It was inevitable that the excitement of the Californian, Australian and South African gold rushes would spur the search for an ‘El Dorado’ in other localities across the globe. However, such was the scale and significance of these rushes that details of most of the prospecting activities and minor discoveries in the more remote regions often went unrecorded. Thus, it is certainly a rare historical gem to come across an article, published in 1852, that describes in some detail a South American prospector and his hunt for a gold mine.
The article in question, ‘Mine hunting in South America’, was originally published in the Practical Mechanics Journal – a yearly Scottish journal dedicated to the natural and physical sciences – and reprinted in the June 3, 1853, edition of The Natal Witness. It was written by an unnamed journalist commissioned to a make a week-long trip with a South American cateador, or gold mine hunter, for the simple purpose of conveying the character of a gold prospector and his process of discovering a mine. The article gives a rare insight into not only a cateador’s lifestyle but also the way prospecting was undertaken in those distant lands.
While the article does not name the country being explored, a few clues, particularly his garb and the altitude, s uggest that it could be Peru, Bolivia or Colombia, countries that are known to be auriferous and to have produced gold during Spanish colonial rule.
The first section of the article deals with the cateador’s style of outfit. It leaves the reader in no doubt about the simple, but practical, wants of a South American prospector and the harsh environment he would have to endure: “His clothes were made of coarse blue baize, save in exposed parts, which were covered with a sheathing of untanned hide. “He wore a hinder apron of this material and sandals of the same. Tied round his waist was his poncho, to serve him as a cloak by day and a bed by night. “At his back was slung a keg of water, about the size of a smuggler’s brandy keg. At one side hung a hide sack, containing some parched barley meal, and a similar bag on the other, containing two peculiar spoons, formed of a bullock’s horn, cut longitudinally, and a small hard stone, resembling a painter’s hand-grinding stone.”
The writer then goes on to describe the actual hunt for gold. Given that the two are compelled to leave their mules “on the borders of the extreme vegetable altitude”, it can be presumed that they are prospecting high up in the Andes mountain range. “We entered a narrow ravine between two lofty ridges of hills, our friend looking continually at the stones before his feet, which became more and more abundant, till nothing was seen but claylike shingle.”
What is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this description is that the prospector is clearly concentrating his efforts on finding indications that will lead him to a gold-bearing quartz vein from which a mine could be started. This went against the norm of gold prospecting in the main gold rush centres, where diggers looked for and ‘mined’ alluvial gold, either in streams or rivers or from deposits close to such water sources.
The party continues through the ravine, examining all the rocks on the ground until nightfall, at which point they make a little fire and gulp down a dinner of some parched meal mixed with a little of the precious water. (At least in South Africa, prospectors would have been able to supplement that meagre meal with some fresh meat or even biltong, given the abundance of game roaming the vast open veld.) After the meal, wrapped in nothing but their ponchos, the party members take what sleep they can until daybreak.
The morning of the second day proves much the same as the first, with the party trekking through a few ravines and the cateador examining various stones from time to time. However, at midday, he comes across a small fragment of quartz amidst a rubble of other stones, which he scrutinises in detail. “He then placed it on a flat piece of rock and pounded it and ground it to powder, which he placed in the horn and poured some water on it, shaking it about with a peculiar motion. “A second and a third water were added, and, finally, he showed a fringe of fine gold on the black horn, along the edge of the quartz sand.” The writer is clearly amazed at the revelation of gold in the horn, for he adds: “No vestige of gold could be discovered in the quartz before grinding.”
Satisfied that the piece of quartz contained enough gold to possibly make the vein it came from payable, the cateador follows other fragments of quartz like a trail of bread crumbs, until, at last, they come to an exposed auriferous vein in granite rock. The cateador then mines out a few pieces of the vein, which he puts in his satchel, piles a cairn of rocks to mark the site of his discovery, and the two begin the long trek home.
While on the journey home, they come across a miner in a nearby valley who, having been sufficiently enticed by the cateador’s description, buys the new discovery for just £25. In today’s terms, that would be equivalent to about R40 000. While the reward for such efforts may seem meagre, especially by today’s standards, it would probably have been a fairly decent sum for a man of such simple wants and lifestyle and who, no doubt, spent most of his time roaming the mountains and valleys alone in search of a glimmer of gold.