Timber and Trees: Aspects of the History of Forestry in South Africa

By Jane Carruthers FRSSAf

‘Sustainability’ has become a buzzword with multiple interpretations in our Age of the Anthropocene. What may have been the first published reference to ‘sustainability’ (Nachhaltigkeit) came from forestry and from Saxon aristocrat Hans Carl von Carlowitz in 1713. In charge of the silver mines of Saxony, he required enormous amounts of charcoal to mine and smelt the ore. In his book, Sylvicultura Oeconomic, Von Carlowitz expounded on how ‘the feared wood shortage [might be] replaced little by little by the growth and rejuvenation of young wood’. At a time when timber was vital not only as a source of fuel, but also for building ships, storage barrels, housing, and had many other uses, linking ‘sustainability’ with fear of scarcity was widespread in Europe as development of all kinds relied on the abundance of trees.

Dutch East India Company timbershed Plettenberg Bay 1786-1795

Foresters have often been in the forefront of the ‘wise use’ philosophy, considering trees to be a renewable resource that can be harvested and replanted at intervals. Professional forestry developed slowly in South Africa and did so initially in the British colonies of the Cape and Natal, modelled on other parts of the Empire like India, Mauritius, and Australia. Forestry had vacillating government interest in the various regions of South Africa before Union in 1910 (and indeed, thereafter), sometimes falling within the colonial departments of agriculture, sometimes standing alone, or – in the case of colonial Natal – even being placed in the Surveyor-General’s office. In the arid and generally treeless environment of South Africa, forestry veered between supporting and extending the plantation industry and protecting local indigenous forests. Because forestry can encompass botany, mycology, soil science, hydrology, and economics, these different disciplines have at various times been more important than others to policy-makers.

            In 1847, a Conservator of Forests and four forest rangers – all of them untrained — were appointed in the Cape for the southern forests and eventually, four regional forest conservancy districts came into being. Then, in 1881 (after Responsible Government in 1872), a Forestry Service was established for the colony as a whole. A ‘Superintendent of Woods and Forests’ was appointed to head the Service. He was Count Médéric de Vasselot de Régné (1837-1919), a professional trained at the famous École nationale des eaux et forêts in Nancy, Lorraine. For the first time, a sound colonial silvicultural policy was initiated in South Africa. De Vasselot published two important, and influential, papers before he left the Cape in 1892. After the South African War (1899-1902) ended and the region came under British control, foresters from the Cape department filled positions in the Transvaal and Orange River Colony, and after Union in 1910, a national Department of Forestry was established within the Department of Agriculture.

            It is correct that early foresters were named ‘conservators’ because although ‘preservation/protection’ and ‘conservation’ are often used interchangeably and loosely, they express different values. Conservation is the management and utilisation of any resource in such a way as to ensure its perpetuation – ‘wise use’ or managing for sustainability. Preservation, by contrast, is the prevention of all active interference in managing the resource – an attempt to protect, and to maintain unchanged. The matter was vigorously debated in the early 20th century. Conservation was strongly associated with forestry in the USA, particularly through the influential Chief Forester, Gifford Pinchot. The national park movement (‘protected areas’), championed by John Muir, emerged from the preservation ethos. The dichotomy between these resource philosophies was aired in 1908 at a White House conference convened by US President Theodore Roosevelt. Preservation was argued to be a romantic approach to the natural world and concerned with diminishing wilderness. Conservation, by contrast, was the rallying cry of the progressives, with economic growth through ‘wise use’ as its guiding rationale.

            The first article on forestry to appear in the Transactions of the South African Philosophical Society (forerunner of the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa) was by David E. Hutchins (later Sir David), a Nancy trained forester, and entitled ‘The Cape National Forests’ (Vol 2, No. 1, 1900). Hutchins was only one of South Africa’s outstanding foresters, a fervent promoter of planting eucalypts to augment the paucity of timber in South Africa. Other renowned foresters include Thomas R. Sim (author of the magisterial pioneering book The Forests and Forest Flora of the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope (Aberdeen, 1907) and contributor to the Transactions of the South African Philosophical Society in 1905, but he was, apparently, more botanist than forester. John S. Henkel, son of an Eastern Cape forest conservator; Charles Lane Poole, also Nancy trained, who joined the Transvaal Forestry Department in 1907 under Charles Legat, should also be mentioned. At that time, as Lane Poole observed, ‘forestry was swept up in an enterprise to reconstruct South Africa after the Anglo-Boer War and keep it safe and loyal within the British Empire’. Joseph Storr-Lister is another well-known figure in early South African professional forestry, but there have been many others who contributed substantially to the discipline over the years.

