South African Gold Rush: 1885

The initial riches found in South Africa were diamonds, not gold. The first diamond was found near the Vaal river in northern Cape Province in 1867 and, within three years, the region around what later became the town of Kimberley was alive with diggers. Entrepreneurs, who had previously been lured by gold, arrived from all over the world to build up diamond fortunes that would later enable them to participate in the next scramble for gold. Among them were Cecil Rhodes and his partner, Charles Rudd; J. B. Robinson, Hans Sauer, Alfred Beit, Hermann Eckstein, Lionel Phillips, Barney Barnato and George Albu, who were to establish the mining finance houses to nurture the South African gold mines.

During the early years of the Kimberley rush some gold was found in the Transvaal, primarily at Barberton. It was never enough to tempt the diamond men of Kimberley, although a few small mines produced gold for many years. Yet prospectors were not discouraged. The problem was that they were looking for gold as it had appeared in California and Australia. 'The prospectors of 1885 were slow, agonizingly slow, in their progress towards their unknown goal,' wrote A. P. Cartwright in The Gold Miners. 'They stumbled about as men do who are blindfolded, groping their way towards what they believed would be the "mother lode" from which had sprung the traces of gold they had found so far. They followed false trails, they panned in all the wrong places.'

Yet, all this time, they were right on top of the richest gold field the world has ever known. They failed to understand the peculiar geology of the huge Witwatersrand Basin in which the gold-bearing reefs, with gold flecks so fine that they could rarely be seen with the naked eye, outcropped only briefly on the surface near what is now Johannesburg, then plunged below the ground at an angle of 25 degrees or more, sloping inward towards the centre. The gold-bearing sides of the basin have never 'bottomed out'.

The credit for discovering the main reef of gold-bearing conglomerate - it looks like a sandwich of white pebbles packed tightly together - normally goes to a man named George Harrison who, so the story goes, found the reef outcropping on Langlaagte farm in February 1886 when he was digging up stone to help build a house for Widow Oosthuizen, who owned the farm. It was hardly so sensational a discovery as a find of alluvial gold. Harrison, who had had experienced in the Australian gold fields, simply recognized the rock as a gold-bearing formation which, if crushed, might yield an ounce or two of gold from every tonne of ore. This is the essence of the South African gold mines. No one picks up nuggets. There is an unfathomable body of low-grade ore stretching in a wide arc from 40 miles east of Johannesburg to 90 miles west, then swinging down south west into the Orange Free State. The gold-bearing reefs, laid down perhaps 2,000 million years ago, vary in thickness from one-tenth of an inch to 100 feet but, on the average, are only 1 foot thick. Except in rare outcrops, they have been covered gradually with thousands of feet of hard rock. Tracking them far below the ground calls for rare skill in geological detective work; mining them calls for capital and engineering skill.

Thus, although the news of gold on Langlaagte farm brought men rushing to the fledgling city of Johannesburg, it was only those with capital who could participate. The diamond men from Kimberley quickly established control. They came up quietly by coach, trying hard to avoid having their rivals know where they were bound. J. B. Robinson and Hans Sauer happened to be riding in the same coach, so at one stop each decided to leave the coach to try to prevent the other learning his real destination. However, there could be no real secret. Within two years, the first four mining finance houses had been established, all backed by men who had made their money in diamonds. The first was formed by Hermann Eckstein in 1887; it was soon nicknamed 'The Corner House', and eventually became Rand Mines. Immediately afterwards followed Cecil Rhodes and Charles Rudd with Gold Fields of South Africa, the Barnato brothers with Johannesburg Consolidated Investment Company, and George and Leopold Albu with General Mining and Finance Corporation. Adolf Goerz started a fifth group in 1893 after he went to look over the gold fields for a group of Berlin businessmen. It eventually became the Union Corporation. But even the capital and mining experience of these men were not in themselves enough to get the South African gold-mining industry off to a flying start.

There were soon numerous claims staked out all along the south fringe of Johannesburg wherever the Main Reef and its associated reefs of the Main Reef Leader, the Bird Reef and the South Reef outcropped, but the real problem was getting a profitable amount of gold from the ore. The old methods of crushing ore to a powder which was carried by water over copper plates coated with mercury, which in turn amalgamated with the gold, might have been satisfactory for the gold in the quartz veins of California or Australia, but it was not subtle enough for the fine grains of gold sprinkled throughout the Rand. Such techniques extracted, at best, 70 per cent of the gold and, on the average, 65 per cent. Assuming that each tonne of ore contained 31.1 grams (i.e. 1 ounce) of gold, little more than 20 grams was being extracted. Gold mining on those terms did not make sense and, in 1890, the gold boom seemed finished. 'Grass will grow in the streets of Johannesburg within a year,' one miner predicted.

Indeed, it might have done so had not two doctors in Glasgow, Robert and William Forrest, and a chemist, John S. MacArthur, begun experimenting - quite independently - on the problem of gold extraction. In 1887, they patented the MacArthur-Forrest process for extracting the gold from ore with cyanide. The process extracted 96 per cent of the gold from the ore.