The History of Plettenberg Bay
Travelling back in time and looking at the history of Plettenberg Bay gives us an intriguing and colourful picture of the “Beautiful Bay”. Those that have gone before us have left us a legacy that has become the much loved town of Plett as we know it today!
History of Stone Age Plettenberg Bay
The history of human life in Plettenberg Bay stretches back to 120 000 BC with Stone Age Man inhabiting two caves which are still being excavated today.
They are the Nelson Bay Cave on the Robberg Peninsula and the Matjies River Rock Shelter near Keurboomstand that were inhabited by middle and late stone age man and then later by the Khoisan.
Tools, ornaments and other debris left by these inhabitants can still be viewed in these caves today.
History of Colonial Plettenberg Bay
In this, an era of discovery and adventure, as Europeans built their ships and travelled the world, and subsequently colonised it.
As these early explorers travelled the African Coast Line they discovered our magical bay … which is Plett as we know it today.
Let us take a look at how the dramatic events have unfolded over the years.
165 years before Jan van Riebeeck landed at the Cape in 1652, Portuguese explorers charted the bay in the 15th and 16th centuries, the first being the famous Portuguese navigator Bartholomeu Dias (Born 1451 – Died 29 May 1500), who opened the sea routes between Europe and Asia.
He named Plettenberg Bay … “Bahia das Alagoas”, meaning “Bay of the Lagoons.” He named Robberg … “Cabo Talhado”, meaning “Sharp Cape” and on seeing the spectacular Outeniqua Mountains in the distance, he named the highest peak … “Pic Formosa”, meaning “Beautiful Peak”.
Ninety years later Manuel da Perestrello arrived at the bay and aptly called it “Bahia Formosa” meaning “Beautiful Bay”.
Shipwreck, the first known Europeans to inhabit the area were a group of 100 sea man that were stranded in the bay when their ship the São Gonçalo sank, she was on her way back from India carrying a shipment of the precious cargo of pepper to Portugal. They stopped in the bay to repair some leaks, which were damaging their precious cargo, but before the repairs could be completed, a huge storm hit the bay and the ship sank.
Tragically, 150 sailors drowned but 100 managed to swim to shore and they lived in the Piesang Valley for 8 months. They befriended the Khoisan and also built a church here. During this time they built two boats from the remains of the São Gonçalo and timber from the forest trees in the area.
One of the Sailors left an account of this time in Plettenberg Bay;
“We built habitations of wood … and sowed various seeds to enjoy the fruit thereof, such as pumpkins, melons, onions and coriander … the soil is excellent, and free from stones ... though there are various hills. These, as also the valleys, abound with verdure and plants with sweet smelling flowers. The trees are numerous and large. In all parts it is watered by voluminous rivers and abundant and fine springs … There is an infinite number of wild animals of extraordinary size, such as deer, wolves, seals, buffaloes, wild boars, monkeys and also tigers and elephants.”
Theal G M, Records of Southern Africa, 8 vols, Struik Reprint, Cape Town, 1964.
The sailors eventually set out in the boats they had built and left behind a “padrao” or stone as a reminder of the original shipwreck which was re-discovered in 1980. The padrao, a crude block of sandstone, on which was inscribed in Portuguese “Here was lost the ship São Gonçalo in the year 1630”.
The Van Plettenberg stone, as it is now called, was discovered near the end of the sandy beach and about three miles from the beacon set up by Governor Joachim van Plettenberg.
The sailors were eventually picked up by other Portuguese vessels. Tragically one of these ships sank taking all men on board just as the ship entered the harbour at Lisbon, Portugal.
When the Dutch East India Company (VOC) took over control of the trade route to the East, it set up a refreshment station at Cape Town in the 17th Century. It was not long before travellers from the new settlement became aware of the treasures and riches of the Southern Cape coast … which is today known as the Garden Route area.
The first white settlers in the bay were stock farmers, hunters and frontiers men who travelled up from the Western Cape.
There are some fascinating accounts of the hard and isolated life the woodcutters lived in the great forests.
In these forests they cut the great stink wood, yellow wood, sneeze wood, iron wood and other massive trees down. They would fell them manually and once felled would again manually cut them into planks using hand saws.
They would then use Percheron horses (a heavy draft horse of French Origin) to drag these planks to agents that dwelled in the forests.
The wood was transported by sea with the great logs being loaded aboard the ships by oxen. In later years, the 18th and 19th centuries the logs were most often transported to Cape Town by wagon.
