THE ART & CULTURE OF GOLDKNOWLEDGE IS PRECIOUS

  • 'The United States is on the brink of an Age of gold,' reported the New York Herald Tribune in November 1848 when the full scale of the gold discoveries in California began to percolate to New York. The newspaper might more correctly have phrased it that the world was 'on the brink'. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the world of gold suddenly expanded beyond anything that seemed reasonable. The riches that Egypt had won nearly 5,000 years before from the mines of Africa, that the Roman Empire had wrested from Spain, and that Spain herself had shipped from South America in the sixteenth century, were dwarfed by an avalanche of gold. In the short span of a little over fifty years, more gold was mined than in the preceding 5,000. In the whole of the first century after Columbus discovered America the world's mined gold totally roughly 750 tonnes (24 million ounces); in the last half of the nineteenth century it was a mighty 10,000 tonnes (320 million ounces). Annual production rose from 77 tonnes (2.5 million ounces) in 1847 to almost 280 tonnes (9 million ounces) in 1852.


    The changes were not, however, simply a matter of cold statistics. In human terms the age of the individual prospector had arrived. Previously, gold mining had always been the exclusive privilege of, or had least been heavily taxed by, the state. In the twentieth century, it was generally to fall within the franchise of great mining companies, at least until the gold boom in the 1980s gave the prospector his head again in Latin America, the Philippines, Indonesia and many parts of Africa. Now, for a short span of half a century, the prospector - the man in crumpled clothes and slouch hat, his ear constantly open at the diggings or in the saloon for the newest gossip of great finds - had his day. With his 'pan', he followed the latest rumours of gold: first to California, then to Australia, to New Zealand, back to Australia or Nevada, Colorado, Idaho or South Dakota, and finally - in a glorious finale - to the Klondike. 'The rush and struggle is awful,' wrote one Australian gold digger, 'and the only chance is to fly off at the first sound. The mischief is that you hear so many wonderful stories that prove false, that you will not listen to a first rumour, and by the time something authentic reaches you, it is too late.'

    (This section on The Gold Rushes is adapted from The World of Gold by Timothy Green)

  • The bonanza in California was only the beginning. An Australian named Edward Hammond Hargraves, who had been there, was certain that the same geological features were to be found in his own country. Returning on the boat from California late in 1850, he predicted that he would find gold within a week. 'There's no gold in the country you're going to and if there is, that darned Queen of yours won't let you touch it,' a fellow passenger told him. 'There's as much gold in the country I'm going to as there is in California,' snapped Hargraves, 'and Her Gracious Majesty the Queen, God bless her, will appoint me one of her Gold Commissioners.' Hargraves was right. Within one week of landing, he had found gold on a tributary of the Macquarie river not far from Bathurst in New South Wales. The gold rush was on. 'A complete mental madness appears to have seized almost every member of the community,' the Bathurst Free Press reported. 'There has been a universal rush to the diggings.' Hargraves was duly made a commissioner for lands, and received a reward of £10,000 ($48,000) plus a life pension. For the rest of his life, he was regarded as a man with the Midas touch.


    The news of the fresh gold field reached England, along with the first gold, aboard the Thomas Arbuthnot. Her captain said, 'The colony is completely paralysed. Every man and boy who is able to lift a shovel is off, or going off, to the diggings. Nearly every article of food has gone up, in some cases two hundred per cent.' He had had to promise his crew double wages to get the boat away from Sydney. The impact of the Australian find on Britain was to be even more important than that of California. The bulk of Californian gold stayed in the United States; 80 per cent of Australia's gold was to come through the London market.

