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There is, of course, evidence of mining in Southern Africa, stretching back a great many centuries, but concentrating for the time being on gold discoveries by Europeans on the Witwatersrand during the nineteenth century, we find many stories of gold finds dating back to long before the official discovery in 1886. Not many of these find support in the written archives, though. A Dutch hunter, Karel Kruger, is purported to have found gold on the Witwatersrand while on an expedition in 1834, and to have taken some samples back to Cape Town. Two years later, on his return to the interior to hunt and follow-up on his gold find, he and most of his party were massacred by tribesmen close to where Potchefstroom stands today.

hist1But perhaps the history of modern gold mining on the Witwatersrand should begin with mention of an intrepid South African prospector and miner who was involved and present at all three of the major gold rushes of the nineteenth century on three separate continents, thereby providing perhaps a singular and a unique South African link between the gold strikes of Clementine’s Forty-Niners on the Klondike, Matilda’s Waltzers in Victoria, and Sarie’s Suitors on the Witwatersrand. Pieter Jacob Marais was born in the Cape in 1827 and, as a young man who had barely attained his majority, sailed in 1849 from Cape Town, via Liverpool, to San Francisco to try his luck in the Californian gold rush. (Incidentally, save for some cash, he was also to lose most of his worldly belongings in the first great fire of San Francisco in October 1850, providing a further, albeit tenuous, link with seismic phenomena that have plagued mines in more recent times).

He was obviously an adventurer because, on hearing of the rich strikes in Ballarat and Bendigo in 1851, he was off again, this time as a United States citizen, sailing to Australia in 1852. His pickings on the Victoria diggings were, however, somewhat lean, and, on learning of the resurgent excitement surrounding copper finds in Namaqualand from some South African travellers in Melbourne, he completed his around the world expedition by returning to South Africa in 1853. After some months spent on the copper fields near the present-day towns of Springbok and O’OKiep, he found his way, towards the end of 1853, across the not-yet independent Orange Free State to the newly independent South African Republic on the other side of the Vaal River, joining other prospectors that were already criss-crossing the Transvaal in search of sudden, if not easy, wealth at that time. (One should remember that in those days there was little in the way of distractions, like Teasers, to divert or deter prospectors from their ambition or dream of making their fortune – perhaps for the same reason).

One of these was a successful, accomplished and well-off, but elderly, Welshman named John Henry Davis, who, during his lifetime of extensive travel, had, amongst other wide-ranging activities, explored diamond and gold deposits in Brazil. In the 1840s he immigrated to the Cape with his family. Subsequently, in 1852, a year earlier than Marais, he was also drawn by the lure of riches, firstly to the copper rush in Namaqualand, and then soon thereafter to the Transvaal. On the farm Paardekraal, where Krugersdorp now stands, he found significant quantities of gold or gold-bearing rock. Although not recorded, it is very possible that these came from the conglomerate reefs of the Witwatersrand, and, if this is so, he was perhaps the very first person, besides the dubious claim of Karel Kruger, to discover the gold of the Main Reef series. However, when he showed his samples to the Volksraad in Potchefstroom, the wily President Andries Pretorius, anticipating, fearing and avoiding the fate that was later to befall President Paul Kruger, saw to it that Davis was paid $600 for his gold and told leave the country forthwith. So Davis returned to the Cape to live out the remainder of his long life in relative obscurity in Paarl. (Much later, his great-grandson, Roland Davis, became the Town Treasurer of Springs, a town founded on the very gold deposit that his great-grandfather had discovered).

hist2About a year later, having crossed into the Transvaal, Marais started fossicking in the Jukskei and Crocodile rivers to the immediate north of the Witwatersrand ridge, finding small traces of gold, sufficient only to whet his appetite. Nevertheless, the ever-wary Volksraad in Potchefstroom, having become aware of his activities, summoned him to give account of his findings. He must have made a good impression, because at the end of 1854, unlike their treatment of Davis, the Volksraad granted Marais the right to prospect for gold in the Republic on their behalf, but swore him to absolute secrecy should he find anything – literally on pain of death. Mining Commissioners were appointed in the districts of Potchefstroom, Rustenburg, Zoutpansberg and Lydenburg, to whom he was required to report any and all discoveries in the strictest confidence.

It seems, however, that Marais’ prospecting fire was starting to dim. He spent the next year on long wagon journeys that combined trading and prospecting activities, and which reached as far north as the Zoutpansberg. He was also involved in local Boer affairs, and in November 1855 was around to help Paul Kruger and Hans Nel remove the slain body of Piet Grobler from the mouth of the cave during the massacre at Makapanspoort. This episode spelled the end of his prospecting days, for he returned to the province of his birth before the end of that year to open a shop in Dordrecht, where he died as a relatively young man ten years later, not surviving to see his thirty-ninth year, or the discovery of diamonds the year after, nor the establishment of the world’s largest goldfield, of which he had tried so hard to be a part, and which, despite the muzzle of silence put upon him by the authorities, was precipitated in part by the news of his discoveries, revealed by others, that spread rapidly around the world.

Although he was not directly responsible for importing any particular prospecting or mining technologies to this country, Marais’ passage around the world and across three oceans mirrored the slightly more drawn-out journey of the claim system that characterised the early diamond and gold digging operations in South Africa, and that persists in modified form to this day. The system was carried, virtually unchanged, by nomadic and migrant miners from its centuries-old origins in medieval Spain, across the Atlantic to Mexico and California, and then across the Pacific to Australia, and finally from there across the Indian Ocean to South Africa.

There is one further anecdote that links this pioneer of the early gold rushes of the mid-1850s directly with the present era. Before leaving the Transvaal, Marais was asked by his friend, Lieutenant Vincent Lys, father of Godfray Lys (the step-nephew of Harry and Fred Struben), to join him in exploring an exposure of ‘pudding stone’ that he had come across, and had determined by crushing and panning to be gold-bearing. The circumstances surrounding the occurrence were that, on a trip from Pietermaritzburg to Pretoria, while crossing the Witwatersrand in the vicinity of where the future Witwatersrand Gold Mining Company (Knights) was to be established, some of these ‘pudding stone’ boulders were used in the effort to extricate Lys’s wagon that had become bogged down in a marsh (later called Lys’s Vlei). Marais declined the invitation, thereby hastening his premature withdrawal from participation in the discovery of the Main Reef and untimely exit from the historical record. But it is very likely that the elder Lys can also be regarded, along with Davis, as a contender for recognition as an early discoverer of the Main Reef Zone. The connection with the present is that Marais was a friend of the elder Lys, whose son in later life related the story to his young friend at the time, Eric Rosenthal, who, as the senior member of the Springbok Radio quiz team ‘The Three Wise Men’, related the story as an old man in the 1950s to his young listeners who, as old people today, can still recall the story first-hand, so to speak.

dave This story was written by Dave Arnold.
Please feel free to contact Dave with any historical stories for the next edition.    
davmae@iafrica.com