1653 – 1658
Cromwell was born at Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire in 1599, the son of a small landowner. He entered Parliament in 1629 and became active in events leading to the Civil War. A leading Puritan figure, he raised cavalry forces and organised the New Model Army, which he led to victory over the Royalists at the Battle of Naseby in 1645. Failing to gain agreement on constitutional change in government with Charles I, Cromwell was a member of a ‘Special Commission’ that tried and condemned the king to death in 1649. Cromwell declared Britain a republic ‘The Commonwealth’ and he went on to become its Lord Protector.

Cromwell went on to crush the Irish clans and the Scots loyal to Charles II between 1649 and 1651. In 1653 he finally expelled the corrupt English parliament and with the agreement of army leaders became Lord Protector (King in all but name)


CHARLES II 1660 – 1685

Son of Charles I, also known as the Merry Monarch. After the collapse of the Protectorate following the death of Oliver Cromwell and the flight of Richard Cromwell to France, the Army and Parliament asked Charles to take the throne. Although very popular he was a weak king and his foreign policy was inept. He had 13 known mistresses, one of whom was Nell Gwyn. He fathered numerous illegitimate children but no heir to the throne. The Great Plague in 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666 took place during his reign. Many new buildings were built at this time. St. Paul’s Cathedral was built by Sir Christopher Wren and also many churches still to be seen today.


Sophia married George Louis, Elector of Hanover
George 1st England
George 2nd (1682 – 1760) married Caroline Wilhelmina of Brandenburg-Anspach (1683-1737) Consort of King George II
Frederick, Prince of Wales married Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha




The second daughter of King Frederick II of Denmark, Anne married James at age 14. They had three children who survived infancy: Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, who predeceased his parents; Princess Elizabeth, who became Queen of Bohemia; and James's future successor, Charles I. Anne demonstrated an independent streak and a willingness to use factional Scottish politics in her conflicts with James over the custody of Prince Henry and his treatment of her friend Beatrix Ruthven. Anne appears to have loved James at first, but the couple gradually drifted and eventually lived apart, though mutual respect and a de