    In fact, Hargraves had touched only the fringe of Australian gold. New South Wales was yielding 26.4 tonnes (850,000 ounces) in 1852, but the neighbouring state of Victoria had joined the hunt. Victoria offered a reward of £200 ($1,000) for gold found within 200 miles of Melbourne. In the autumn of 1851, barely six months after the New South Wales discovery, gold was found at Ballarat, a mere 60 miles from Melbourne. Later in the same year came another find at Bendigo Creek, 30 miles farther north. Now the floodgates were really open; 370,000 immigrants arrived in Australia in 1852. The colony, which a few years before had been peopled only by convicts who had been transported, and a handful of farmers, had its economy transformed. The Australian gold miners were never such a cosmopolitan bunch as their colleagues in California, but they insisted on the same democracy in the gold fields. There was, however, much more law and order in the Australian gold rush right from the start. Hard liquor was banned. Special gold commissioners were appointed to administer the diggings. They sold licences for 30 shillings ($7.30) a month, and normally parcelled out 15 to 24 feet along a creek to a party of three to six men. They were a wildly assorted crowd. G. L. Mundy, a visitor writing in 1852, reported, 'There were merchants, cabmen, magistrates and convicts, amateur gentlemen rocking the cradle merely to say they had done so, fashionable hairdressers and tailors, cooks, coachmen, lawyers' clerks and their masters, colliers, cobblers, quarrymen, doctors of physic and music, aldermen, an ADC on leave, scavengers, sailors, shorthand writers, a real live lord on his travels - all levelled by community of pursuit and of costume'. 'Levelled' is just the right word. The miners lived in bark huts or tents. 'Our furniture,' wrote one miner, James Bonwick, 'is of simple character. A box, a block of wood, or a bit of paling across a pail, serves as a table.' Meals were primitive. 'The chops can be picked out of the frying pan, placed on a lump of bread, and cut with a clasp knife that has done good service in fossicking during the day.' Insects and flies added to the discomfort. 'The nuisance is the flies,' complained Bonwick. 'The little fly and the stinging monster March fly. O! The tortures these wretches give! In the hole, out of the hole, at meals or walking, it is all the same with these winged plagues. When washing at a waterhole, the March flies will settle upon the arms and face, and worry to that degree, that I have known men to pitch their dishes, and stamp and growl with agony. The fleas, too, are of the Tom Thumb order of creation, and they begin their bloody-thirsty work when the flies are tired of their recreation.' For those who stuck it out, the rewards could be handsome. Almost 80 tonnes (2.6 million ounces) of gold were mined in Victoria alone in 1853; by 1856 it had risen to a peak of 90 tonnes (2.9 million ounces).

    Other secondary rushes followed. One rumour of gold - on the Fitzroy river in Queensland in 1858 - sent 10,000 people trailing north. It was a completely false lead but, because of the lack of communications, there was no way of stemming the tide. Even New Zealand, which had jealously watched Australia's budding economy be nourished by gold, finally had its reward. Gold was found near Dunedin on the south island of New Zealand in 1861. More than 7,000 men were working the field by the following year, and a steady production of 15 tonnes (0.48 million ounces) a year was maintained until 1870.

    The Australian prospectors had their final triumph of the century in 1893 when Paddy Hannan found gold at Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. The resulting gold rush pushed Australian output to an astonishing 119 tonnes (3.8 million ounces) in 1903, a record not equalled until 1988. And the famous 'Golden Mile' at Kalgoorlie remains at the heart of Western Australia's production. The town itself still has the feel of those gold rush days, with broad streets and low buildings, many with railed balconies on the first floor where you can sit at ease in a rocking chair. Some buildings bear plaques dating from the original boom: Grand Hotel 1895 or Palace Hotel 1897. To appreciate what gold rush days were like, Kalgoorlie is the place to go.

  • The individual prospector, who had been king since 1848, had a final glorious fling to finish his century. Two prospectors, Robert Henderson and George Washington Carmack, were fishing for salmon on the Thron-diuck (which quickly became 'Klondike') tributary of the Yukon river in the far north of Canada, one August afternoon in 1896, when the gleam of gold caught their eye. For several decades there had been wild rumours of gold in these streams of the far north, but few of them had lived up to expectation. The best source of gold had been in the creeks lower down the Yukon in the United States territory of Alaska, where a bustling community called Circle City had grown up with a music hall, two theatres, eight dance halls and no fewer than twenty-eight saloons. It was gaily christened the 'Paris of Alaska'. Henderson's and Carmack's discovery on Thron-diuck made it a ghost town overnight. In that first autumn, as everyone from Circle City stampeded up the Yukon and the little community of Dawson City was born, the far north kept its discovery secret. Despite the desperate shortage of supplies (salt fetched its weight in gold), the prospectors held out against disease and starvation. A barber in Dawson City got a small slice of one claim, went out and dug up $40,000 in gold. In Harry Ash's Saloon in Dawson City, there was so much gold mingling with the sawdust on the floor that one enthusiast panned for gold right there. According to legend, he grubbed up $275 worth of gold dust that had filtered out of miners' pockets.


