The Boy Travelers - Africa by Thomas W. Knox Boy Travelers-Africa by Thomas W. Knox    

Chapter 30: South Africa - English Colonies and Ostrich Farming.

lesson image
Emigrating to the South African Wilderness

Frank determined not to be outdone by Fred in describing parts of Africa which they were not likely to visit in their journey. At the first opportunity he opened their limited store of books and proceeded to inform himself concerning South Africa, or that part of the continent between the twentieth parallel of south latitude and the Cape of Good Hope. A day's careful reading gave him a good stock of knowledge, which he promptly conveyed to his cousin.

"It isn't a very dark region," said he, "as it has been settled and colonized, and has a good many marks of civilization. It has railways and stage lines, telegraphs and newspapers, hotels and factories, together with many other things you would hardly expect to find. It was once a fine hunting ground for the great game of Africa, but at present the wild animals are difficult to find, as the most of them have been killed or driven off.

"Cumming, Anderson, Baldwin, and others have given us accounts of their adventures. Some of their stories convey the impression that the country was once so thickly inhabited by wild beasts that it was impossible to take a walk before breakfast without encountering a lion or an elephant, a rhinoceros or a giraffe. That happy time is gone forever, and the greater part of South Africa is delivered from the dangers that made it so fascinating to the lovers of destruction.

"To begin with," continued the youthful historian, "the most important part of South Africa is Cape Colony, better known to us as the Cape of Good Hope."

"It is important, I suppose," remarked Fred, "because it was settled before any other part of that end of the continent, and contains the greatest population."

"Exactly so," responded Frank; "it was settled by the Dutch about 1650, and, with the exception of a few years, remained in their possession until 1806, when it fell into the hands of the English. At that time it had an area of one hundred and twenty thousand square miles, and a population of sixty-one thousand. Now it covers an area of three hundred thousand square miles, with a population of more than a million, according to the figures in Silver's 'Handbook for South Africa' and other works."

Fred asked how it happened that the area of the colony had increased so much since the English obtained possession of it.
Scene in the South African Diamond Mines

"Thereby hangs a tale," replied Frank, "and it is to some extent a tale of British oppression and cruelty. Previous to the English occupation of the Cape, the colonists consisted of Dutch and French emigrants and their descendants. The former were known as Boers, from the Dutch word boer, a peasant, while the latter were mostly Huguenots, who had fled to escape religious persecution. They were never reconciled to the British rule, and in the year 1835 there was a general movement for emigrating to the wilderness and founding a republic of their own.

"They sold their farms, and with their cattle and household goods moved to the north of the Orange River and founded an independent colony, making for themselves new homes in the wilderness. A few years later, when their colony was fairly established, it was 'annexed' by the English. Again the Boers emigrated, and again they were annexed, and the same process was again repeated."

"The nation that proclaims itself the champion of freedom was evidently opposed to the practice of it on the part of others," said Fred, as his cousin paused a moment in his story.

"Yes," was the response; "it seems to me, and I believe a good many Englishmen are of the same opinion, that the conduct of the British government in its South African policy has been most tyrannical and utterly regardless of the rights of humankind. Ever since the beginning of the century, it has oppressed the Boers, and refused to allow them to found colonies of their own. It has made war upon them time and again, for the sole offence of seeking their independence by emigration. In the recent troubles known as the 'Transvaal War,' the Boers defended themselves bravely, and secured the admiration of the whole world. Their foes were compelled to admit the valor of the people who fought in defense of their rights, and a sentiment rapidly gained ground in England that the government was engaged in an unjust campaign."

"It was to a certain extent a repetition of the story of the American colonies, and the war that led to their independence," said Fred.

"In some of its features that was the case, but the result has been that England has gradually assumed control over all the region of South Africa. It has appropriated the Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State, and the Boers have probably learned by this time that further migration is useless. Some of the annexations have been under the pretense of a popular vote of the inhabitants; but the voting has generally been managed in such a way as to remind me of the story of the Western town in America that took its census one day when a large excursion party was there. It was thus enabled, by including all the excursionists, to show a large population. The English have managed to confine the voting to the mining districts and the towns where Englishmen were congregated, while the scattered farmers had no chance to express their opinions.

