Witwatersrand Gold Rush
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There had always been rumours of a modern-day "El Dorado" in the folklore of the native tribes that roamed the plains of the South African highveld and in that of the gold miners who had come from all over the world to seek out their fortunes on the alluvial mines of Barberton and Pilgrim's Rest, in what is now known as the province of Mpumalanga.
But it was not until 1886 that the massive wealth of the Witwatersrand would be uncovered. Scientific studies have pointed to the fact that the "Golden Arc" which stretches from Johannesburg to Welkom was once a massive inland lake, and that silt and gold deposits from alluvial gold settled in the area to form the gold-rich deposits that South Africa is famous for.
Explorer and prospector Jan Gerritze Bantjes (1840-1914) was the first and original discoverer of the Witwatersrand gold reef in June 1884 having prospected the area since the early 1880s, as well as operating the Kromdraai Gold Mine from 1881 to the NW of present-day Johannesburg together with his partner Johannes Stephanus Minnaar in an area known today as "The Cradle of Humankind". But Bantjes had his suspicions that the main reef lay about 25 km. to the south-east near and along a low range of hills known as the Witwatersrand and it was there he began prospecting from 1882. In late 1883 Bantjes began picking up traces of gold but it wasn't until June 1884 when his discovery of a major seam came to light. By this time Bantjes had aroused interest in other prospectors who also began trickling in and picking about the area. Brothers Fred and Harry Strubens soon arrived having purchased an ore stamp machine. Bantjes used this machine to crush the very first gold bearing rock on the Witwatersrand. News of gold spread rapidly and reached Cecil Rhodes in Kimberley. Rhodes and his partner Robertson with a team of companions were curious and rode over 400 km. to Bantjes' camp at Vogelstruisfontein and stayed with him for two nights near what would later become Roodepoort. Rhodes purchased the first batch of Witwatersrand gold from Bantjes for £3000,-. The worlds largest ever gold rush had begun and South Africa would never be the same. News spread around the world and prospectors from Australia to California began arriving en masse and the first lanterns of a soon to be Johannesburg began flickering along dusty streets. For a number of years all went well, but then President Paul Kruger of the SAR (South African Republic) began getting worried so many foreigners would soon outnumber the Boers, and the first of certain "measures" were put into place. Bantjes, whose father had educated Kruger when he was a boy during the Great Trek, had discussions with Kruger regarding those "measures." One of them was to place heavy taxes on the sale of dynamite to the foreigners so as to slow the momentum. This only agitated the miners and which gave the British a reason to make a grab for the gold fields and take the lot for themselves. The disastrous Jameson Raid followed which put Cecil Rhodes in the spotlight. The temperature on the highveld was heating up.
Soon the British in London were debating annexing the future prospects of the Transvaal and once again Dutch/British interests were going to clash, which it eventually did once again with the Second Boer War in 1899.
For many years after the Boer War there was confusion around the first pioneers of the gold industry, and several later discoverers of new reefs attempted to claim discovery for themselves. As the story went, it was believed that on a Sunday in March 1886 an Australian wanderer, [George Harrison (a carpenter], stumbled across a rocky outcrop of the main gold-bearing reef. He declared his claim with the then-government of the Suid Afrikaanse Republiek (ZAR), and the area was pronounced open. His discovery is recorded in history with a monument where the original gold outcrop is believed to be located, and a park named in his honour. Ironically, Harrison is believed to have sold his claim for less than 10 Pounds before leaving the area, and he was never heard of again. Prospecting and mining was not his leaning and it was Bantjes who should have had a monument and park built in his honor. This misrepresentation highlights the then British/Dutch animosity toward one another after the Anglo Boer War of 1899-1902 where the winner takes all. Two opposing nations were vying for victory within the same borders.
Founding of Johannesburg
It did not take long for fortune-seekers from all over the world to flock to the area, and soon what was a dusty mining village known as Ferreira's Camp was formalised into a settlement. Initially, the ZAR did not believe that the gold would last for long, and mapped out a small triangular piece of land to cram as many plots onto as possible. This is the reason why Johannesburg's central business district streets are so narrow.
Within 10 years, the town was already the largest in South Africa, outstripping the growth of Cape Town, which was more than 200 years older. The gold rush saw massive development of Johannesburg and the Witwatersrand, and the area remains the prime metropolitan area of South Africa. The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand also created a super wealthy class of miners and industrialists known as Randlords.
Second Boer War
The Witwatersrand Gold Rush was a major contributing factor of the failed Jameson Raid of 1895 to 1896, and of the outbreak of the Second Boer War in 1899. Boer resentment over the large number of foreigners (Uitlanders) in the Witwatersrand led to heavy taxes and the denial of voting rights for the gold miners, and in response the Uitlanders and the British owners of the mines began to pressure the overthrow of the Boer government.
- Tabitha Jackson: The Boer War. London: Channel 4 Books, 1999.
- The Greatest Discovery of them all, heritageportal.co.za, 2013
- The Johannesburg Gold Fields, The Baldwin Project
- The Rand, West Gippsland Gazette, June 21, 1904
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