    In the spring of 1897, the first packet steamers sailed south to Seattle and San Francisco, laden with gold stuffed into buckskin bags, glass fruit jars, tomato tins and blankets tied with string. It was a tonic for which the West Coast had long been waiting. The heady excitement of California was over and there had been little prosperity to follow it. Now, in one final insane rush, everyone was off to the Yukon. Fifteen hundred people sailed north from Seattle within ten days of the first news of gold. The mayor of that city, who was on a visit to San Francisco when the news came through, wired his resignation and raced north. Steamer offices were in a state of siege, and tickets were selling for $1,000. By February of 1898, forty-one ships were on the regular run from San Francisco to Skagway, the nearest port to the gold fields. From Skagway, the prospectors had to make the long haul up over the Chilkoot or the White Horse Pass, then down the Yukon to Dawson City. It was a harsh journey. Among the thousands who embarked on it, many failed. Pierre Berton, in his excellent book on the Klondike, reckons that of the 100,000 who set out for Dawson City, 30,000 to 40,000 actually arrived. Of these, perhaps 5,000 searched for gold; a few hundred got rich.

    Along the way, they fell victim to the weather and to men like Jefferson (Soapy) Smith, who ran the town of Skagway, cheating all comers and killing any who argued. One horrified traveller wrote, 'I have stumbled upon a few tough corners of the globe but I think the most outrageously lawless quarter I ever struck was Skagway. It seemed as if the scum of the earth had hastened there to fleece, rob or murder. There was no law whatsoever; might was right, the dead shot only was immune to danger'. Skagway, of course, was on US soil, but to reach Dawson City the prospectors, tramping in a never-ending line up the snow-clad mountainsides, had to cross the Canadian border at the top of the pass. Here a handful of men from the Canadian Northwest Mounted Police sought to bring some sort of order to chaos. At gunpoint, they refused to let through prospectors who were not carrying a year's supply of food. Major J. M. Walsh of the Northwest Mounted Police reported, 'Such a scene of havoc and destruction can scarcely be imagined. Thousands of pack horses lie dead along the way, sometimes in bunches under cliffs, with pack saddles and packs where they have fallen from the rocks above'. Those who did get through swelled the population of Dawson City so fast that by the summer of 1898 it had become the largest Canadian city north of Winnipeg. It was a frenzied yet pathetic community, so short of supplies that the police would not bother to arrest a man unless he had his own provisions. Most boats that did come up the Yukon carried whisky instead of badly needed food. One year all the eggs were rotten when they arrived; hungry citizens had to wait a year for a fresh supply. When the governess of the local bishop's children married a missionary, the only thing he could find to give her for a present on her wedding day was a pot of marmalade.

    It was all over as fast as it had begun. There was plenty of gold in the creeks around Dawson and some digging on a commercial basis continued until the winter of 1966, but the horde of prospectors had picked the cream off the field by 1900. The Klondike rush probably yielded about 75 tonnes (2.4 million ounces) of gold in the last three years of what was certainly the most exciting century in the history of gold.
     

  • It all began on a January afternoon in 1848, when a carpenter named James Marshall found gold in the tailrace of John Sutter's mill near the junction of the American and Sacramento rivers. One of Marshall's workmen recorded in his diary that night, 'This day some kind of mettle was found in the tail race that looks like gold, first discovered by James Martial, the Boss of the Mill'. In fact, Marshall was not at all sure that it was gold, so he hurried back to Sutter's house to consult the Encyclopedia Americana. The description of gold so convinced him that he went rushing back to the mill in pouring rain and missed his supper. At first, Marshall and Sutter tried to keep news of the discovery quiet, but rumours of gold were not easy to quench. Soon the word had spread to San Francisco - then a struggling port of about 2,000 people. By spring, half of California had deserted its farms and homesteads to rush to the gold fields. 'The whole country from San Francisco to Los Angeles and from the seashore to the base of the Sierra Nevada resounds with the sordid cry of gold, GOLD, GOLD!,' reported the San Francisco Californian in May 1848. 'The field is left half planted, the house half built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of shovels and pickaxes.'


    The gold seekers were hardly disappointed. They found not only the sandbars and banks of the rivers near Sutter's Mill rich in alluvial gold, but were also quickly able to trace deposits in other streams coming down from the Western slopes of the High Sierras. Throughout that first summer, the Californians had their find almost exclusively to themselves, for in the days before the telephone or cable the news of the discoveries percolated slowly even to the eastern seaboard of the United States.