"We'll drop the political question and take a glance at the country," continued Frank. "In Cape Colony there are four main lines of railway, one of them more than three hundred miles long, and another is under construction. The colony of Natal has a line of railway of its own, and they are building an iron road to connect the capital of the Transvaal with the ocean. Before the end of the century South Africa will have lost all the characteristics of the African continent, and be much like the settled portions of the United States. The exploits of Cumming and Anderson are as impossible there at present as are those of Daniel Boone and Kit Carson in our own land.

"Look at the map," said he as he spread it before his cousin, "and see how much it resembles that of a group of our own States." They spent half an hour or more in pointing out real or fancied similarities as their eyes ran over the outlines of the colonies and their numerous subdivisions. Fred was amused with many of the names of towns and districts, and Frank explained that they were mostly given by the Boers, and indicated how much those energetic colonists had been concerned in the settlement and development of the country.
Driving a Flock of Ostriches

"Here is Pietermaritzburg," said Frank, "the chief town of Natal. It is compounded of the names of two famous Boer leaders in the struggle for independence—Pieter Retief and Gert Maritz. And here is Potscherfstroom, in Transvaal, a town which is intended to commemorate three popular men among the Boers, by taking a syllable from each of their names. They were Potgieter, Scherf, and Stockenstroom."

"You can go on through the colonies," said he, "and find many names of similar origin. Everywhere that you traverse the country and enter the house of a Boer you will be hospitably welcomed, as soon as it is known you are not an Englishman; and you will find the host and his family plain, honest, pious, and industrious. Of course, there are exceptions; but they only, like exceptions everywhere, serve to prove the rule. The Boers have morning and evening devotions, and many of the families are in possession of the Bibles that their ancestors brought from Europe one or two hundred years ago.

"South Africa is an agricultural and grazing region, and there are some curious facts connected with the growth of its industries. Seventy years ago the Governor of Cape Town threw two wagon loads of wool into the sea, because there was no use for it. At present the value of the wool annually exported from Cape Colony is nearly twenty million dollars. Diamonds were discovered in 1868 on the banks of the Vaal River, and afterward in several other districts, and since then the diamond mines have attracted a great many people. The production has been so great that the diamond market of the world has been seriously affected. The precious stones have diminished considerably in value, but, fortunately for the owners of Brazilian and East Indian diamonds, those from South Africa are nearly all of them 'off color.'"

"What do you mean by 'off color?'" Fred asked.

"Why," was the reply, "I mean that they are rather 'on color.' The best diamonds are pure white, but nearly all of those from Africa have a yellowish tint, which greatly reduces their value. The stones from Brazil and India are of 'first water,' or colorless, and consequently their value has not materially suffered; but the case is different with yellow stones, which have lost three-fourths of their value since the African fields were opened. It is said there was quite a panic among the diamond owners when they saw what immense numbers of the stones came from Africa, and some of them predicted that diamonds would become as common as garnets or amethysts in a very few years.

"Another discovery of South Africa is the ostrich."
The Ostrich and its Huntress

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Fred. "The ostrich was known long before the English went to that country, and long before an Englishman ever existed. I believe it is mentioned in the Bible."

"You didn't hear me through," said Frank. "I was going to say that the discovery of the possibility of domesticating ostriches and raising them, as we raise sheep or cattle, was made in South Africa."

"How was that?"

"Down to about twenty years ago ostriches were only known in a wild state, with the exception of a few that were held in menageries or otherwise kept as curiosities. Ostrich farming had been tried in Algeria, but with only partial success, and not to any great extent. The ostrich feathers which are so much prized, and sell for high figures, were obtained by hunting the wild birds in their desert homes.

"Two hundred years ago these birds were so abundant in South Africa that they were often seen within a few miles of Cape Town, and a hunter could be reasonably certain of all the sport he wanted by going a few miles into the country. The colonization of the region has caused their disappearance, and anybody who wants them in a wild state must go to the deserts north of the Orange River, or to other unsettled portions of the continent.

"The chase of the wild ostrich is now almost entirely in the hands of the aboriginals. The feathers obtained in this way are bought by traders, who go into the wilderness carrying such goods as the natives will accept. These they barter for the precious feathers, and when they have finished their traffic they return to the settlements with their valuable commodity."

"Ostrich feathers command a high price," said Fred, "and I suppose the dealers find their trade very profitable."

