The Schooner ‘Knysna Belle’

Written by S. Ablott
First Published
Code flag - WhiskeyCode flag - PapaCode flag - CharlieCode flag - Foxtrot


Launched at Burton Stather on the 20th of November 1863, the Knysna Belle was registered in Cape Town throughout her career,1 trading between the ports of South Africa, including Table Bay, Port Nolloth, Mossel Bay, Knysna and Plettenberg Bay.2 In her early career she served the copper ore trade, carrying ore from the ports of Namaqualand on the West Coast,3 initially under Captain William Harris.1

The 75 ton schooner was 68.7 feet long,1 carvel built, with a one and a quarter elliptical stern.3 She had a bust figurehead3 and the hull was clad with yellow metal for tropical waters.1

The Port of Knysna

The schooner takes her name from the picturesque South African port of Knysna to which she was a frequent visitor. The town of Knysna was founded by British born George Rex at the beginning of the 19th century. Built around a tidal lagoon on the South Coast of the country, it is much greener than the barren copper ports on the West. It took off as a sea port when the Thesen family, who were travelling from Norway to New Zealand, made a stop there and liked it so much they decided to stay. They founded a sawmill and shipyard to trade timber from the extensive rain forest on the surrounding hills to other ports of South Africa. During the construction of the harbour and breakwater in Cape Town, much of the wood was shipped from Knysna.4

Knysna Lagoon
View over Knysna Lagoon

The Great Fire of Great Brak River

In February 1869 passengers on board the Knysna Belle witnessed the great fire of Great Brak River. After a period of exceptionally hot, dry weather, bush fires started. A strong Berg Wind (a local off-shore wind) fanned the flames causing them to spread rapidly, engulfing the whole countryside, devouring everything in its path. The fire was so hot that at one farm in Goukamma Valley, a chest where they kept gold and silver coins, burnt and melted the coins together into a single mass.

As the Knysna Belle sailed by, about five miles off, passengers saw the vast clouds of smoke rising from the burning land. More alarming, they saw a living cloud heading towards them. Flocks of thousands of birds and insects swarmed the schooner, seeking refuge from the inferno, unable to find any dry land that was not ablaze to land upon.5

On rising early in the morning I found the berg wind, the Sirocco of South Africa, blowing steadily from the north, the thermometer reaching a hundred degrees before eight o'clock... about 9 o'clock in the morning we perceived there was a great fire raging on the flats above us. As the morning advanced, denser and denser grew the smoke and brighter the glare of the fire, whilst the thermometer rose higher every minute. The wind, too, increased rapidly in violence. At first there was nothing to be seen but thick smoke, and nothing to be heard but the raging and roaring of the wind and fire. But presently above the smoke I saw the liquid fire pouring over the great wooded krantzes, and below it, in the fields, a great stream of fire surging along in the dry grass with inconceivable rapidity. Then I knew it was all up with Westford, Knysna.

Co-founder of The Cape Argus5

The Carstens

Captain Richard Carstens
Captain Richard Carstens

In the October of 1870 a new skipper took command on the Knysna Belle, Captain William Carstens. William and his elder brother Richard were both Master Mariners, born in Hamburg; they moved to South Africa in the mid nineteenth century, working largely in the copper ore trade. Between them, the two brothers commanded a number of ships, famous in their day, on the coasts of South Africa. They survived a number of fierce storms and shipwrecks throughout the years and would have known the coast, with its tides and winds, as well as anyone. This experience proved very valuable in one particular encounter.3

The CSS Alabama

I digress a little from the Knysna Belle to tell the story of Captain Carstens and the CSS Alabama to give an insight into the type of skippers the Carstens brothers were. Also to tell one chapter in the history of a more famous ship, which is rarely known.

The CSS Alabama
The CSS Alabama

During the American Civil War, the Liverpool built screw sloop of war, Alabama under Captain Raphael Semmes was the pride of the Confederate fleet and the scourge of the US Navy. With a crew made up of Southern Officers and British mercenaries, she acted as a commerce raider, taking merchant ships bound for Northern States. Her purpose, to cut off trade supplies to the North. In this role, Semmes and the Alabama were most prolific. After her first military battle in January 1863, in which she defeated the USS Hatteras, the Alabama became the US Navys' most wanted. Semmes thought it wise to move to friendlier waters to continue his work.3

After a successful trip south to Brazil, she crossed the Atlantic to the coast of South Africa in July.6 After a re-fit in Cape Town, Semmes found easy pickings among unarmed merchant ships and the spoils of war were plentiful. Captured cargoes would be sold, the ships would be burnt or sold, the crews were always spared.3

The CSS Alabama
Captain Raphael Semmes on the CSS Alabama
Cape Town, August 1863

On the 20th of August 1863, Captain Carstens was on a voyage from Hondekip Bay to Cape Town in the American built schooner, the Clipper. We cannot be sure whether this was William or Richard Carstens, both men captained the Clipper from time to time. The Alabama confronted the Clipper, believing her to be involved in the Northern trade and signalled her to stop and take on a boarding party. It is said that the Alabama would fool ships off South Africa by flying a British blue ensign to gain trust. But Captain Carstens knew who he was dealing with; in a display of confidence in his ship and own abilities as a mariner, he ordered up every last piece of sail and made a run for it. The Alabama, stunned at this act of defiance, opened fire and gave chase. But the Confederates most prolific raider, with all her sail and twin 300 horsepower engines at full steam, could not gain on the Clipper as she sailed out of range.

