“A failed experiment” The Silkworm Industry of Gouna

9 July 2017
“A failed experiment” The Silkworm Industry of Gouna

Speaker: Rayno Sciocattis

 In 1881 Rayno Sciocatti's Italian ancestors were brought out by the Cape Government to start a silk industry in Gouna – about 14 miles north west of Knysna and over 900 meters above sea level. The immigrants were farming people of substance from the Mountainous area of Trevino in Northern Italy .

There were 32 in the group – three families and a few single men – all silkworm breeders and specialists from the silk- producing districts of Northern Italy. Their names included Fardini, Polonia, Sciocatti, Tornes and Caccias – amongst others. They had been lured by an invitation from Henry Barrington – an English gentleman farmer to start a silk industry near Knysna. There were a lot of wars going on in Italy at the time, and economic hardship and many people were tempted to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

When the families arrived to board their ship, they found it was too small to hold all their furniture as well as their possessions. Each family was given a trunk which contained only essential items like shoes, clothes and cutlery. Everything else was left on the quayside. They eventually sailed from Genoa on 25th March 1881 – arriving in Knysna via Cape Town six weeks later. They did not speak a word of English and travelled with an Englishman called William Christie who acted as guide and interpreter .

Many of their names were incorrectly recorded during the journey and different versions remain in use. This made the tracing of the families back in Italy quite difficult.

One of Dalene Matthee's books, The Mulberry Forest, tells the story of a group of Italian silk farmers who were brought to Knysna to farm with silk worms and start up a silk spinning industry. They were settled at Gouna in a forest clearing occupied by a headstrong Silas Miggel and his daughter. When it was clear the Italians were not coping, the father and daughter came to their rescue. The daughter because she cared and Silas because he wanted them off his land and back on board a ship heading back to Italy.

When Dalene Matthee wrote her book, she went to Italy. She could not even find the Sciocatti surname. So many variations exist. The book depicts the Italian immigrants as much poorer than they were in reality. When the Italians finally arrived in Knysna on the SS Natal, they were housed in tents in Belvidere. After some weeks, they were sent into the Gouna forest - some on foot and others in ox wagons and ox drawn sledges carrying all their possessions. They were under the impression that they would get land, houses, mulberry trees and a living wage. All they would need to bring with them was their silk worms and their skill as spinners. They had expected to find established mulberry plantations so that all they needed to do was pick up the cocoons and weave their silk. When they reached their destination, after three weeks of travelling through the forests and up the hillsides with the oxen moaning and the wagons creaking, they found themselves in the middle of nowhere. They were faced with a waste tract of land backing onto a wall of jungle in which elephants, buffalo and baboons roamed freely. However it was very beautiful and reminded them of the Italian hills they had left behind. Not a mulberry tree was to be seen or even a shed for their precious silk worms .

The Government had supplied some implements, tents and an ox-drawn plough. For the first six months they subsisted on government rations. The mulberry trees the Italians planted grew to about a metre and then died once their roots penetrated the shallow good soil and reached the clay beneath. Dreams of a silk industry had to be abandoned, and they were forced to eke out a meagre existence as small scale farmers and woodcutters.

They were Roman Catholics and had left behind in their village in Italy a 1200 year old church where generations of their families had been christened, married and buried. Imagine the shock of arriving in Knysna with not even a house or a church and no sheds to store their precious silk worms. Life was very hard for them. Because of their dark skin colour and foreign language, they were regarded with suspicion by existing settlers.

They were urged to learn to speak Afrikaans and attend church in Knysna. The San Ambroso chapel still standing in Gouna was eventually built for them by Rev Rooney in 1891 – ten years after they arrived. It's a tiny church – with just four pews on either side of a central nave. There is a brightly painted fresco on the back wall. Two rooms at the rear of the church act as a museum. They are filled with portraits, press cuttings, photographs, implements and memorabilia. Rayno Sciocatti has lived in the area for much of his life. Rayno Sciocatti's uncle would cut logs and take them to

Thesen's and his father worked at Thesens as an auditor. They were very frugal and eventually managed to buy a lot of the land which is still owned by the Sciocatti family. When Rayno sold his farm he always intended to buy land in Tsitsikamma – but found himself drawn to Gouna and decided to renovate the church that held so many memories for his forefathers. A hippy family had been living in it. After they were evicted, he found the floors had been ruined and the yellowwood ceiling planks stolen. It had been vandalised over the years and the original valuables looted.

Everything had to be restored. The cost of restoring the building alone was R600 000, not counting the furnishings. When Thesen Island was being built, the old fire station was broken down and Rayno got hold of the Oregon pine in the roof and rebuilt the ceiling in the chapel. He recalls his dismay when a painter misunderstood his instructions and painted the pine white. He retrieved some yellowwood flooring and frames and the chapel was opened to the public about 14 years ago. The renovation is ongoing and people are encouraged to visit the church. Entry is free but donations are very welcome.

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