Grazing the Modern World: Merino Sheep in South Africa and the United States, 1775-1840

Benjamin Hurwitz

Advisor: Benedict Carton, PhD, School of Integrative Studies

Committee Members: Jane Hooper, Rosemarie Zagarri

Research Hall, #161
June 19, 2017, 03:00 PM to 05:00 PM


The Merino sheep produces an extraordinarily fine wool that is unrivaled by other breeds. Between 1775 and 1840, the breed was carried from its Spanish homeland across oceans and hemispheres to Africa, the Americas, and even distant Australia. This dissertation compares the effects of this remarkable migration in two regions, the Cape Colony of South Africa and the northeastern United States. A cast of characters including merchants, politicians, and gentry farmers embraced the Merino breed in response to several Transnational forces: namely, the expansion of the British Empire, British industrialization, and the European Enlightenment. White settlers in South Africa and the United States looked to Merino sheep and wool to exploit or challenge these processes. They viewed fine Merino wool as both a valuable commodity and a symbol of refinement. By examining archival material in South Africa and the United States, this dissertation describes the successful Merino industries that developed in these two countries. By the mid-nineteenth century, Merino sheep flocks in both countries numbered in the millions. In South Africa, Merinos largely replaced indigenous sheep breeds, which had played a significant role in the colonial economy. By the mid-nineteenth century, Merino wool comprised more than half of all exports from the Cape Colony. In the United States, Merino sheep entered an established wool economy and eventually became the young country's most popular sheep breed. Merino wool helped to fuel an innovative textile manufacturing sector that increasingly relied on water power and complex manufacturing. Despite developing very different wool industries, Merino enthusiasts in South Africa and the United States utilized similar language when promoting the breed. By analyzing the extensive historical discourse on Merino sheep, this dissertation explores a culture of animal breeding influenced by notions of improvement, as well as social and racial anxieties. This study of the Merino sheep industry exposes vastly different economic, demographic, cultural, and environmental realities in South Africa and the United States. It also reveals the significance of Transnational forces in the shaping of these two white settler societies.