“The great bundles of logs were fastened together with chains, and attached to oxen.
In front into the sea swam the toulier - a strong swimming ox – while from behind other men drove the rest of the oxen forward with whips and shouts. The oxen very soon accustomed to swimming into the breakers until they were alongside the boasts and the logs loaded.”
“Plettenberg Bay to Knysna – a trip through history”, in Kelley-Patterson, E, Looking back, June 1971.
A navigational beacon was first erected on the Beacon Island in 1771.
The original beacon was a square block of stinkwood, inscribed with the latitude and longitude of Plettenberg Bay, and erected to enable mariners to check their location. It was replaced by a stone one by Captain Sewell in 1881 and can be seen in the Gardens of the current Beacon Isle Hotel.
A Swedish botanist, Carl Peter Thunberg, (11 November 1743 – 8 August 1828), who has been called “The father of South African Botany” arrived in Bahia Formosa after a long inland trek to come and study the flora and fauna in the area.
Thunberg’s visit to the area is the first recorded crossing of the Outeniqua Mountains.
He came to the area via the Attaquas Kloof route, which had up until then been used mostly by the Khoisan people and elephants, this route would later become the Robinson Pass which was designed by Thomas Bain.
It was around this time, that the first Dutch settlers started arriving in the Plettenberg Bay area.
The first known Dutch settler in Plettenberg Bay was a farmer named Cornelis Botha and he became a substantial farmer in the area, (his farm is shown on a map dated 1777), in the Piesang Valley of Plettenberg Bay.
Plettenberg Bay’s oldest surviving building was identified on a 1777 map as "verblyf voor het volk" (essentially meaning "visitors' accommodation"). It was later used as a rectory by the Anglican church in the wake of the English settlers and was occupied by five rectors in succession until the present Rectory was built in 1939. This fell into diuse and for many years was an eyesore in Plettenberg Bay. This building was restored in 2017 and has now opened as a 5 star hotel.
In 1778, The Governor of the Cape of Good Hope, Baron Joachim Ammena van Plettenberg of the VOC visited the Bay. He spent his first night in Plettenberg Bay as a guest at the house of Cornelis Botha.
Van Plettenberg decided to name this bay after him-self and as we all know, this name stuck.
He erected the possessional stone of the Dutch East India Company on the hill that overlooks Central Beach. It can still be viewed today.
Van Plettenberg on his visit to the area was worried about the Dutch settlers’ enthusiastic destruction of the natural surrounds, especially the forests.
On his return to the Cape 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 was appointed to manage the timber resources on behalf of the Dutch East India Company. JF Meeding was this person.
A traveller tells us of the rich timber reserves in the forests;
“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 at the north of Mossel Bay and extend almost 120 miles to the east ending in a place called Zitsikamma. Between the woods and the Indian Ocean lies an extensive plain inhabited by Europeans who traffic mostly in wood which they bring in planks to the Cape.”
Lieutenant William Patterson, 1777, in Patterson, W. Paterson’s Cape Travels 1777-1779, e. Forbes V.S and Rourke J, Brenthurst, Johannesburg, 1980.
It was also around this time that the Dutch gave Robberg its modern name which we all know and recognise today, “Robberg” means “mountain of seals”, named for and after all the seals that live on and around it.
A woodcutter’s post was established 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.
Today, this timber store, whose remains have twice been partially restored, still stands; it has been made a National Monument and is one of Plett’s oldest historical sites.
The woodcutters of the VOC provided Captain Francois Duminy with the first load of timber, which was shipped on the ship, De Meermin in 1788.
While the Dutch East India Company had started commercial whaling in South Africa at the start of the 18th Century, it was only after they opened up the whaling to other foreigners that this industry started to take off along our coasts.
An English merchant, John Murray started controlling the whaling industry in the area, and consequently, Plettenberg Bay was one of six places identified nationally and was, as a result one of the places where the industry flourished.
Territorial disputes between the colonists, the Khoikoi and the Amakhosa were now in full swing. Most of the white settlers who had remained were now prepared to either fight or flee.
Some took shelter in Stofpad in the Wittedrift area, and some, like Cornelis Botha and his family, left for Cape Town, but got ambushed by about fifty Khoikhoi and Gqunukhwebes while making their way to Knysna.
In this conflict, the women and children were unharmed but many men were killed.
A large British military force drove the Gqunukhwebes and Ndlambes across the Fish River, killing everyone who resisted.
Several forts were erected along the Fish River.
