In the process of popularising the history of the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand, much of the early narrative was sidelined in favour of a crisp, uncomplicated tale in which George Harrison was the first to stumble across the auriferous conglomerate outcrop in February 1886, some 130 years ago.
But, as was related in the previous instal-ment of this column, the story of gold on the Witwatersrand, in fact, dates back to the 1830s and can be likened to the building of a puzzle, with each piece representing a find that facilitated the famous Langlaagte discovery.
While there are certainly many individuals who could claim to have found traces of gold on the Witwatersrand during the course of the nineteenth century, the man who is regarded as having made the single greatest contribution to this puzzle of discovery is Fred Struben.Pursuit of Gold
Considered one of the most prolific self-taught geologists and prospectors to have traversed the South African landscape in pursuit of gold, Struben was undoubtedly one of the most inspiring figures of our mining history. It is said that Struben, who was born in the former British colony of Natal in 1851, displayed a keen interest in geology while still a young boy and soon developed a talent amounting to genius for discovering hidden mineral treasures. He began seeking his fortune in his early twenties and spent much of the 1870s actively exploring promising auriferous formations in Natal, Swaziland, the Orange Free State, the Waterberg and the goldfields of the former Eastern Transvaal.
It was towards the end of 1883 that Struben, having heard rumours of the discovery of gold in the vicinity, decided to try his luck on the Witwatersrand. His arrival coincided with the auctioning of a farm called Sterkfontein, adjacent to the property Kromdraai, which had itself been well prospected in the past and found to be marginally auriferous. What certainly sealed the deal was the auctioneer’s advertisement of Sterkfontein, which stated that “gold-bearing quartz reefs, as well as valuable lodes of silver and lead ore” had been discovered on the property and that samples could “be seen at the office of the trustee”.
With the financial backing of his older brother, Harry Struben, himself a wealthy farmer-cum-trader-cum-transport rider, the younger Struben bought the property for the not unsubstantial sum of £2 800. The brothers subsequently formed the Sterkfontein Junction Mining Syndicate and Fred Struben soon got to work prospecting their new property.
While he certainly did find a promising gold-bearing quartz vein, which assayed at an average of 2 oz to the ton, while sinking a shaft to access what was believed to be the richest part of the deposit, he struck a permanent stream of water that flooded the tunnel. Although attempts were made to divert the stream, such efforts were in vain and Struben was forced to abandon the operation.
Ever the optimistic prospector, he soon turned his attention to other promising formations. It was during this spate of investigations, in the autumn of 1884, that Fred Struben claimed to have first identified the famous gold-bearing conglomerate reef. In a statement given to English journalist Edward Mathers in 1887, Fred Struben related his tale of discovery thus: “Early in April 1884, I first came across some water-worn pebbles on the very highest parts of the range. This I thought strange, and felt certain the whole country must have been at one time submerged. “This, naturally, led me to think that there must be conglomerate beds or drifts in the neighbourhood, which possibly might carry gold, as in other parts of the world had been the case. I therefore determined to examine the country more closely. “By the end of April, I had succeeded in finding two of the conglomerate beds or reefs, but finding no gold in them, I, for some time, gave them no further attention, as I was too busily engaged with other work just then.“
In March 1885, I again turned my attention to them. This time I was more successful and found a great number, some of them bearing gold. About this time I wrote to my brother that I had made the discovery of a new formation, which in South Africa was not known hitherto, and that, if it would give anything like payable gold, there was room and work for hundreds of mills and thousands of miners. “I showed these conglomerate beds to several parties, among them an expert, and was well laughed at for my trouble.”
Whether this is entirely accurate or not is inconsequential, for Fred Struben’s true contri-bution to the discovery of gold and subsequent gold rush came in another form entirely. Promising Farms While Fred Struben was fossicking his way across what would soon become the greatest goldfield in the world, Harry Struben had been busy buying other promising farms in the vicinity of what is now known as the West Rand. One of the purchased properties was the eastern portion of the farm Wilgespruit, a property on which a fair amount of prospecting had been done in the past.
Little did the brothers realise it, but the pur-chase of that particular farm and the subsequent discovery of a phenomenally rich auriferous quartz vein in the spring of 1884 would prove to be the catalyst to South Africa’s greatest mineral rush and the turning point in the history of not only the Witwatersrand but also the entire country.
(To be continued.)