Wednesday, November 27, 2019


Michael - (Swapping with Kwei)

Old Johannesburg
Johannesburg is an unusual city. Almost all cities get their start in life because of a useful geographic feature—on the sea with a good natural harbor, on a navigable river, on a lake offering potable water and communication, a high outlook for defense, surrounded by rich farmland and plentiful water. Johannesburg has none of these. The only river is the Braamfontein Spruit, which is more like a stream. The location is more than 200 miles from the sea. Apart from the nearby Magaliesberg hills, it’s flat and uninteresting terrain.

In the nineteenth century, the site where Johannesburg now stands was a triangle between farms that formed part of the Transvaal Republic—an independent Afrikaner republic. Britain, the colonial power in the Cape, had little interest in it. Britain had Cape Town, the lush coast of Natal to the east, and the Kimberley diamond mines to the west. If anything, it was convenient having the feisty Afrikaners out of their hair and buffering the black nations to the north.

All that changed when gold was discovered.

Collage of pictures of Johannesburg 1889
Johannesburg wasn’t the first place where gold was found in South Africa. In the first half of the nineteenth century people had successfully panned for gold in the Barbeton and Pilgrims Rest areas north-east of Johannesburg and there were even some small mining operations there. True, there were rumors of a mother lode somewhere in the Transvaal, but there are always rumors. In those days, prospecting for precious metals was more akin to gambling than to science.

Pilgrims Rest mining
The actual history of the Johannesburg find is rather vague, but one thing is sure: the discovery of the Witwatersrand gold reef caused a lot of trouble.

Even the question of who was responsible for the first gold was controversial.  Today, it’s believed that JH Davis was the first discoverer, finding a substantial amount of gold that he sold to the Transvaal treasury for 600—a very substantial sum at the time. But there was a sting in the tail. He was told to leave the area immediately. The authorities weren't keen on having their country full of prospectors and their hangers-on. He took the money and ran.

Statue of Harrison
Thirty years later in 1886, George Harrison staked a claim on the farm Langlaagte. Harrison was an Australian who had come to South Africa to try his luck. His luck was good. He found significant outcropping gold and also sold some to the treasury. The Transvaal Republic was now faced with a dilemma. Clearly, gold was about, and that meant money. That was good. But now the Transvaal Republic had something others wanted. That was bad. It attracted the attention of Cecil Rhodes, who was soon buying up gold claims and the gold itself—reputedly 3,000 worth. As for Harrison, he sold his claim for ₤10 and disappeared, apparently to return to Australia. Really? ₤10?

Gold rush
Carbon leader gold vein
It’s important to understand that identifying the gold in the Witwatersrand took considerable expertise. The gold doesn’t occur as obvious nuggets, but is included as small particles in the host rock. You need to spot the vein and know how to separate the gold from it. Harrison apparently knew all this. Why then would he sell a claim possibly worth millions for ₤10? Furthermore, there is no record that he ever returned to Australia. It’s now believed that he was murdered. Just who was responsible and how he met his fate has never been discovered. It seems like a wonderful premise for a historical mystery…

But this was only the start of the trouble. The Transvaal Republic watched in horror as more and more uitlanders (outsiders) came into the republic and settled in Johannesburg and the gold fields. The town rapidly grew to be the largest inland settlement in southern Africa. More and more laws were passed restricting the outlanders and their path to citizenship. The republic was founded to be a country for Afrikaners to farm and follow their Calvinist religion and culture, but the character of the population was rapidly changing. And Cecil Rhodes, who had become premier of the Cape Colony, eyed the developments with avarice. After all, wasn't the discoverer a British citizen? Matters came to a head when Rhodes joined up with a group a plotters under Jameson and mounted a raid. The idea was that a well-armed expedition from the Cape would easily be able to knock out the volunteer militia of the Transvaal with their scrappy uniforms and light armaments, claim the area for the Cape colony, and settle down to enjoying some serious money. The miners in Johannesburg would rise and take over the town. The idea was not a success. Bad intelligence and the Afrikaner home ground led to the soldiers being either killed or captured, and the rising didn't happen. The British government was deeply embarrassed. Jameson was sentenced to a prison term, and Rhodes slunk off after resigning as premier.

But it wasn’t the end of the story, it was the curtain raiser. The Boer Wars followed, with the full might of the British army held off by the Boers for more than two years. It was a strange war. The Afrikaners were fighting for their land and independence; the British believed they were fighting for Queen and Country. As in so many political instances where economics is involved, a useful if simplistic rule of thumb is “follow the money”.

After the war ended and the Union of South Africa was declared, fortunes were made and lost in the gold fields of South Africa, and the country became the world’s largest producer for many years. The later mines went down several miles and mining was costly and dangerous, but labor and life was cheap. Ironically, it was the initially unwanted gold riches that supported the Afrikaner Nationalist government for many years.

Today the Johannesburg gold fields are more or less exhausted, although there is still substantial gold mining in the broader area of the Witwatersrand basin. The city that got its start from what was below the ground rather than what was above it, is now the commercial and industrial hub of the country, and the heart of its richest province. Money is now mined in Johannesburg instead of the precious metal.

But the city’s nickname remains Egoli – the place of gold.

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