Johannesburg’s early history is the story of gold. In 1853 Pieter Jacob Marais, a South African prospector, recovered alluvial gold from the Jukskei River, north of what would become Johannesburg. The years that followed brought several modest strikes, but the Witwatersrand Main Reef eluded searchers until 1886, when George Harrison, an Australian prospector, chanced upon an outcropping on a farm called Langlaagte. Ironically, Harrison failed to appreciate the significance of his find: he sold his claim for £10 and embarked for the goldfields of the eastern Transvaal region.

Others were more farsighted. By mid-1886, an army of diggers had descended on the Witwatersrand, hacking away with picks and shovels along a line that soon stretched 40 miles west to east. In response to this influx, the government of the Transvaal, the small Boer republic under whose jurisdiction the Witwatersrand fell, dispatched two men, Vice President Christiaan Johannes Joubert and Deputy Surveyor-General Johann Rissik, to inspect the goldfields and identify a suitable city site. The new city was called Johannesburg, apparently in their honour.

As the scale of the gold deposits became apparent, Johannesburg became the 19th century’s last great boomtown. Fortune hunters from as far afield as Australia and California joined skilled Cornish and Welsh miners, who brought to South Africa a strong trade-union tradition. Destitute Afrikaners, driven from their rural homes by debt and drought, clustered in slums such as Brickfields and Vrededorp. Africans from every corner of the southern African subcontinent migrated to the city, often in large ethnic cohorts, adding a dozen more voices to the cultural and linguistic babel. Most Africans worked on the mines, completing six- and nine-month contracts before returning to their rural homes. Others settled permanently in the swelling city, carving out niches as rickshaw drivers, domestic workers, and washermen. By 1896, Johannesburg had become a city of 100,000 people.

Conceived in avarice, the young city nurtured every species of vice. Banks and boarding houses jostled for space with more than 500 saloons. Criminal syndicates with roots in New York City and London found fertile soil in Johannesburg. The predominantly male population provided a robust market for prostitution. “Ancient Ninevah and Babylon have been revived”, a visiting journalist wrote in 1913. “Johannesburg is their twentieth century prototype. It is a city of unbridled squalor and unfathomable squander.”

The gold deposits of the Main Reef, for all their uncanny dependability, were also extremely low-grade. Tons of the pebbly conglomerate had to be mined, crushed, amalgamated with mercury (later cyanide), and retorted in order to produce even an ounce or two of gold. This fact, combined with gold’s internationally fixed price, produced a perennial problem of profitability, which increased exponentially as the reef dipped away to the south to depths of hundreds, and ultimately thousands, of feet. (South African gold mines would eventually reach depths of over two miles, making them far and away the deepest mines in the world).

All these factors promoted a rapid consolidation of the industry. By the mid-1890s, control of the entire Witwatersrand gold industry rested in the hands of a half-dozen massive mining houses, each of which commanded thousands of workers and millions of dollars in capital, most of it raised from investors in Europe and the United States. Control of these companies lay with a small number of so-called “Randlords”, men such as Cecil John Rhodes, Alfred Beit, Barney Barnato, and J.B. Robinson, who had made their fortunes on the Kimberley diamond fields and well understood the exigencies of large-scale industrial mining. The company called Goldfields of South Africa, started by Cecil John Rhodes is still in existence today.

Paul Couto