South African Military History Society


The Eastern Cape town of Knysna, with its picturesque tidal lagoon, is famous more for being a scenic attraction on the Garden Route than for shipbuilding. Yet it has an honourable tradition in this field dating back to the beginning of the 19th century, and its founder, George Rex, reputed to be the illegitimate son of Britain's George III.

Towards the end of WW2 its shipbuilders supplied 10 motor launches to the Royal Navy, and this was the subject of the curtain raiser given by Gerri van der Merwe at the Society meeting on 10th June. These "ML 10" craft were built by Thesen & Co. They were constructed from imported timber, displaced 60 tons, measured 112 feet in length, and were fitted with two Rolls Royce 1200 horsepower engines, naval guns and depth charges. They carried a crew of 19, and were designed mainly for the purpose of submarine hunting. On completion, they left for Burmese waters under their own power, but because the war ended before they could see any action, it was their ultimate fate to fulfill less heroic roles as trainers, and transporters of POWs, arms and ammunition.

There was much sad nostalgia in Knysna when, while still relatively new, these fine craft were broken up. Their ship's bells were presented to the town in memory of the part it had played in support of the war effort. The disappointment felt by the citizens of Knysna at the early demise of their motor launches was added to in 1946 when the last of Britain's battleships, the 42 000 ton inappropriately named Vanguard, carrying the royal family on their official visit to South Africa, was unable to pay its scheduled visit to the town because the "bar was up".

The sand bar, which at times prevents entry by large ships to the lagoon, is monitored from the pilot house situated on the southern side of the channel. Shipbuilding continued at Knysna after the war when Thesen & Co built competitive sailing craft such as Voortrekker, which came second in the Transatlantic race, and Albatross II, which gained a first place in the Cape-to-Rio race.

The main lecture of the evening, given by UNISA history professor John Lambert, described the shabby manner in which the British treated their loyal Natal Africans despite their invaluable services in the Anglo-Boer War. All sectors of African society in the British colony of Natal contributed to the fight against the Boers, but none more so than the African Christian elite, the kholwa. The kholwa of the freehold farms Edendale and Driefontein had played an important part in the imperial invasion of Zululand in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, and the sterling work performed by the Edendale Native Horse had made a significant contribution to the subsequent defeat of the Zulus. This loyal assistance was rewarded with considerable benefits for the kholwa, who subsequently became an important landowning class in the colony.

During the Anglo-Boer War the kholwa again offered their enthusiastic services to the war effort. Many were recruited into the Native Scouts, and at great risk to themselves, because the military - at the insistence of the colonial government of Natal - refused to arm them before 1901, acted as runners, scouts and spies behind enemy lines. Driefontein was in Boer-occupied territory, and became an important centre of British espionage.

The reason for this willing participation of the kholwa in the so-called "White Man's War" was that by the end of the 19th century, growing settler antagonism toward all forms of African equality with whites was undermining the position of the Christian Africans. So, while many kholwa offered their services through a sense of loyalty to the Crown, others believed that once the imperial forces had won the war, their contribution would be rewarded as it had been previously. They hoped particularly for improved access to land, education and the franchise.

But such hopes were dashed when, after the war, the British set out to mend fences with the Boers of Natal. Despite the efforts and sacrifices of the kholwa, many of whom had died or been wounded in imperial service, they received neither benefits nor acknowledgements of their contribution. Even the medals awarded to white participants were withheld from them. Virtue had to be its own reward, since nothing else was forthcoming. The result was disillusionment so widespread that members of the Christian African elite began to reconsider their position in the colony, and when the Bambatha Rebellion broke out in 1906 few kholwa offered their services on the colonial side

The Rustenburg Military History Study Group, most of whom are members of this Society, has put together an excellent day-long presentation which features their researches into the battles of Silkaatsnek, Nooitgedacht, and the guerrilla phase of the Anglo-Boer War in the Transvaal. A demonstration of the working of the heliograph signalling system, and a visit to the battlefield of Nooitgedacht - which is on private land and not normally open to the public - is also included. Four-wheel drive transport is provided to the sites, and an evaluation of the battle is given in situ. Your committee is arranging a day's outing for interested members to the Nutbush Boma, near Bekker Schools in the Magaliesberg, which will host the event specially for us. The proposed date is in August or September. Those interested should contact Marjorie or Colin Dean on (011)678-1454 to give their names and phone numbers, or call George at the number below.



8 July
Flip Hoorweg Naval Blunders of the 20th Century
John Murray The English Longbow
12 August
Colin Dean Early Submarines and Torpedoes
Dr Jane Carruthers Anglo-Boer War Artists - Melton Prior
9 Sept
Marjorie Dean The Battle for Atlanta - 1854
Prof G Cuthbertson The Pro-Boer Movement in the Anglo-Boer War


8 July
Visit to SA's Naval Strike Craft

Cape Town

8 July
D.I.Y. Evening: A Pot-Pourri of short talks.

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

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