"So they do," Frank replied; "but the wild feathers are growing scarcer every year, and the traders do not confine themselves to buying them to the exclusion of everything else. A trader starts off with perhaps half a dozen wagons laden with guns, powder, blankets, beads, wire, knives, and other goods that meet the approval of the native. On his return the wagons are filled with ivory, hippopotamus teeth, rhinoceros horns, and a varied lot of skins of wild animals, in addition to ostrich feathers. Sometimes a single wagon load will be valued at fifty thousand dollars, and the larger the quantity of ostrich feathers the greater is its value."

Fred asked how the feathers were sold, and what was the standard of their value.

"They are carefully sorted according to their quality, and then sold by weight. Of course, the price varies, like that of any other merchandise, and the business has its ups and downs, like everything else. The finest feathers are sometimes sold for three hundred dollars a pound, and two hundred dollars may be considered a fair price for a first-class article. The plumes from chickens sell for two or three dollars a pound. Between the highest and lowest prices, you see, there is a very wide range."

"And you say the people at the Cape raise ostriches now as they would raise horses or sheep, do you?" Fred inquired.
Hunting Under Disadvantages

"Certainly I do," was the reply. "Ostrich farming has become a regular business, and a good many men have made fortunes by it. The first experiments were made in 1862. Three years later there were eighty tame ostriches in Cape Colony, and from that time the business grew very rapidly. In 1875 there were about fifty thousand birds in the hands of the farmers of South Africa, and five years later the number had more than doubled. It began in Cape Colony, and has spread through Natal, Transvaal, and the Orange River district, and has become a regular industry, like sheep or cattle raising. The profits are very great, and attempts are now being made to introduce ostrich farming into the United States."

Fred asked how the farmers obtained the feathers from the captive birds.

"Very easily," Frank answered. "In the old way of hunting the ostrich, it was necessary to kill the bird in order to obtain the feathers, and thus he yielded only a single crop. Under the present system the feathers are cut off when 'ripe,' and new ones grow in their places. These are cut off in time, and year after year fresh harvests are made, until the bird is too old to produce more. The first crop is taken when the bird is a year and a half old, and is worth about twenty dollars. After that time the annual yield of a bird is from forty to fifty dollars, and he continues to produce feathers until he is eighteen or twenty years old."

"Very profitable stock to have on hand," said Fred. "But how does the ostrich like to have his feathers taken from him?"

"At first, he didn't like it, as they were 'plucked' or pulled out with pincers. At present the 'plucking' process has been abandoned for that of cutting, which is quite painless. The birds are driven into a yard, and the keeper goes among them with a pair of nippers, with which he severs the feathers about two inches from the base. When the birds are crowded close together they do not know what is being done, and stand quite still while the cutting is performed. If there are only a few of them it is necessary to throw a bag over the one that is being operated on, and he is then unable to make any opposition, or, at all events, he makes none. Three or four months after the feather has been cut the stump falls out, or can be easily removed, and then a new feather grows in its place."

Here the Doctor joined in the conversation, as Frank showed signs of nearing the end of his stock of knowledge. He informed the youths that not only was cutting preferable to plucking, on account of its painlessness, but also because the feathers that were afterward produced were of a better quality. The new feathers that grew after plucking were apt to be twisted and distorted, so that they were greatly reduced in value, while those that grew after the other method were always well formed. If the farmers were not induced to follow the new system out of humanity to the bird, they were sure to be with regard to their pockets.
What Fred Hoped For

"The tame ostriches run in pastures, under the care of native boys," continued Doctor Bronson, "very much as sheep or cattle would under similar circumstances. They want plenty of space, good food—but not too much of it—and must be driven to shelter from severe storms. A very small fence will keep them in bounds, and they will thrive on a soil altogether too barren for cattle or sheep. A great deal of land formerly regarded as worthless is now found highly profitable as a home for the ostrich herds."

"Now, Fred," said the Doctor, "take a scrap of paper and figure up the profits of an ostrich farm." Fred prepared himself with materials for calculation, and the results caused his eyes to open with astonishment.

"Let us start with a pair of birds three years old," said the Doctor, "and see how we come out in ten years.

"Our birds at that age will lay about twenty eggs, and then proceed to hatch them. For the hatching process they require forty-two days—exactly twice as long as the common hen—and they take turns in sitting on the eggs. There is the same uncertainty with ostriches as with other birds in counting chickens before they are hatched, but we can fairly hope to get ten chickens from twenty eggs. The ostrich raises two broods in a year, so that at the end of the year we have twenty chickens. Next year twenty more, or ten pairs a year from the old birds, and so on, year after year. Then when the chicks are three years old they have broods of their own, and then—"

Fred said he must take time to figure up the state of affairs at the end of ten years, and as the supply of paper was limited he wisely paused for the present. Any boy who chooses may make the calculation and easily figure out a fortune for himself and all his partners in the enterprise. Before Fred was through with the calculation he had determined to emigrate to the Cape and become an ostrich farmer; or, better still, he would buy a few thousand acres of land in Arizona, where the country was said to be admirably adapted to this new and highly profitable industry.

