23 Mar 2009
No , not an ornithoid asteroid strike .
The overnight catastrophic collapse of ostrich-feather prices in 1914 .
A real-life tale of big money , greed , conspiracies , rags-to-riches and back to rags , better than any soapie .
The story :
Europe and America had grown rich from decades of peace and the Industrial revolution . Scarce fashionable items (like diamonds and ostrich feathers) had become very expensive . The Cartel set out to make these items more affordable , more widely available and smooth the demand by managing the Fashion world , cutting themselves a nice slice at every stage . All very nice .
The Cartel , Big European banks (English , Dutch and Rothschild) identified a potentially very lucrative trade in Ostrich feathers as a money spinner . They used their usual recipe (still used today)
The Conspiracy :
Use a front man , backed by Big Money and diplomatic and military clout obtained from manipulating the interest rates governments have to use , and sheer bribery .
Here this was Rhodes , who they used before for diamonds and gold . He in turn determined a suitable cultivation area (semi-arid , with enough local expertise to irrigate lucerne feed for the ostriches.) .
He in turn recruited his own front-men : the so-called Rhodes-clique ( Gert Olivier , Piet Lategan , Jan Schoeman , Gert le Roux ) . These were all big farmers in the area .
He still needed a collection and distribution network .
He simply used the Rothschild connection to facilitate the immigration of a large number of poor Jewish immigrants and let them self-organize . The identified best entrepreneurs ( three brothers , Max , Barney and Albert Rose) were given financial support , legal support , but mainly preferential access to the contacts in Europe to sell their product (a good credit reference , in today's terms) .
(This is a favourite technique , still used in Rhodes scholarships , et al.)
The Cartel steered fashion in Europe by preferential financing and interest rates to fashion houses . They also controlled a large part of the press .
Meanwhile back at the ostrich ranch :
The beauty of the whole enterprise was that everybody got rich , some staggeringly so. Poor farmers went from rags to riches overnight . The closest analogue was the oil-rush in Texas .
All paid for by a very rich end-user , for whom it was a bagatelle .
The system developed quickly into a futures-driven enterprise . Brokers paid up-front for next years production of feathers as a loan . The brokers discounted their future contract to get financing . And so up the chain .
Property prices went through the roof . So did the prices of ostriches .
Everybody wanted to get rich quickly . So they leveraged it to the hilt .
Sounds familiar ?
By 1914 the whole enterprise was set for one of those 19th century busts .
Shadows of War .
France and the British Empire nearly went to war in 1903 . Peace was brokered by Grey . The famous Entente Cordiale .
But neither side intended to honour it . The French was investing heavily in Russian industrial expansion , hoping to do what the British did in the America's . The British hoped to do their usual divide-and-keep-separate strategy in Europe (which they had been successfully doing since they lost France in the time of Joan d'Arc) . So they supported and needled Germany , which felt squeezed between France and Russia .
Indeed , from documents from the German General Staff in 1914 , the Germans despaired of winning , but saw war as the only alternative to vengeful French penalties for the humiliation of the 1870's campaigns .
The nature of the coming war was also widely known . In 1907 a Swedish diplomat wrote a three-volume treatise that was required reading for all general staffs , setting out the probable course of the war . (See "The pity of war") . This was fairly accurate . They just did not know what to do about it . So , all prepared contingency plans for a long-drawn out conflict .
The UK knew it could not feed it's population without easy imports from the continent . So the contingency plans included immediate requisitioning of all maritime transport for grain and armaments . They also notified the insurance companies (mainly Loyds) that HM navy would not protect ships any except those involved in the war effort .
This leaked . The smart money moved out of risky positions .
The moment war was declared , the credit markets shut down like a camel's sphincters in fly season . The entire globalized British trading empire came to a shuddering halt .
The news was spread by radio-telegraph . Overnight , (literally) , prized packages of feathers became worthless . They could not get transport , and the end-market was iffy. Property prices collapsed , ostriches could not be given away . Men who counted themselves rich , suddenly owed huge amounts . The banks (especially Standard) called in loans . The whole credit system collapsed .
The entire region was impoverished for generations .
What happened to them ?
Unlike a soapie , we can answer that .
The Cartel .
Still around , and beloved by conspiracy theorists . (Bilderburgers , etc) . They are simply fulfilling an important function in a capitalist society , namely using their clout to ensure that their great(n) grandchildren still have air to breathe , water to drink , and food to eat . In the process , ensuring the same for everybody else .
The Rhodes-clique .
Their children became important and respected members of society . Many cabinet ministers came from these families .
The Rose brothers .
The only one that came out of this with any semblance of honour was Max Rose .
