Hans Merensky – the prisoner of war

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12th September 2014


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Ninety years ago, almost to the day, South Africa’s pre-eminent geologist, Dr Hans Merensky, made one of the most important and phenomenal mineral discoveries anywhere in the world when he identified a section of the platinum-group-metal-rich Bushveld Igneous Complex, near the town of Lydenburg, in what was at the time known as the Eastern Transvaal.

However, before an account of that discovery can be elaborated on, it is necessary to relate another, lesser known, episode of Merensky’s extraordinary life in South Africa, for this month marks not only the anniversary of his most famous discovery but also the centenary of his internment as a prisoner of war.

Although Merensky was born in South Africa (at his father’s missionary station, Botshabelo, near Middelburg) and always considered the land to be home, he spent all his young adulthood, from age 11 to 33, in his fatherland of Germany. It was while living in Germany that Merensky, in between completing school and attending university in Breslau, was compelled to undertake compulsory military service, in which he served with the Rifle Guards, garrisoned in Berlin. He ended his military service in the rank of lieutenant, although he was compelled to remain a reservist in the Prussian Army.

After completing his mining and geological studies and gaining some practical experience in Upper Silesia, Merensky returned to South Africa in early 1904, where he set up a geological consultancy in Johannesburg to serve the needs of the still burgeoning mining industry.

Merensky had been living and working in South Africa and steadily building a reputation as one of the best and most reliable geologists in Johannesburg for a decade by the time the First World War broke out. On the outbreak of the war, thousands of German and Austrian nationals as well as extreme Germany sympathisers in South Africa and other British colonies in Southern Africa were immediately classified as enemies of the State, arrested and interned for the entirety of the four-year-long hostility. Further, all property and investments owned by German nationals were seized by the Custodian of Enemy Property in South Africa and sold off to pro-British buyers.

Given that Merensky was a German national and, more importantly, a Prussian reserve officer, it was inevitable that he too would be branded an enemy and arrested, despite his South African birth, his love for the land and decade-long contribution to the country’s mining industry. Following his arrest in the first few days of the war, which, quite humiliatingly, took place in the Rand Club in full view of his mining peers and colleagues, Merensky was taken to the internment camp at Fort Napier, in Natal. (Fort Napier, overlooking Pietermaritzburg, was a military garrison built in 1843 and used as the headquarters of the British Imperial Troops in Natal until the outbreak of the First World War. In the wake of the declaration of war, South Africa’s Prime Minister, Louis Botha, selected Fort Napier as the most appropriate site for the prisoner-of-war camp on the basis that Natal was “the most British portion” of the country.)

The period of his internment was a tale of considerable woe for Merensky. He suffered enormously from his loss of liberty, especially in view of the fact that he had chosen the career of consulting geologist because he detested any coercion and loved living in the open and seeing only the wide horizon. Moreover, the lack of any sensible activities, combined with the uncertainty of the duration of his internship and the even greater anxiety of what would happen to him after the war, tortured him continuously and his health was irreparably affected by this suffering.

However, to be fair, the conditions in the internment camp were not unbearable and could in no way be compared with the conditions endured by prisoners of war in Europe. Although contact with the outside world was very limited, the camp fence was permeable to a degree, at least from the outside to the inside, which meant that everything necessary to make camp life bearable managed to find its way into the fort. Moreover, the internees were a highly innovative and active group, with practically every profession and craft being represented. Thus, soon the camp had not only every essential installation and facility but also an exercise yard, a swimming pool and a tennis court. Even some schnapps was produced in the small distillery erected by the inmates.

Deeply depressed, Merensky held back from those activities with other inmates, opting instead to walk for hours along the inside of the barbed-wire fence every day. He was a loner and kept to himself, and only occasionally could he be persuaded to present a talk to his fellow inmates. In those talks, he would discuss the geology and mineral deposits of South Africa and describe the vast unexploited potential of the country. Not surprisingly, in his last year in the camp, Merensky became seriously ill, most probably for psychological reasons, and for many weeks was bedridden and lay in a darkened room for much of that time.

Four long years passed in this manner and, at last, the war ended in Europe in the winter of 1918. In the chaos that ensued after the declaration of peace, it took several months before the camp was dissolved and the prisoners released.

When Merensky was released in the early months of 1919, his future was completely uncertain and he had serious doubts about whether he would be able to set himself up as a consultant again. Other than the clothes he wore on his back and £15 in his pocket, Merensky had absolutely nothing.
Little did he know that he was on the brink of a most prolific and distinguished geological career and, within a few short years, would be instrumental in further discovering and defining South Africa’s unparalleled mineral treasure trove of platinum, diamonds and gold.

Edited by Samantha Herbst
Creamer Media Deputy Editor



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