Major Robert Charles Harker, son of General and Mrs Francis Harker of Swinford, England, was Government Resident of Plettenberg Bay from November 1826 until December 1847 until the post was abolished, a period of 21 years.
In addition to being Government Resident, he was also Postmaster and a Justice of the Peace.
On 16 March 1859, Robert Charles Harker died at Harkerville, an area roughly halfway between Plettenberg Bay and Knysna which has since been named after him, and he was laid to rest in the family graveyard.
This family grave site was proclaimed a Historic Monument in 1963.
Two more pioneers arrived in Plettenberg Bay. William and George Newdigate, two of the sons of the genteel British Proprietor Francis Newdigate, came to Plett to live and farm here in the Piesang valley.
Over the course of a few years, they interviewed, and employed several English families who arrived by ship; these families all became part of the pastoral farming paradise that the Newdigates had described to them, and formed a substantial part of the community in the middle of the 19th Century.
Over a century and a half later, many of these families’ descendants still live here.
William Newdigate also went on to build the first church in Plettenberg Bay, St. Andrew’s Chapel. He was also deeply involved in the completion of both St Peter’s Church in the village, and the Holy Trinity Church in Belvidere.
William Newdigate, who had set his sights on dealing in timber, bought 1620 hectares of forest land, and with the help of local labour and some skilled English craftsmen, he built the magnificent Forest Hall.
William Henry Newdigate - the third son of Francis and Lady Barbara Newdigate of Astley Castle in Warwickshire, England.
History tells us that he built the stately home for his beautiful bride, Caroline Duthie - the grand-daughter of George Rex of Knysna.
With next to nothing available in the way of infrastructure and skills in the then still untamed and barely colonized part of Africa that is now known as The Garden Route, Newdigate imported masons and carpenters from England to build his 'gift'.
The floors, door and window frames, ceiling supports and the grand central staircase were hewn from the ancient hardwoods of the surrounding forest.
The Newdigates played host to many of the colonial pioneers of the day (including Bishop Grey and Thomas Bain), and the Estate, with its rolling lawns, croquet games, music and dances, finest china and family silver, was an 'island of gentility' in the middle of the dense Tsitsikamma - home to leopards, baboons and herds of elephant, bushbuck and water buffalo. While the women - corseted and with parasols to keep off the African sun - 'took their tea' and the children chased butterflies, the men formed hunting parties and went on fishing expeditions.
Forest Hall was an 'English Gentleman's Estate', a haven of civilization and – and so it is told - great joy, but five years after it was built, an unforeseen and dramatic page was added to its history, the great fire of 1869. Fortunately a dense cloud of fog rolled in and wind direction changed and Forest Hall was saved.
As a direct result of the booming timber trade, the master pass-builder Thomas Bain built the Prince Alfred Pass, as well as a 90-kilometre forest road between Tsitsikamma and Humansdorp.
The Great Fire of 1869 has gone down in the records of local history as possibly the most devastating and terrifying event of the times.
It swept through the Fynbos and forest between the sea and the mountains with extraordinary ferocity, burning almost the entire area from what is now Humansdorp (near Port Elizabeth) all the way through to Mossel Bay. The loss of habitat and life was terrifying.
1880 – 1883;
Three major passes were to be constructed: The Groot Rivier, Blauwkrantz and Storms River. The Great Fire of the 1868 is claimed to have made Thomas Bain’s task of building the coastal roads considerably easier.
Bain started construction of the Groot River Pass in 1880, completing the work in 1883 with todays present road differing little from Bain’s original.
In 1910 a Captain Sinclair set up the whaling station on Beacon Island in order to harvest the placid Southern Right whales but this operation ceased in 1916.
Parts of the iron slipway are still visible today as well as the boiling pots and other memorabilia of this deplorable practise can still be viewed on the Island.
Forest Hall, originally built by William Newdigate in 1862 was declared a National Monument by the South African Heritage authority.
The first hotel was erected in Plettenberg Bay by Hugh Owen Grant in 1940 on the Beacon Island; this venue was built on the site of the former whaling station first mentioned in 1910 above.
Andrew Abraham Stockenstrom Le Fleur (1867-1941); The First Leader of the Griquas dies in Plettenberg Bay. Le Fleur was a leader and visionary, a person looked upon as the new Messiah by his people. Le Fleur formed the Griqua Independent Church of South Africa in the Maitland Town Hall on the 6th of April 1920, as an offspring of the Griqua National Church in Kokstad, and eventually to Krantzhoek.