The Clipper had to reach Cape Town before the Alabama, and she did. Later, when both ships were anchored safely in the harbour, Semmes took a boat across to the Clipper and demanded to know who was in command; Carstens was the answer. Semmes was then invited on board the schooner to meet her captain and in giving due credit proclaimed Your little ship can sail some!3

William Carstens and the Knysna Belle

One of the first voyages for Captain William Carstens in the Knysna Belle was all the way to the Ascension Islands, in the middle of the Atlantic. With William being involved with the Thesens Timber Company in Knysna, most of his voyages in the Knysna Belle from 1871 to 75 were taking timber from Knysna to Cape Town. The forests of Knysna were the source of timbers such as stinkwood, white alder, yellowwoods and pine, and Cape Town was the port of world-wide export to shipbuilders and furniture makers. This trade made William Carstens a wealthy man; He built himself a fine house in Tamboers Kloof, Cape Town with views of Table Mountain and the Old Harbour as it was then. In 1898 Tamboers Kloof became known as Carstens Street, with both brothers having lived there.

On the 17th of June 1872 the Knysna Belle foundered off Cape Hangkilp under William Carstens. The ship was recovered, repaired and returned to service.

Captain Carstens stayed with the Knysna Belle until 1875, when he moved on the take command of the Falmouth built schooner, Florence (ON. 58011).3

The Stranding of the Knysna Belle

On the 16th of June 1876 the Knysna Belle was heading out of Cape Town with a cargo of coal for Knysna under Captain Kramer. Squally weather forced her aground on the North East shore of Table Bay at Rietvlei. The mainsail was hauled down to slow the vessel, but she heeled to starboard with her stern in the surf. The ships boat was launched with four of the seven crew, but it was stoved in and they had to swim for shore. The captain and two remaining crew were taken ashore later by the port boat, all survived.

The following day the ship was hard aground with thirty feet of water in her. She was a total wreck but the cargo was later saved.2 On the 20th the hull was sold for £70 and on the 24th the rigging and stores were sold for £38.3

Although the ship is now gone, she is not forgotten in the town that gave her its name. On Leisure Island, overlooking Knysna Lagoon, there is a guest house with a nautical theme named The Knysna Belle after the schooner which once would have sailed by this place.7

Special thanks to Patrick Richard Carstens, great grandson of Captain William Carstens, for sending a copy of his book, The Carstens Family in South Africa providing a wealth of information about his ancestors.

Vessel Details for Knysna Belle

Official Number:37040
Code Flags:WPCFCode flag - WhiskeyCode flag - PapaCode flag - CharlieCode flag - Foxtrot
Vessel Name:Knysna Belle
  • Harris and Co of Capetown
  • Charles Lewis of Capetown 1870
  • Francis Porter 1875
  • William Harris 1863
  • Lawson
  • Towers
  • Standfield
  • Carstens 1870
  • Kramer 1876
  • Capetown
Notes:Mentioned in Patrick Richard Carstens books Port Nolloth the making of a South African seaport and The Carstens Family in South Africa. A guest house in Knysna is named after this ship.
Construction:Clad with yellow metal. Iron bolts. Bust figurehead. Eliptical stern.
Trade:Capetown coaster. Copper Ore, Timber and general cargo.
Incidents:In Feb 1869, passengers witnessed the Great Fire of Great Brak River. While 5 miles off, the vessel was flocked by thousands of birds and insects seeking refuge from the flames and smoke. 17 June 1872, foundered off Cape Hangkilp, later repaired.
Fate:On 19th June 1876 was grounded on the North East shore of Table Bay at Rietvlei. Carrying timber from Knysna to Capetown, no lives lost.


  1. Lloyds Register of Ships.
  2. NAS II Roben Island Report 2010.
  3. The Carstens Family in South Africa - by Patrick Richard Carstens, 1988.
  4. Wikipedia - Article on Knysna
  5. GBR Museum News Letter - August 2009.
  6. Wikipedia - Article on CSS Alabama.
  7. The Knysna Belle Guest House Leisure Island, Knysna.

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Creative Commons. Background Photograph by Bruno Girin. Used with modifications under license.