A short, short story (with notes) by Martin Hatchuel

They say that Phantom Pass, which runs from the Knysna River over to Rheenendal, is named not for a phantom, but for a moth: the phantom moth, or. as it’s most beautifully known to science, Letho venus.

But the French explorer and naturalist, Francois le Vaillant, spent six months in the Knysna district in 1782, recording all its most important natural phenomena – and if the phantom moth is so well known, why did he never describe it?

And why doesn’t it appear in other texts from the early nineteenth century?

Could it be because the phantom moth didn’t exist before 1881?

Victoria Esposito was said to have been the most beautiful of the silk spinners at Gouna. And the silk spinners at Gouna were a group of about forty Italian silk farmers who were brought to this country in 1881 by the British Government in the hope that they would create a silk industry from the wild mulberries which, according to the Honourable Henry Frederick Francis Adair Barrington – a wealthy farmer in the Knysna District – grew aplenty in the Knysna Forests. But Barrington’s research had been (to be polite) scant, and, of course, South Africa’s wild mulberry – Trimeria grandiflora – bears no resemblance at all to the real mulberry – Morus alba – upon which the silkworm prefers to feed.

And because of this fussiness on the part of one tiny worm, the silk spinners were stranded without work or means of working. And, with the government embarrassed by their presence and Barrington disinterested in their plight, they found themselves left to rot in their clearing in the Knysna forest.

Incensed by official inaction, the proud and beautiful Victoria appears to have borrowed one of Barrington’s horses (without asking for it, of course), planning to ride to Knysna, where she’d find a ship that would take everyone home.

Victoria rode out on a stormy night in September (a month not normally associated with bad weather), her path lit only by the lightning which tore at the sky.

As terrified as its rider, the horse bolted and Victoria was unable to do anything more than cling to its neck and hope.

But lightning struck just as the pair came up onto the high ground at the edge of the forest at the very top of the Pass.

It was a direct hit and the girl and the horse were killed instantly – but the power of the girl’s beauty was so great that, instead of transforming to ash, their bodies were transformed into moths.

Exquisite brown and grey moths which appear again and again each year in spring; each one of them with Victoria’s soulful, baleful eyes etched forever on its wings.



In May 1881 a group of Italian silk spinners disembarked at Knysna’s Town Jetty. They had with them an Englishman, William Christie, who acted as their interpreter.

The Hon. Henry Francis Adair Barrington, of Portland, about 10 km outside Knysna on the Garden Route Coast, had persuaded the Colonial Government to arrange for them to be recruited, and the Government had paid for them to emigrate to the Cape Colony.

Barrington had done this because he thought he could start a silk industry in the area. Apparently he based his proposal to the Government on received information that Knysna Forest (which is still the largest stand of Afro-montane forest in South Africa) contained large numbers of mulberries trees. In truth, these ‘mulberries’ (Trimeria grandiflora, in Afrikaans wildemoerbei, and in Xhosa umNqabane) aren’t even remotely related to the white (or edible) mulberry – Morus alba – whose leaves are the only things on which silkworms feed. While the leaf of the wild mulberry looks a little like that of the edible mulberry, the fruit (which is borne only female plants) is a small, brown, dry capsule – and not a berry at all. (In the early days of the Cape Colony, the wood was used in wagon-building, but it’s very rarely available today.)

The Italians came to the Cape – and Knysna – believing that they were going to work for the Government, and that all the amenities and infrastructure that they needed were to be provided for them. But when they got here they were literally dumped at Gouna (which is situated deep in the forest – even today it takes half an hour or more to drive there from Knysna), and all they received was a Government rations subsidy for the first six months of their stay.

Each family was also allotted about 20 acres of unimproved land – but no tools or any kind of help to get them started.

Only Christie championed their cause. The local magistrate, an apparently imperious individual named Jackson (who is said to have ruled the town mercilessly), and the people of Knysna (including Barrington, who had initiated the plan to bring them here) completely ignored them and their problems.

Christie fought unfailingly and often fanatically on the Italians’  behalf, but after a year he couldn’t stand it any longer, and he eventually returned to England. In 1882 he wrote to the Colonial Secretary, The Earl of Kimberley, and told him the whole story. It was a final attempt, but it had no effect, and the immigrants were on their own.

Eventually (and with great difficulty, as they were a non-English speaking Catholics in an English speaking Protestant colony) those who stayed behind integrated into Knysna’s community, and some of their families are living here still.

Their story was made famous by Dalene Matthee in her novel Moerbeibos (Mulberry Forest).

By the way: a silk industry wasn’t Barrington’s only grand scheme. It seems he also tried (unsuccessfully) to farm with honey, and to start commercial cider production in an area in which apples don’t grow very well at all.

He was also credited with starting the Great Fire of 1869 – although his descendents still dispute this.

From what I’ve read, though, it seems he decided to burn his lands on the 7th of February of that year – after a month of unrelenting drought and heat (February is generally the hottest month in the Garden Route).

The fire is said to have raged quickly out of control, and the devastation it caused was immense. By the 9th it had spread as far as George (about 50 km to the west) and Humansdorp (about 170 km to the east) – where 20 homesteads were gutted, and 27 people lost their lives. Much wildlife and live stock was destroyed, as were many hectares of forest and farmland. Portland itself was burned to the ground, and the harbour town of Knysna was only saved when the wind shifted to the west at the very last moment.

According to some environmentalists, the fire wiped out the grasslands of the region, and this was one of the factors which drove the famous Knysna elephants deep into the forests of the area, where they’ve lived ever since. They remain the only herd of elephants in South Africa that roam free – that is, outside a fenced game reserve – although the area they inhabit does form part of the Garden Route National Park. But it’s an unfenced ‘community’ park.

Barrington eventually rebuilt Portland Manor, and it’s had quite a chequered career: but now it’s a countrified guest house – with a resident late night visitor, of course.