Friday, February 12, 2010

Mining ancestors: diamonds and gold in SA

By 1875 there was a comparatively small European-descended population in South Africa of about 328 000. By 1911 this had grown to 1 276 000.

A significant factor in the increase was the discovery of diamonds and gold stepping up the pace of immigration in the 1870s and 1880s. People from all over the world flocked to the diggings and mining towns like Barberton sprang up overnight, some to disappear almost as quickly and become ghost towns. But while it lasted, gold and diamond fever caused an electric shiver of excitement that was hard to resist.

It wasn’t necessary to be a prospector in South Africa ‘pegging a claim’ to be part of the boom. British investors clamoured for shares; hundreds of mining companies – many of them entirely bogus - came into being offering share certificates and there was some heavy plunging on stock markets; fortunes were made and lost.

Natal settler Sydney Turner wrote from Ladysmith to his mother in England:

Everyone here is either on the move or has shares in some Gold Company or other, every man, woman and child seems to me to have gone crazy …I could mention fifty that went up next to penniless twelve months ago and are now millionaires …Of all the motley crews one ever saw or heard of … All the scoundrels of Africa, as well as professional men, soldiers, sailors, tinkers, tailors, poor men, rich men, beggars and thieves are on the march up, and I hear from friends …that Barberton is a Hell-upon-earth …*

After the first rush to Barberton around 1884, richer deposits of gold were found on the Witwatersrand in 1885; Johannesburg was founded. read about Cockney Liz, French Bob, Tom McLachlan and other colourful characters of Barberton in the gold rush days.

*Source: Portrait of a Pioneer, The Letters of Sydney Turner from South Africa 1864-1901, ed. Daphne Child, Macmillan SA, Johannesburg 1980. The original letters are held in the Local History Museum, Durban, Natal.

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