Doctor Bronson dampened his ardor a little by telling him the ostrich had many enemies, in a domestic as well as in a wild state. "The hyena, wild cat, and fox," said he, "have a loving tooth for the egg of the ostrich, and will often drive the bird from its nest, so that they may feed on its contents. Crows will drop stones into a nest when the bird is away for a few moments. This was formerly supposed to be a fiction, but its correctness has been verified by several observers. The crow seizes a round pebble from a brook or other place, poises himself over the nest, and then drops the stone with an accuracy that rarely misses its object. He follows to the ground immediately after the stone to make a feast on the broken egg.
The Ostrich's Natural Enemy

"Hawks kill the young chicks, and the birds, old and young, suffer from various diseases, most of them caused by improper care."

"That is true," said Fred. "My ostrich eggs shall be hatched artificially. Natural incubation occupies a period of six weeks."

"That's so," chimed in Frank; "the farmers at the Cape use incubators, invented by Mr. Arthur Douglas. Not only do they get more chickens from a given number of eggs, but they get three broods a year instead of two."

"Hurrah!" said Fred, "three broods in place of two; and, besides, we can defy the crows, and the hyena and his kindred, who rob the nests. We'll keep the chicks housed until they are too big for the hawks. We'll herd them carefully, so they sha'n't have any of the distempers that come from inattention; and as for food, they shall have just what is best for them. I've heard of feeding ostriches on old boots, pocket knives, and similar things; and if mine want anything of the kind I'll buy all the old boots in New York, and all the cutlery in Connecticut, to give them a wholesome diet."

The Doctor suggested that nutritious grass for the young birds, and Indian corn and green food of different kinds for the old ones, was about all that was needed. Still, he said, they devoured a good many pebbles, which seemed to serve the same purpose as the gravel in the gizzard of an ordinary hen. A farmer once found nine hundred and thirty stones in the gizzard of an ostrich, varying from the size of a pea to that of a walnut. There were no old boots or pocket knives among them; but it has sometimes happened that an ostrich has helped himself to a button from the coat of an incautious visitor or a diamond pin from his shirtfront.

Here the conversation ended, and Fred retired to think over his scheme for supplying the market of New York with ostrich plumes. He told Frank he might write to Mary and Miss Effie, promising them in a few years all the feathers they desired, and the prettiest ones, too.

    The Boy Travelers - Africa by Thomas W. Knox Boy Travelers-Africa by Thomas W. Knox    

Chapter 30: South Africa - English Colonies and Ostrich Farming.


Study the chapter for one week.

Over the week:

  • Read and/or listen to the chapter.
  • Review the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.


Colonize: To settle among and establish control over the indigenous people of an area.
Civilization: The state or quality of being a highly developed society or culture.
Huguenot: A member of the Protestant Reformed Church of France during the 16th and 17th century.
Menagerie: A group of live wild animals within an enclosure or on exhibition.
Incubator: An apparatus used to maintain environmental conditions suitable for the hatching of eggs.
Brood: The young of certain animals, especially a group of young birds or fowl hatched at one time by the same mother.


Activity 1: Narrate the Chapter

  • Narrate the events aloud in your own words.

Activity 2: Study the Chapter Pictures

  • Study the chapter pictures and describe how each relates to the story.

Activity 3: Observe the Modern Equivalent

Examine the chapter setting in modern times:

  • Parent and child ostriches in modern South Africa
  • The 'Big Hole,' open-pit, visible from outer space, and underground Kimberley diamond mind (De Beers company) in modern South Africa

Activity 4: Map the Chapter

Find the country of South Africa on the map of Africa.

Find the following on the map of South Africa:

  • The Cape of Good Hope
  • The city of Cape Town
  • The city of Kimberley - near the 'Great Hole' Kimberley diamond mine.
  • The capital city - what is its name?

Activity 5: Map the Chapter on a Globe

  • Repeat the applicable mapwork from Activity 4 on a three-dimensional globe.