Knysna Lagoon History

The history of the Knysna lagoon is very fascinating. First discovered in the early 1500’s by the Portuguese explorers in search of the sea route to India they named the area around the lagoon the Outeniquas.

From out at sea the Portuguese observed large columns of smoke coming from the forests that could be seen in the region of the lagoon. On further inspection they discovered that the fires were caused by the local Khoi folks who started them to smoke out bees so that they could harvest honey in the hives found in the trees. Observing the men overloaded with honey coming out of the forests they named the place, “The Outeniquas”.

It was only after the arrival of the Dutch in 1652 that Europeans actually started exploring the surrounding area of the Cape and it took until the 1760’s for the travellers to reach Knysna. The first permanent settlement in the area came about in 1770 when the mortgage farm Melkhoutkraal, which surrounded great parts of the lagoon was allocated to a local farmer by the authorities in the Cape. Eight years later Governor Joachim van Plettenberg visited the region on a expedition of discovery and seeing the extent of the Knysna forests became interested in getting hold of supplies of wood for the Cape Colony.

The Cape had a scarcity of wood as most of the indigenous trees had been cut down and used for housing and ship construction by the Dutch colonists. When George Rex, a timber trader from Cape Town, arrived in the area in 1804 he found that shipping timber by ox wagon was an almost impossible undertaking. He then suggested to the authorities to transport the timber by sea and commissioned his friend George Callender, to consider the possibility of shipping timber from Outeniqualand by sea using the Knysna lagoon. As his farm, Melkhoutkraal, bordered on the lagoon he provided the property for the jetties to be built. Up to this point in the history of the lagoon no large ships had tried to enter the Knysna lagoon all the way through the two sandstone heads that guarded its opening so no one knew whether it would be feasible to export timber by sea.

The first vessel to attempt entry was the 188-ton Royal Navy brig “Emu” which did so on the 11th February 1817. The endeavour was unsuccessful as she ran aground on an underwater rock and had to be beached on a sandbank just within the mouth of the lagoon. Several months later in May of 1817, the “ Podargus” was sent to rescue the crew and recover the goods of the Emu. It became the first ship to successfully enter the lagoon paving the way for the expansion of the timber industry in the area. As a result the timber trade flourished.

Then in April 1870 the Thesen family arrived in the district and they were to have a great impact. They got a timber and shipbuilding industry going and soon afterwards followed it up with a transport business where goods and passengers were transported between Durban, Knysna and Cape Town using steamships owned by the Thesen Steamship Company. In October 1903 another important occurrence in the history of the lagoon took place. The Paquita, a German three ship’s mast iron barque weighing 484 tons came into the lagoon and offloaded its shipment of coal at Thesen and Company’s pier.

From there she sailed across the lagoon to Featherbed Bay where she loaded a ballast of sand before she was to set sail for Barbados. While there a blustery wind came up causing her anchor chains to rupture and the ship to drift across the lagoon where she stranded on what is today known as Leisure Isle. After offloading the sand ballast the crew were able to refloat the barque.

On the 18th October while sailing close to the mouth of the lagoon the doomed ship once again had her anchor ropes fouled and this time she ran aground on Beacon Rocks a rocky promontory near the front of the present day restaurant. There she rest with her bow sticking out of the water until 18 months after the wrecking she in the end vanished beneath the waves. The sinking of the Paquita raised a number of enquiries as it was out of the ordinary that her anchor ropes ruptured on two occasions.

Rumours were that most of her crew had been paid off before the first fouling of the anchors was questioned. When, after the second running aground of the ship, it was discovered that her anchor ropes was undamaged. The suspicion of foul play arose which eventually resulted in an insurance claim being dismissed by the insurers. All that remains of the ship today is part of its hull and this has become an important and easily accessible dive site near the mouth of the lagoon. The channel through the Knysna Heads looks very serene when viewed from the heads and no one would think that the entrance is one of the most hazardous to a port anywhere in the world.

Unfortunately for the Knysna waterfront, after the building of a railway line from George to Knysna in 1928 its trade began to decrease until finally in 1954 it was decommissioned and became a small boat harbour which it still is today. Knysna and the scenic lagoon are one of the gems found along the South African coastline. The town is an extraordinary holiday playground and a must visit destination on any vacation to South Africa.


Brenton-on-Sea is an expanding quaint little town on the border of the Indian Ocean and a mere few kilometres from the Knysna lagoon. Houses and vacant land are available on demand. To view or buy a home or land in Brenton-on-Sea contact the Estate Agent with the most experience in Breton-on-Sea – Sophie Joubert on 082 572 2729.