    To most Americans, California was still a remote, uncivilized strip of land that the United States was in the process of acquiring from Mexico, along with New Mexico, for $15 million. But what happened was unprecedented. Thousands of men suddenly saw a spark of opportunity to earn a fortune. 'It is well and truly said,' wrote a New York correspondent reporting to the Banker's Magazine in London, 'that the shoemaker is throwing away his last, the tailor his bodkin, the mason his trowel, the labourer his hod, the carpenter his chisel, the printer his stick, the painter his rush, the farmer his harrow, the quack his nostrums, the baker is leaving his dough, the butcher his stall, the clerk his desk and even the loafer his roost.'

    There were three routes to California: by ship around Cape Horn; by ship to Panama, then across the isthmus on a donkey and by ship on to San Francisco; or, finally, the long haul overland across the plains and through the mountains and deserts to the coast.

    The thousands who rushed to California from all over the United States found Englishmen, Frenchmen, and even the Chinese hard on their heels. This was an international gold rush. By mid-1849, one Scotsman was writing home to his family in Edinburgh, 'This is the seventh week I have been here: we have averaged from 18 to 32 dollars every day this week ... as far as I can judge those who work steadily can make from 12 to 30 dollars per day. Cases are occurring of some getting from 100 to 200 dollars per day'. By the end of 1849, there were at least 40,000 men working in the gold fields and they scoured out $10 million worth of gold.

    Few knew anything about mining, but they quickly learned what telltale signs to look for amid the sand and gravel in the bed of a creek, and how to pan. It was essentially a simple process. The miner filled his pan with gravel and picked out the large stones by hand, then rotated the pan between his hands to keep the contents suspended in the water. One side of the pan was tilted slightly higher than the other so that the water carried away the light particles, while the heavier particles of gold were left as a residue. As the search for gold became more sophisticated, the primitive panning process was supplemented by a 'cradle' - a long wooden box on rockers - which enabled much larger quantities of gravel to be handled at a time.

    From the original find at Sutter's Mill, the miners ranged out along the Sacramento river and traced the gold back into the Sierras. There the prospectors soon located a belt of gold-bearing rock over 100 miles long and varying in width from a few hundred feet to 2 miles. They called in the Mother Lode, for it was from this quartz rock that the gold had been scoured over the centuries and washed down the rivers. The mining camps sprang up overnight wherever a promising new find was located. The prospectors lived in leaky tents, lean-tos or log cabins. It was a hard, often unrewarding, existence. They toiled all day beneath the hot Californian sun, up to their waists in water. At night they went back to their huts to eat whatever food might be available and to soak up bad whisky. The census of 1850 showed that 92.5 per cent of the population was male. Most of the females were girls working in the saloons amid long gilt mirrors and red calico curtains.

    Throughout it all, the gold production increased year by year to 77 tonnes (2.5 million ounces) in 1851, then a peak of 93 tonnes (3 million ounces) in 1853. The US Mint began coining Californian gold in such profusion that silver coins became scarce almost overnight. Yet the Californian rush had a relatively short life. The alluvial gold that was easily available on the surface was quickly scooped up. Once it had gone, the search for gold called for more patience and better equipment. By the mid-1850s, the pattern of gold mining was changing. No longer was it the individual miner with his pan, but a group of men joining together and pooling their capital to build more elaborate crushing equipment and to dig deeper. As early as 1851 the San Francisco weekly Alta California noted, 'We have now the river bottoms and the quartz veins, but to get the gold from them we must employ gold'.

    Miners still dashed off at the least hint of gold. There was a rush to the Fraser river in British Columbia in 1858; Pike's Peak, Colorado in 1859; and Boise, Idaho in 1862. None of them produced gold on any scale comparable to California. The richest discovery was the Comstock Lode near Virginia City, Nevada, in 1859. The Lode contained such high-grade deposits of gold and silver that, ultimately, it yielded $306 million worth of the two metals, including 193 tonnes (6.2 million ounces) of gold. Among those in Virginia City at the height of the rush was Mark Twain. He later wrote about the boom town in Roughing It: 'Money was as plentiful as dust: every individual considered himself wealthy, and a melancholy countenance was nowhere to be seen. The "city" of Virginia ... claimed a population of fifteen to eighteen thousand, and all day long half of this little army swarmed the streets like bees and the other half swarmed among the drifts and tunnels of the "Comstock", hundreds of feet down in the earth directly under those same streets. Often we felt our chairs jar, and heard the faint boom of a blast down in the bowels of the earth under the office'.

  • 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.