Leaving their mark on the region have been an intriguing mix of Middle Stone Age man, indigenous Khoi people, ostrich Feather Barons, woodcutters, farmers, gold-diggers, merchants, sailors, craftsmen, ordinary folk even intrepid explorers such as Portugal’s Bartholomew Diaz who landed at Mossel Bay in 1488 as well as a modern day diverse mix of tycoons and artists.
Plett’s Nelson Bay and Matjes River Caves were inhabited by Middle Stone Age man for over 100 000 years with the Khoisans leaving a legacy of tools and ornaments. Deposits of their tools, ornaments and food debris can be viewed in these caves which are still being excavated. One can also observe the geological changes over the past millions of years which affected prehistoric life. Stilbaai, at the coast, boasts shell middens which date back 3 000 years, not to mention an abundance of fish traps. The presence of Blombos Cave, where it’s believed that man first thought abstractly, is a further feather in the Garden Route and Klein Karoo’s history books.
120 000 BC
The caves in the Robberg peninsula, especially the Nelson Bay cave, as well as the Matjies River Cave at Keurboomstrand, have been found to be home to humans up to 120 000 years ago – first by Middle Stone Age Man, and later also by the ancestors of the Khoisan. Here, archaeologists and historians have gathered plenty of evidence about how Man lived throughout this time, for example that they learnt how to make fire, and how to make tools with the fire. From the research and excavations done at caves like these, we know that the Khoikhoi came here in the winter, when the high coastal rainfall meant that their cattle had more food here than inland. The San lived here throughout the year, and lived on fish and shellfish like mussels and limpets.
The famous Portuguese navigator, Bartolomeu Dias, who opened sea routes between Europe and Asia, named Plettenberg Bay Bahia das Alagoas, “Bay of the Lagoons.” After his well-known stopover at Mossel Bay in his search for a sea route to the Far East, he continued heading east, and stuck to the coastline. He called Robberg Cabo Talhado, “Sharp Cape”, and, seeing the spectacular Outeniquas in the distance, he named the highest peak Pic Formosa, “Beautiful Peak”.
Another Portuguese seafarer, Manuel da Mesquita Perestrello, reached Bahia das Alagoas, and renamed it Bahia Formosa, or “Bay Beautiful”. A man for descriptive titles, Perestrello also called the distant Langkloof “the Land of the Thunderstorms.”
The São Gonçalo, a large, Portuguese merchant ship cast anchor somewhere between Robberg and the Beacon Isle of modern-day Plettenberg Bay. After having spent 8 months’ trading in India, where both captains had died and some of the crew picked up tropical diseases, their way back home to Portugal via the Cape of Storms became even more complicated. Apart from the crew contracting scurvy onboard, they had to deal with a ship that persistently leaked, causing the salt water to spread between the imported pepper corns resulting in fermentation and gassy explosions, as they tried to make their way back to Portugal via the Cape of Storms. The ship became unfit to be at sea, and they floundered into the Bay, where some of them formed a base camp on shore and the rest stayed onboard and tried to get her seaworthy again. Seven weeks later, however, a storm broke out and threw the remnants of the ship against the rocky Robberg slopes; the 400-odd men on board all drowned, while the survivors on shore were left stranded.
The hundred or so survivors consequently made their homes more seriously than before, as they realized they would be settled here for a longer time than they first anticipated. They built a church, lived on fish and game, and befriended the local Khoisan.
While being stranded, the survivors had constructed small boats from the local timber, sealed with seal fat. So, after staying on our shores for nearly a year, they set off again – one group to Portugal, and one planning to return to India.
A Swedish botanist, Carl Peter Thunberg, arrived in Bahia Formosa after a long inland trek to come and study flora and fauna. Thunberg’s visit is the first recorded crossing of the Outeniquas. He came via the Attaquas Kloof route, which had up until then mostly been used by Khoisan and elephants, but would later become the Robinson Pass designed by Thomas Bain. Also in this year, a woodcutter’s post was established on the Swart River near George. This was the first sign that the Cape was now looking at this wood-rich area as a potential source of revenue.
Around this time, the first Dutch settlers started arriving in the Plettenberg Bay area. At the mouth of the Piesang river, they erected a navigational beacon on a little island – this island, later joined to the mainland, is still known as Beacon Isle. The first known Dutch settler here was a farmer named Cornelis Botha.
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 Valley. 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 harbor 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.
The first woodcutter’s post in the Plett area was established; Johann Jacob Jerling was commissioned by the Dutch East India Company to build a storehouse for the timber. Today, this timber shed, whose remains have been partially restored twice, is a National Monument, and one of Plett’s oldest historical sites.
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 whalers in the area, and consequently, Plettenberg Bay was one of six places nationally where the industry really flourished.
Territorial disputes between the colonists, the Khoikhoi and the Amakhosa were now in full swing. Most of the white settlers who had remained now prepared to 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 50 Khoikhoi and Gqunukhwebes on the way to Knysna. Here 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. They erected several forts along the Fish River.
Robert Charles Harker, a Major in the British Army, arrived at these shores with his family as Plett’s new Government Resident. He controlled the affairs of Plettenberg Bay for 21 years, eventually also becoming Postmaster, Postholder and Justice of the Peace.
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. 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 completions of both St Peter’s Church in the village, and the Holy Trinity Church in Belvidere. 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.
