COLLECTIBLE BOOKS: A right, royal mystery
A collectable book on auction sheds light on the king of Knysna
The story of George Rex of Knysna, said to be the son of George III, dates back to 1756 in London at the corner of Market Street and St James Market.
According to a book now on online auction, Great African Mysteries by Lawrence G Green (originally published in 1935), it was there that George III, then Prince George, first noticed the young Hannah Lightfoot, "the fair Quakeress" who worked in her uncle’s drapery shop. The prince frequently spotted her during his walks and rides from Leicester Square to St James’s Palace. She returned his attentions.
The result was a secret but legal marriage. Some sources believe the wedding took place in Kew Chapel and it is said that the Duke of York, Prince George’s brother, attended the ceremony. The chapel was razed later by fire, destroying the marriage register.
A son was born who took the name of George Rex. To avoid complications he later went to the Cape in voluntary exile during the first British occupation. He received a generous cash settlement from his father, George III, who appointed him marshal of the admiralty at the Cape.
When the Cape was restored to the Dutch, Rex was obliged to sell his property under a proclamation by the Dutch governor Jan Willem Janssens. The British repossessed the Cape in 1806 and Rex decided to move to Knysna at the mouth of the Knysna River about 300 miles away. He planned to set himself up as a squire and adopt a lavish lifestyle in his new settlement adjoining the forest.
Rex was accompanied by his wife and four children, a group of friends, builders and craftsmen and scores of slaves. Apparently he travelled in a coach bearing the royal coat of arms, drawn by six white horses.
The area teemed with birdlife, and elephant and buffalo in the forest. The surrounding veld was home to tens of thousands of buck and pygmy antelope.
He was granted a large farm and made extensive purchases of additional parcels of land. His land holdings soon covered more that 20,000 acres.
Melkhout Kraal, the site of his first mansion, became "an outpost of civilisation in that wild country". One early visitor described it as being "more like a fairyland than an ordinary cattle run".
Rex’s family grew until there were six sons and seven daughters. They were taught mathematics, French, Latin, drawing, music and dancing by several resident tutors.
Dressing for dinner was de rigueur.
Diaries kept by Rex give accounts of sealing expeditions to Plettenberg Bay, elephant hunts, visiting ships and visitors. Among the visitors were governors of the Cape, the earl of Caledon, and Lord Charles Somerset.
The latter was once accompanied by Dr James Barry. Interestingly, Dr Barry delivered general James Barry Hertzog, later prime minister of the Union of SA. Hence Hertzog’s first names.
The book describes Rex as a man of "great dignity", but burdened with secret sorrows, perhaps of unfulfilled ambitions.
He used to wander in the solitude of his garden, "hands behind his back", carrying on conversations with imaginary people from his past, answering them aloud: "No, no Your Grace, I cannot agree with you." At other times: "Yes, Your Royal Highness, I think I can do that."
Rex must have had many friends in England. Once a group came to visit him at Knysna. The ship, an East India vessel, anchored off the coast at Knysna. A boat bringing his friends ashore capsized in the heavy swell. Every person on the boat drowned. Rex personally buried them.
However, he then set out to convince the admiralty that Knysna could be a safe harbour and carried out a number of surveys and proved his supposition.
He later built a vessel of his own out of stinkwood and teak, the 140t Knysna. It explored the coastline between Cape Town and Durban and became the first ship to enter the Buffalo River. John Rex, who commanded the ship, named the lagoon Port Rex. It was later renamed East London, and the name Port Rex was forgotten.
George Rex died in April 1839. The people of Knysna walked in pouring rain to attend his funeral, some journeying for 20 miles.
One of the tributes was that Rex left behind a tradition of kindliness and courage "worthy of a king, not of a great country but only of a small wild corner of SA".
• See the online collectable book auction at www.jellyfishtree.com