Have a look at Katja’s post on the colourful KKNK.

Oudtshoorn is a small town in the Klein Karoo that has been the world’s foremost producer of ostrich products for almost its entire history. This article takes a peek at the history of Oudtshoorn.

The first Dutch settlers arrived in 1750 and quickly developed a productive farming industry. After the better part of a century (and the conquest of the Cape Colony from the Dutch by the British), a Dutch Reformed church was established alongside the Grobbelaars River on the land of one of the local farmers, serving as a hub for life in the region.

Ten years later, in 1848 the town of Oudtshoorn was officially founded around the church. It was a difficult region to live in, as water was too scarce to provide for all inhabitants: water had to be imported and sold by the barrel. It was another 16 years before things started to look up for Oudtshoorn: The Ostrich Boom was kicking off.

Ostriches

Ostrich eggs, meat, and plumage have been in use by humans since the Pleistocene era – before recorded history. The eggs are enormous and packed with protein, and the shells make very good containers for water. The meat is lean and rich, comparable to a much less fatty beef or mutton. And the plumage is… fancy-looking.

This last point, as it turns out, is incredibly important. Nobility around the world has just about always had a thing for looking good and spending a lot of money doing it, and ostrich feathers had always been in moderate demand.

In the mid-19th century though, a craze began among the European nobility for ever more extravagant ostrich-feather garments. This happened to coincide with the first successful attempts to domesticate ostriches in the little town of Oudtshoorn, leading to…

The Boom

From 1864 onwards Ostrich feathers were exported in ever greater numbers from the Cape Colony, and Oudtshoorn in particular. The population rose sharply as people 

flocked to the growing economic hub, and around 1875 an auction saw ostrich feathers selling at £1000 per pound. That’s about £114 000 in today’s money.

Needless to say, ostrich farming made Oudtshoorn very rich during this time. They even managed to finally finish the church the town had been founded around, 40 years after it was opened! However, the good times were not to last. Overproduction lead to sudden a price collapse in 1885, and severe flooding hit the town the same year.

It wasn’t the end of the town, but the ostrich industry took a long time to recover through the years of the second Anglo-Boer War (1899 to 1902). Oudtshoorn managed to avoid being involved in any of the fighting, and by the end of the war the ostrich industry was seeing a rise in fortunes again.

The Boom (again)

While prices never quite reached their earlier highs, the end of the second Anglo-Boer War saw the beginning of an even bigger boom as the trend for ostrich feathers picked up steam once again.

This period saw the rise of the “feather barons,” ostrich farmers made fabulously wealthy by the resurgence of ostrich-based fashion. The feather barons built numerous “feather palaces” with their newfound wealth: opulent mansions that continue to draw tourists to Oudtshoorn today.

The town’s fortune rose higher and higher, with prices peaking in 1913. Sadly, fashionable trinkets and luxurious garments were about to take a sharp dip in popularity: 1914 saw the start of the First World War.

This, combined with overproduction and the popularity of open-topped cars (the hats would blow away, you see) led to a second sudden crash in the market. Most ostrich farmers were bankrupted.

To the present

Between the World Wars Oudtshoorn suffered badly, seeing mass emigration and a 90% reduction in the ostrich population.

However, the end of the Second World War resulted in a sudden opening of markets for ostrich meat and leather, allowing the town to recover slowly through the Cold War.

In the 2000s, sporadic bird flu outbreaks cost the town dearly in revenue, jobs, and birds: R700 million from 2004 to 2005 and R1,2 billion from 2011 to 2012. However, even after culling 50 000 birds between 2011 and 2013 there were over 200 000 ostriches in Oudtshoorn, making it by far the largest population in the world.

The town was also the subject of a political crisis in 2013 when the African National Congress refused to relinquish power after being officially ousted in the municipal elections. A string of corruption, financial mismanagement, and fraud charges were laid at the feet of the local ANC leaders, who voiced their vehement opposition.

What followed was more than a year of intense protests and legal battles, during which the Cango Cave fund was siphoned to pay for ANC legal costs. Fortunately, the ANC was eventually forced out of the municipality without bloodshed.

Despite all these calamities, despite ostrich feathers being little more than a curio today, and despite international competition, Oudtshoorn remains the Ostrich Capital of the World — South Africa accounting for 80% of all ostrich products, and Oudtshoorn out-producing the rest of South Africa put together. Not bad for a town of little over 60 000.