It is a little-known fact that South Africa’s very first commercial mining company was established in 1846.
The pioneering South African Mining Company was essentially formed in Cape Town in the mid-1840s to exploit the rich copper resources that were believed to exist in Namaqualand.
Although the existence of copper had first been confirmed by Cape governor Simon van der Stel, in 1685, the profitable exploitation of that copper ore had been impeded for more than a century primarily owing to the harsh conditions and extremely remote location of the copper deposits.
More than 140 years after Van der Stel’s pioneering expedition, interest was revived in those copper deposits when explorer Sir James Alexander undertook a journey to the south-west port of Africa under the auspices of the British Royal Geographical Society between 1836 and 1837.
Alexander journeyed through the wild region traversed by the Orange river and recorded the discovery of a very rich copper mine in the Richtersveld area.
According to some historical sources, one year after his discovery, Alexander started the exploitation of copper deposits in the same region but the mine was soon abandoned owing to difficulties with water and with the general inaccessibility of the country.
Despite Alexander’s failed attempts to exploit the copper deposits, the attention that his activities drew to that remote corner of Southern African was directly responsible for stimulating the formation of the South African Mining Company.
The company was established a few years after Alexander’s expedition to Namaqualand on March 21, 1846, and consisted of nine directors, all of whom were prominent Cape Town businespeople.
The rationale for the establishment of the company was contained within the company’s prospectus, published in the Cape Town-based newspaper The Shipping and Mercantile Gazette.
The prospectus stated: “The existence of valuable mines in South Africa, capable of yielding abundantly to a company established on sound principles, and properly worked, is a simple fact well known for some time in the colony. Still, up to the present time, no proper effort has been put forth to work them, and their easily procured wealth has been allowed to remain dormant.”
Thus, it was the intention of the South African Mining Company to exploit those valuable mines and reap the rewards of “their easily procured wealth”.
The company resolved to focus its attention on the copper deposits in Namaqualand, the existence of which had been reconfirmed by Alexander a few years earlier.
Soon after the formal establishment of the company, the directors resolved to undertake a survey of the area on which the mine would be located in order to determine the exact locality of the area, the geological position of the ore, the availability of labour, the means which could be employed to get the ore to the coast, the existence of a safe harbour and the ownership of the territory in which the mine was situated.
The exact location of the mine the company intended to work was 28º, 40' South latitude, and 7º, 8' east longitude.
According to the company’s prospectus, at that particular location there was a mountain of quartz, “on the surface of which are earth and stones, impregnanted with oxide of copper, and on penetrating about two feet into the mountain, the intersices between the strata which lie nearly perpendicular are full of rich ore, yielding from 28% to 65% pure copper”.
In June of that year, honorary secretary of the company Thomas Fannin left for Namaqualand to undertake a survey of the surrounding area and to confirm and augment the information regarding the potential mine. He was accompanied by an engineer, a miner and the other necessary staff.
Fannin’s party arrived at the mine on September 7 and mining started within seven days. By September 22 the shaft was already 8 ft deep and a vein of some 14 in wide had been struck.
Progress was rapid, but this was vital if a supply of funds was to be ensured.
As the shaft was pushed downwards, the ore was found in bunches, growing larger and richer as they progressed.
The samples obtained from this opera- tion, which were sent to Cape Town, yielded 70% copper.
Despite the favourable yield of the samples provided, chairperson of the company Baron von Ludwig considered that it was essential to forward a few tons of good ore in order to convince the shareholders that work was being done on their behalf.
In a letter to Fannin, Von Ludwig stated that, as soon as Fannin had remitted a few tons of copper ore, he intended calling together a general meeting of the shareholders to propose a further small advance on their shares as the capital of the company was almost exhausted.
Because of the difficulty in procuring labour, Fannin found it impossible to mine 5 t or 10 t of ore as requested and ship it to Cape Town.
At this point, Fannin was requested to go back to Cape Town to attend the second meeting of the company and it is not known if the copper ore arrived in Cape Town.
At the meeting, Fannin told the directors that he hoped no further delay would occur in working the mine, “satisfied as I am that the exports of precious metals from this colony will soon be larger than all its other exports added together”.
However, soon after that meeting, the exploratory mining activities ceased and the company appears simply to have faded out of existence without ever having formally dissolved.
While the failure of the company cannot be fathomed from the existing historical record, it can be postulated that the demise of the South African Mining Company was due to a number of factors, including the harsh operating environment of Namaqualand, the logistical problems in transporting the copper ore, and a general unwillingness by shareholders to further finance a project that was not bearing expedi- tious results.