WOOL OF MERINO SHEEP and ANGORA GOATS : local background
How did the wool industry in South Africa begin? When the Portuguese sailors were trying to find the sea route to India in the 1400’s they often sailed closer to the African coast looking for safe inlets, fresh water and perhaps meat. The Khoisan would sometimes be seen with their fat tailed sheep and oxen. Bartering would be attempted not always successfully. Later when the European settlers arrived at the Cape they would come to realise after closer contact with fat tailed sheep, that their wool was not suitable for knitting purposes, it was too coarse. Although women in the middle east from where this breed of sheep is said to have originated, did use the wool to make rugs.
Five years after the 1652 settlement ten wool sheep arrived at the Cape but unfortunately breeding was a failure. But in 1789 Colonel R J Gordon, at the time the military commander at the Cape, had obtained six merino sheep from King William of the Netherlands. These had come from Spain as a gift to the house of Orange. But the animals did not thrive in the colder climate so were sent to the Cape as an experiment to see if the local weather would suit them. However, it was stressed that they belonged to King William and had, at some stage, to be returned to the Netherlands. The original sheep were, in time, returned but those born locally were kept at the Cape. In 1806 politics changed life at the Cape when the British attacked the Colony and took it over from the Batavian Republic. Gordon died. His wife left the Cape and sold some merinos to an Australian ship’s captain, This would be the beginning of the Australian merino experiment. Still the Cape did have the sheep that they had not returned to the Netherlands. Slowly this particular sheep with its wool so suitable for knitting purposes, grew in numbers.
Time rolled on, more settlers arrived in 1820 settling mostly in the Eastern Cape and possibly brought with them knowledge of sheep caring and breeding. The voortrekkers offended by British rule began to leave the Cape moving inland . As early as 1831 an “Association for the Encouragement of Merino Sheep Breeding and the production of Wool Export” was founded in Cape Town. With this encouragement the sheep available spread to other parts of the country and the wool industry began to grow.
In 1838 the wool industry received an important event when some Angora goats landed at Port Elizabeth. The reason is not quite clear but it seems they were possibly sent from the Sultan of Turkey maybe as a means of showing a product for future business transactions. All of the rams were found to be sterile but the one female shortly thereafter gave birth. Once the value of the Angora mohair wool was realized many more were imported to the Cape with much success especially when the wool became popular in the fashion world.
Unfortunately while both the Merino and Agora industries were commercial assets, they were not without problems. The local economy went through a period of depression, drought caused difficulties and the second World War did not help the business. Still these eventually improved and the wool industry continued to thrive.