As a 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 Norwegian Thesen family of Knysna, who were agents for the owner of a whaling station on Beacon Island, Percy Toplis, and also keen on whaling, invested heavily into what they hoped would be a lucrative whaling business. Over an 8-year period, they brought in whaling steamers from Norway, a meat boiling plant, an electric-lighting plant and a team of renowned Norwegian whalers. The commercial venture didn’t last long, however – mostly because of the Great War preventing them from exporting oil to England, but also because the Norwegians had wrongly assumed they could catch whales during their northern and southern migrations.
The first hotel was erected on Beacon Island.
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 finally got established.
1970 – 1972
Plettenberg Bay’s roads got tarred. The hotel on Beacon Island got replaced by the current, well-known landmark that is known as the Beacon Isle Hotel.
Johan and Ingrid Jerling, part of the Jerling family who settled in Plettenberg Bay 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 survivors. These relics are currently on display 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.
Is there an important part of Plett’s history you want to see added here? Send us your thoughts.
A note about the information on this page : We are grateful to the wonderful research done by Patricia Storrar, who presents her passion and work on Plettenberg Bay in two books –Plettenberg Bay and The Paradise Coast and Portrait of Plettenberg Bay. Many of the dates and facts presented above are taken out of these two books. If you are interested in the history of the Plettenberg Bay area, we recommend that you buy these books.
We also express our thanks to Peter Tullis from the Plettenberg Bay Historical Society for his help in checking the validity of the rest of the dates and information. Plett Historical Society
Long before Van Riebeeck landed at the Cape, Portuguese explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries called in and charted the bay, the first being Bartholomew Dias in 1487. Ninety years later Manuel da Perestrello aptly called it Bahia Formosa or the Bay Beautiful. The first white inhabitants were the 100 men stranded here for nine months when the San Gonzales sank in 1630. In 1763 the first white settlers in the bay were stock farmers, hunters and frontiersmen from the Western Cape.
Historical figures include the leader of the Griquas, Andrew Abraham Stockenström le Fleur, who by his people, was looked upon as a new Messiah. The name of Le Fleur is intimately associated with the history of the Griqua people in this area and his grave can be seen in the village of Kranshoek on the Robberg/Airport Road.
The village of Harkerville was named for Robert Charles Harker, who, as a Government resident, controlled the affairs of Plett for 21 years. The family graves are one of the highlights on the Plett town day walk.
Plett itself is an intriguing mix of cultures. A woodcutter’s post was established in 1787 and Johann Jacob Jerling, an early inhabitant, was commissioned by the Dutch East India Co. to build a storehouse for house timber which was to be exported.
The Swede, Carl Peter Thunberg, was the first to document valuable observations on the bay and Robberg and the Governor of the Cape, Baron Joachim van Plettenberg, renamed the town Plettenberg Bay in 1779. In 1910 a Captain Sinclair set up the whaling station on Beacon Island to harvest the placid Southern Right whales but this ceased operation in 1916. The first hotel was erected by Hugh Owen Grant in 1940 and replaced in 1972 by the current well known landmark on Beacon Island.
Today this modern town is comparable with Monaco, an exquisite emerald on shores of the azure-blue Indian Ocean; it basks between enchanting old villages. With over 300 days of sunshine a year and temperate climate, it celebrates with passion culture, spectacular nature offers, delicious cuisine, restoration of mind and body, high-adrenaline activities and land and water sports.
But let’s continue our journey in the 1800’s when the growing timber trade led to Thomas Bain building Prince Alfred Pass (1868) and the 90km forest road through the Tsitsikamma to Humansdorp. Three major passes had to be constructed: Groot Rivier, Blauwkrantz and Storms River. The Great Fire of the 1868 claimed to have made Thomas Bain’s task of building the coastal road considerably easier. Bain started construction of the Groot River Pass in 1880, completing the work in 1883 with present road differing little from Bain’s original.
Moving along the road towards modern day Nature’s Valley the first owner, Hendrik Barnardo, was employed at the convict station at Bloukrans established by Thomas Bain when building the road through the Tsitsikamma. Barnardo claimed that the Groot Rivier farm had been granted to his grandfather by Lord Charles Somerset for whom he had acted as beater during hunts in the region. However, according to the Deeds records, a Barnardo had acquired it as an immigrant allotment. Barnardo held only the grazing rights to Nature’s Valley until 1914 when the farm, roughly the extent of the present township, was granted to him. In 1918 Dr. Wilhelm Von Bonde persuaded Barnardo to allow him to build a shack on the lagoon near the mouth. This marked the beginning of development of Nature’s valley. Today this quaint village is still slumbering in time’s gone past and offers a tranquil retreat from modern day demands.
Traveling through the decades to the early nineteen sixties, Plett and environs also have had their share of suffering under the apartheid rule of the then South African government. Residents of color who resided in the early town of Plett were forcibly removed to the outskirts of the town where they were settled in various informal settlements of New Horizons, Bossiesgif and Qolweni.
New Horizons was built in 1968 as the first municipal town resulting from the apartheid group’s act. This township was opened without any infrastructure and the bucket system was used as toilets as water was delivered in tanks. Many of the residents were living in the main town of Plett and have colorful and poignant stories about their move.
The first school, Formosa Primary, 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 in operation.
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 estimates the population to be roughly 60 000. Street names in KwaNokuthula honor those who have been here since time immemorial, or political and social activists.