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How fleecing a king won a wool dynasty

A spot of quick thinking four hundred years ago began South Africa's wool dynasty. With a little help from a conquering army, the good fortune spread to Australia, helping her become the world's top wool producing nation.

The first sheep at the Cape were owned by a local Hottentot tribe, which supplied meat for the East Indies Shipping Company at the Cape. The Dutch administration was not happy with the supplier for many reasons, but mainly because they were so unreliable. The tribe often wandered away without notice, taking their flocks with them, and would simply vanish for months on end.

There were other problems too. Sheep sold during the day often went missing during the night. The nomadic farmers of course, denied any involvement. The local breed was an inferior animal. It provided sufficient milk and meat, but the wool was coarse, and generally poor in quality.

Towards the end of the 17th Century, six merino sheep arrived at the Cape by ship. The exporting papers for them were surprisingly incomplete. There was some dispute about whether they should be landed in Africa, or continue on their way to Holland. Officials found a reference to the Dutch King in the papers. The optimistic garrison administration recognized the sheep as a valuable breed. They decided the animals were there as a gift from the Dutch king, and obviously a present for their officers.

Communications were not exactly speedy in those days, and it took two years for the king to correct the misunderstanding over his generosity. A gift! No-one was going to pull the wool over his royal eyes. The animals were actually on their way to him, not from him. They must be sent onwards on the next sailing ship.

Fortunately for the wool trade of Africa and Australia, the garrison followed the message to the letter. Six merino sheep went to Holland, leaving behind quite a flock of their progeny.

When the British occupied the Cape, Redcoats commandeered the merino flocks. Many were sold to ships bound for Australia, and these animals began the great Australian wool trade.

Meanwhile, many were spirited away from the occupying army, and taken inland to begin a huge merino wool industry. South Africa is now the fifth largest wool producing country and, with Australia provides 80 per cent of the world's wool.


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