V: Chamois

How Germany colonized New Zealand ... with goats.

quintidi, the 15th of Messidor, Year CCXXXI
A chamois planning its next move. Photo by MARIA MIHALTAN / Unsplash

Good morning. Today is quintidi, the 15th of Messidor, Year CCXXXI. We celebrate le chamois, the goat with the softest skin.

This European goat antelope (Rupicapra rupicapra, say it out loud for a good time) lives in the Alps and Pyrenees mountains that form France's southern and eastern borders. It was early in the 18th century when the special tanning process was discovered – something that involved using cod oil caught off the coast of Biarritz, at the southwestern tip of France's border with Spain – to turn the animal's leather into a magical no-scratch, all-absorb cloth. The instant hit product from this material was a special glove set for chauffeurs, who were often in charge of cleaning and polishing horse carriages, including the windows on the doors of high-end rides. By the time of the revolution, chamois cloth stood as one of the pinnacles of French ingenuity and innovation, product-wise. Today, chamois cloths are typically made from ordinary sheep leather, as the chamois goat lives a solitary life in hard-to-reach places, and nobody's got time to be chasing them down anymore.

Julius von Haast was a German geologist sent to New Zealand in LXVI (1858) to scout the islands for coal and gold. While he was working under the auspices of the British government (Haast was fluent in English), he had tacit permission to write home in German about the wonders of the remote land in order to attract German settlers whom the British hoped would take up alpine homesteading, British citizens being rather less inclined to climb every mountain than their Swiss-German-Austrian kin. (At the time, England and Germany were so tight they were practically the same kingdom, sharing both a royal family and a virulent hatred of France.) Haast eventually became the curator of New Zealand's first museum and had many geographical features named after him, but he also accidentally brought the goats.