            One of these was Christiaan L. Wicht, chairman of a Royal Society committee of Fellows comprising two foresters (himself and Henkel), two botanists (R.S. Adamson and R.H. Compton) and an entomologist (S.H. Skaife). Initially referred to as the ‘veld-burning committee’, the 1945 Committee report was not a forestry report, but had a far wider brief, presenting an overview of the ecology of the Cape flora and advocating its protection. It is pleasing to note that a follow-up to this report was published in the Transactions in 2016, through a substantial research article with many co-authors under the overall direction of lead author Brian van Wilgen, a forester-ecologist himself and Fellow of the Society. This major contribution – ‘Ecological research and conservation management in the Cape Floristic Region between 1945 and 2015: History, current understanding and future challenges’ – takes a broad perspective by outlining the changing threats to, and the changing understanding of, and management of, the fynbos flora since the 1940s.

            The employment of foresters educated at the school of forestry in Nancy has already been mentioned. Wicht, by contrast, but in common with others, received his training at Oxford and at what had been the Royal Saxon Academy of Forestry at Tharandt, near Dresden. (Wicht’s research topic was on the methodology of tree-thinning experiments.)

Forestry School at Tokai

Local forestry education began in South Africa in 1906 when the South African College (SACS) in Cape Town (a constituent college of the University of Good Hope), began a formal course in conjunction with the Tokai Arboretum and Plantation with Hutchins in charge as professor of forestry. When it opened, there were seven students, five from the Cape and one each from the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony. Training comprised one year at SACS and one year at Tokai. Bennett has recounted the history of this school of forestry, the first in the southern hemisphere and one that, unusually, focussed on the encouragement and planting of exotic tree species. For many reasons the Tokai experiment foundered and closed in 1911. Only in 1932 did the University of Stellenbosch institute a degree in forestry, although there were apprenticeship courses within the department itself at Saasveld, Cedara and elsewhere.

            South African forestry has been slow to emerge as a field of research among professional historians, and there is no Forest History Society (FHS) here as there is in the USA. The FHS – professionally staffed and funded generously by lumber and paper companies as well as by individual memberships – is located near Duke University in North Carolina and affiliated with it. The FHS is an outstanding resource, with rich manuscript holdings, a vast library, and it produces an array of publications ranging from academic to popular. However, it is gratifying to observe that the scholarly literature about South African forestry is growing (see references below). One of the major contributors to in-depth studies in recent years was Frederick Kruger, who died tragically in May 2017. Fred, a Member of the Royal Society, and a former director of the South African Forestry Research Institute, and also of the CSIR’s Division of Forest Science and Technology, was both mentoring and working with professional historians in many productive research areas. His extensive knowledge and experience will be sorely missed.

Bennett, B.M. and Kruger, F.J., ‘Ecology, forestry and the debate over exotic trees in South Africa’, Journal of Historical Geography 42, 2013, pp.100-109.
Bennett, B.M. and Kruger, F.J., Forestry + Water Conservation in South Africa; History, Science + Policy. Canberra: ANU Press, 2015.
Bennett, B.M., ‘Naturalising Australian trees in South Africa: Climate, exotics and experimentation’, (opens in new window)Journal of Southern African Studies 37(2), 2011, pp.265-80.
Bennett, B.M., ‘The rise and demise of South Africa’s first school of forestry’, (opens in new window)Environment and History 19(1), 2013, pp.63-85.
Brown, K., ‘The conservation and utilisation of the natural world: Silviculture in the Cape Colony, c.1902-1910’, Environment and History 7(4), 2001, pp.427-447.
Grove, R., ‘Early themes in African conservation: The Cape in the nineteenth century’, in Anderson, D. and Grove, R., eds, Conservation in Africa: People, Policies and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp.21-39.
Hutchins, D.E., ‘Forestry in South Africa’, in Flint, W. and Gilchrist, J.D.F., eds, Science in South Africa: A Handbook and Review, Prepared under the Auspices of the South African Governments and the South African Association for the Advancement of Science. Cape Town, Pretoria and Bulawayo, T. Maskew Miller, 1905, pp.391-413.
McCracken, D.M., ‘The indigenous forests of colonial Natal and Zululand’, Natalia 16, 1986, pp.19-38.
Van Wilgen, B.W., Carruthers, J., Cowling, R.M. et al., ‘Ecological research and conservation management in the Cape Floristic Region between 1945 and 2015: History, current understanding and future challenges’, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 71(3), 2016, pp.207-303.
Von Carlowitz, H.C., Sylvicultura Oeconomic oder Haußwirthliche Machricht und Naturmäßige Anweisung zur wilden Baum-Zucht. Leipzig: Johann Friedrich Braun, 1713.
Witt, H., ‘“Clothing the once bare brown hills of Natal”: The origin and development of wattle growing in Natal, 1860–1960’, South African Historical Journal, 53(1), 2005, pp.99-122.
Witt, H., ‘Indigenous trees and forests: Contradictions, conflict and conservation in Natal and Zululand (1900-1960)’, Environment and History 22, 2016, pp.319-49.
Witt, H., ‘The role of alien trees in South African forestry and conservation: Early 20th century research and debate on climate change, soil erosion and hydrology’, Journal of Southern African Studies 40(6), 2014, pp.1193-1214.
Witt, H., ‘Trees, forests and plantations: An economic, social and environmental study of Natal, 1890-1960’. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Natal, Durban, 1998.