Le Fleur believed his people to be the lost tribe of Israel.
For the Griquas of today, Krantzhoek is their land beyond the River Jordan, Robberg their Holy Mount; and the tomb of Le Fleur their everlasting shrine.
Le Fleur died in a little house adjacent to his tomb on Robberg on 11th July 1941. The Griqua Monument in Krantzhoek was erected 10th September 1942 in honour of De Fleur and other Griqua leaders. It also commemorates the birthday of Le Fleur’s wife, Rachel, lovingly remembered as “Oumiesies” and honoured as “Kroonmoeder” (“Crown Mother”) His tomb can be seen on the Robberg airport road today.
History of Modern Day Plettenberg Bay
Between 1960 and 1990 the Plettenberg Bay holiday town and resort expanded dramatically, and it extended along Robberg’s Beach ('Millionaire's Row') and went back towards the N2.
During the Apartheid era property within Plettenberg Bay was designated for whites only, with segregation of the beaches and toilet facilities.
New Horizons was built in 1968 and was the first municipal town resulting from the apartheid group’s act. This township was opened without any infrastructure and the bucket system was utilised for amenities as water had to be delivered to New Horizons in tanks. Many of the residents were previously living in the main town of Plett and have colourful and poignant stories about their move. The first school built in New Horizons was Formosa Primary, which was built in 1969. Today it is still the only primary school in New Horizons. Theodora Crèche as well as Elim Crèche was built in 1970 with latter still being in operation.
As the 80's progressed informal settlements of Xhosa migrants grew up around the edges of New Horizons and in the area of KwaNokuthula which became a town.
KwaNokuthula is home to a varied number of ethnic groups and is Xhosa word meaning “place of peace”. More than half the population of KwaNokuthula used to reside in either Bossiesgif/Qolweni, on the outskirts of Plett or even as far afield as the Eastern Cape. Statistics estimate the population to be roughly around 60 000. Street names in KwaNokuthula honour those who have been here since time immemorial, or political and social activists.
1949 – 1950;
After a 70 year debate about the necessity of having a lighthouse between Mossel Bay and Cape St Francis, the lighthouse on Robberg was finally built.
This lighthouse, called “The Cape Seal Lighthouse” is usually accessed and maintained by helicopter and is situated on the rocky peninsula of the Robberg Nature trail south of Plettenberg Bay. This lighthouse was commissioned on 11 May 1950 and at 146 meters above sea level is the highest light on the South African Coast. The light is mounted on a six meter lattice tower. Solar panels keep the lighthouse batteries charged. It is accessible along a 5km rocky foot path. The light is visible for 16 sea miles.
Plettenberg Bay’s roads were tarred.
In 1972 “The Sun King”, as Sol Kerzner became known, the creator of other well-known South African land marks such as “Sun City” replaced the hotel with the current well known landmark on Beacon Island, the Beacon Island Hotel.
Johan and Ingrid Jerling, part of the Jerling family who settled in Plettenberg Bay way back in the 18th century, were clearing their property above Robberg beach, when they discovered several relics, including pieces of blue and white pottery.
Their property was consequently confirmed as the encampment site of the São Gonçalo survivor’s way back in 1670. These relics are currently on display and can be viewed at the municipality.
Another discovery was a padrao, a crude block of sandstone, on which was inscribed in Portuguese “Here was lost the ship São Gonçalo in the year 1630”.
The Van Plettenberg stone was discovered near the end of the sandy beach and about three miles from the beacon set up by Governor Joachim van Plettenberg. It is housed in the Cape Town museum with a replica at the Beacon Island Hotel.
In what is now called the "Great Fire", perfect weather conditions came together creating a huge fire that swept though both Knysna and Plettenberg Bay in June of 2017. It destroyed over 400 homes and destroyed much of the pristine forests that lie between the two towns. South Africa rallied behind these two towns and incredible help was offered from all corners of South Africa.
Today this modern town is an exquisite jewel sitting on the azure-blue shores of the Indian Ocean; it rests between enchanted old villages and legends, it is an area steeped in some of Southern Africa's oldest and richest history.
Plett offers over 300 days of sunshine a year and boasts a temperate climate.
Plett celebrates its history and revels in the joy of living and
life with a passionate culture, spectacular surroundings, delicious
cuisine and sublime beaches. Plett offers the traveller, explorer or
resident both restoration of the mind and body,
romance and beauty at every turn and many exciting and
adventurous activities and is utter solace for the soul.