He remained behind and used his capital , skills and contacts to establish the Klein-Karoo as a Lucerne producing area , exporting to the whole of SA .
Which it still does .
Re-establishing a living for the people whose lives he helped to destroy .
A mensch .
The other two brothers tootled off to London , where they also used their capital , skills, and especially contacts to make a hobby-business of building and market-gardening . Barney's wife Pauline became a staunch Zionist and emigrated to Israel's eastern Jerusalem , where she was visited by the rich and famous .
The poor .
Well , they died , as does everybody .
The Ostriches .
A delicious tale , worthy of at least a TV series .
The Golden Feather .
The perfect feather was found from some consignments from Tripoli .
The South Africans , Americans and French were determined to get this lucrative market for themselves .
In 1911 The SA Ostrich industry sent a team of three to get breeding ostriches :
PC Smith , JMP Bowker and RW Thornton , the head of the Grootfontein Agricultural College . A certain Aldershaw from the British Government (a real James Bond type , of which the British colonial territories abounded) was seconded . Judging by their activities , they had a deep war-chest .
They played a cat-and-mouse game throughout most of North-Africa , with the French Foreign Legion and American agents in hot pursuit .
Despite disease and spies , they managed to bring them to South Africa , where they were bred into the local ostrich population to the produce the Golden Feather .
Then the market collapsed .
God's little joke .
One day in about 1912 , a small , bedraggled little female ostrich came walking up through Meiringspoort out of the wild to the farm of Piet Meiring . But when she opened her wings , the farmers and male ostriches went berserk .
She was an Idoru , a perfect image .
Her feathers were better than the Golden Feather . They were Platinum .
Like Marilyn Monroe walking out of the desert .
The farmers had to devise a special restraining gear ("riempies" or thongs) to prevent harm to her . Her male fans would have mobbed her to death .
She was bred into the lines brought from North-Africa .
They are still called riempies ostriches , and her feathers were so good that they still sold at hefty prices even after the collapse of the market .
I sometimes wonder how smart this bird really was ?
She did exactly the only thing that could have secured her off-springs' and her own survival .
( Ostrich Feather quality circa 1911 :
The South African ostrich feather was not the best quality feather , just the most available and best marketed .
The quality order was feathers from :
1.Aleppo in Syria (scarce) (French)
2.Barbary from Tripoli . (French)
3.St Louis (the Americans) , Senegal and Egypt
4.Mogador in Marokko (French)
5. Oudtshoorn in Cape Province (plentiful) (UK)
6.Yamani in Arabia .
After this riempies-feathers took over .
The Riempies female's genetic material is now spread all over South Africa , USA and who knows where else .
She died after a long and pampered life , with innumerable children . Better than Marilyn Monroe . ( Idoru's tend to have short , unhappy lives )
Like I said , one smart bird . )
The invention of refrigeration in the 1870's had led to a huge expansion of trade . Delicacies like apricots , peaches and other fruits were shipped from the far-flung corners of the British Empire .The Western Cape in SA , for instance , had lots of retired British civil-service employees who had invested their pensions into fruit-farms , trusting that the Government will not let them down . Oh well .
Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty (a political appointee since 1911) signed the orders to withdraw Royal Navy protection from all maritime traffic (not just around the coasts of Europe) . Loyds promptly withdrew insurance and the system locked up .
This was the first time he really hurt the British Empire .
The second time was with the US Lend-Lease agreements in WW2 . This finally destroyed the British Empire .
The Argentinians were the wealthiest per capita nation in the world in 1910 . Europe was awash with Argentinian beef millionaires .
Cheap frozen beef was shipped from Argentine to the insatiable markets in Europe . The Americans didn't like it , neither did the European bankers that owned most of the big ranches in the US .
They put pressure on the British Admiralty , and Churchill caved in or was bribed .
American beef and grain shipments were allowed , Argentine an other loyal subjects withered on the vine .
The British Empire , built on free trade , also withered on the vine .It is noticeable that volunteer soldiers for WWI did not include a large proportion of British expats .
Look at the inscriptions on monuments . There are not nearly enough English names .
Their parents had been impoverished by Churchill's decision . They felt betrayed .
And after Gallipoli , even the Australians and New Zealanders would rather shoot him than look at him .
There is something fundamentally wrong with a system that allows an incompetent buffoon like him to get near the levers of power .
But , a system that cannot survive one incompetent , does not really deserve to survive.
Make up your own mind .
The only heroine in this saga is Platinum Idoru Ostrich female . She won big time .
And Lucerne . Lots more lucerne around than before .
Like I said , one smart bird .