The Missionary and the Ridgeback

The Rhodesian Ridgeback was once known as “Van Rooyen’s Lion Dogs,” after Cornelius van Rooyen, a Dutch big game hunter who is credited with “fine tuning” the breed.

This, however, came a full thirty years after van Rooyen first started his breeding program, and that happened only after he was first introduced to the matriarchs of the breed by a missionary in 1879.

Reverend Charles Helm ran the Hope Fountain, a Protestant mission in southern Rhodesia that catered to big game hunters traveling through the area. Rev. Helm owned two rough coated and grey-black bitches that he’d brought from Kimberley (possibly as far South as Swellendam) South Africa, and one can only assume that because Charles Helm officiated at the marriage of Cornelius van Rooyen and Margareta Bloemhof in 1879, it was around this time that van Rooyen met the reverend’s dogs. Van Rooyen had been interested in improving the hunting skills of his own dogs and decided to breed them with Helm’s dogs. Zim Field Guide writes that van Rooyen’s hunting pack was made up of dogs that included one or more Bulldog, Khoikoi, Pointer, Irish Terrier, Greyhound, Airedale Terrier, Collie, Deerhound, and possibly Bullmastiff.

We find it hard to believe that at the time, no one noticed that the two bitches had ridges running down their backs, and a couple of sources we checked make note of this. That said, an account we discovered late into our research reported that while dogs with ridges were unheard of in Europe, they were common in much of Africa. The Rhodesian Ridgeback International Foundation writes, “The feature was observed frequently in the indigenous dogs of Zaire, Angola, Tanzania, and Zambia. The Mesopotamian Hunting Dog was brought down the east coast of Africa in the course of tribal migration over several centuries and part of the movement was deflected towards the west. We must assume that these dogs carried the ridge gene and that eventually they reached the Cape and acquired the name of Hottentot Hunting Dog, serving a very useful purpose with the Khoisan in a semi-domesticated environment.”

Be that as it may, the two bitches owned by Reverend Helm are regarded as the foundation of the breed, and the word, “Ridgeback” used today as part of the breed name came to replace “Van Rooyen Dogs” shortly after 1910.

Image: “Old Friend” by Leisa Temple






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