Oudtshoorn is situated in a part of South Africa known as the Klein (Little) Karoo. This area is also called Kannaland, named after the “kanna” shrub (genus Sceletium) which contains a narcotic, mesembrine, in all its parts. The Khoi used to chew it as a tranquiliser.
The many primitive tools and rock paintings that are to be found in caves throughout the Swartberg mountains
indicate that originally, the area was inhabited by the San.
In January, 1689, a trading party led by Ensign Shrijver were guided to Attaquas Kloof by a Griqua. Here they found an ancient elephant trail which they used to access the Klein Karoo becoming the first white men to do so. The expedition which took them as far as present day Aberdeen was extremely successful and they left through Attaquas Kloof on 16 March. The Klein Karoo had been opened up for settlement although it was more than a hundred years later that farmers started settling in the fertile Cango Valley.
At the time a priority for new settlements was the construction of a church for worship and community gatherings. This happened in 1839 when a church was erected near the banks of the Grobbelaars River on land donated by Cornelius Petrus Rademeyer. This was the start of Oudtshoorn, a village which was named after the daughter of Baron Pieter van Rheede van Oudtshoorn – he was appointed Governor of the Cape in 1772 but died on the voyage out.
A schoolroom was opened in 1858, followed by the formation of a municipality and an Agricultural Society in 1859. Work was started on the Dutch Reformed Church to replace the original small church. This was unfortunately also the start of a long drought and a depressed national economy. By 1865 there was serious poverty. The drought was eventually broken by floods in 1869. The depression had lifted and Oudtshoorn was about to transform from a struggling village to a centre of unbridled prosperity.
The reason for this was the ostrich whose feathers had become tremendously sought after as fashion items in Europe – especially for hats. Between 1875 and 1880 birds were selling for up to £ 1000 a pair. The farmers, realising that ostriches were far more profitable than any other activity, ripped out their various crops and planted lucerne.
The increasing wealth in the town finally allowed for the completion of the Dutch Reformed Church. This work done in local sandstone was overseen by John Thomas Cooper, a British stonemason, who received a letter of thanks after the building was commemorated on 7 June 1879.
The good times lasted until 1885 when there was a sudden slump in the industry as a result of overproduction. To make things worse Oudtshoorn was hit by severe flooding which washed away the Victoria Bridge which had been built over the Olifants River at Styldrift the year before.
Feather prices recovered and increased slowly until after the Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902) when the second and best boom started, peaking in 1913 and collapsing in 1914. It was during this period that most of Oudtshoorn’s famously opulent“Feather Palaces” were built. With the collapse of the feather industry, millionaires became paupers and the local economy was ruined and farmers slowly returned to more traditional crops.
While Oudtshoorn was going through this desperately poor period, Cornelius Jakob Langenhoven – the father of Afrikaans – made his mark on the country. He was an extremely prodigious writer and provided the literature that formed the backbone of the Afrikaans language which became an official language in 1925.
Oudtshoorn today is a modern town with a lot of untapped potential in the tourism industry, set to become the driving force of the local economy which is still very reliant on the ostrich industry.