The Eersteling gold mine, the site of the first commercial gold mining activity in South Africa’s modern history, has, in many instances, been relegated to mere footnote status in our mining historiography.
While this may hardly be surprising, given that those pioneering mining efforts were largely unsuccessful and, therefore, short-lived – and the same can be said for the string of subsequent mining attempts that have been made on the property over the last 140 years – Eersteling’s historical significance as the first gold mine and, more importantly, the catalyst for the feverish prospecting that led to the discovery of gold at Spitzkop, MacMac and then Pilgrim’s Rest, cannot be disregarded.
Therefore, it is certainly gratifying that, although it may not feature prominently in history books, Eersteling does have a physical presence on South Africa’s heritage landscape, with the site, or at least the original chimney, which was erected in 1873 as part of the crushing facilities, being listed a national monument.
As with most tales of precious metals discovery in South Africa, the finding of gold and the establishment of mining operations on the farm Eersteling, near what is today Polokwane, in Limpopo province, is certainly fascinating and worth recounting, even just briefly.
Gold was first discovered on the farm Eersteling in mid-1870 by farmer-turned- prospector Jacobus du Preez. It was discovered at a time when the South African Republic of the Transvaal was practically bankrupt and, in a desperate attempt to secure a new source of revenue for its stagnant economy, was encouraging the active search for gold within its borders.
Although Du Preez was sure that the deeply weathered quartz vein that traversed his farm was indeed auriferous, he was not certain of the richness of his discovery. So, having heard about a small group of prospectors led by seasoned gold hunter Edward Button, who were fossicking about in the vicinity, Du Preez invited the group to investigate his discovery. (It should be noted that, at the time of Du Preez’s discovery, the northern and eastern regions of the Transvaal were swarming with dozens of prospectors, many of whom, having failed to make a fortune during the unsuccessful Tati gold rush of 1868 to 1869 and not having sufficient fare to return home, were in search of a new gold strike.)
Much to his delight, Button gave his opinion that the discovery was indeed rich enough to prove payable. That gold-bearing quartz vein was subsequently christened the Natalia Reef in honour of Button’s home colony of Natal.
Button then travelled to Pretoria to report the discovery and submit samples for government’s inspection. Being impressed by the nature of the samples, as well as receiving a glowing report that was undertaken by the Transvaal’s surveyor- general on the discovery, the Volksraad proclaimed Eersteling a public diggings and christened the area the Marabastad goldfield. Inevitably, that proclamation was followed by a mini gold rush to Eersteling, with about 30 prospectors staking claims on the farm by the end of 1871.
In the meantime, Button sent samples of the quartz to London, where the first sample assayed at a respectable 2.5 g/kg. Such was his confidence in the economic potential of the reef that he bought Eersteling for the ludicrously low price of £50 and then went to London to float the Transvaal Gold Mining Company (TGMC) and buy mining and crushing equipment for his new venture. (Of course, having bought the farm and secured a mining concession, Button did not want to share any of the gold that might be won, so he unceremoniously kicked all the diggers off the Eersteling property.)
While Button was in England, his partner, William Pigg, began mining the upper part of the weathered quartz reef, which could be worked fairly easily. He employed local labourers to crush the quartz by hand, but this, inevitably, proved to be a slow and arduous process. The men could crush only 50 kg to 70 kg of ore a week and even then damaged their hands to such an extent that they could not keep up this rate of production. Then Pigg devised a new method – employing a 500 kg boulder as a quartz crushing mechanism. It was operated by two labourers, who, sitting on either end of a tree branch, rocked the boulder back and forth while quartz was fed beneath the boulder. Interestingly, this boulder is still in existence and can be viewed at the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History, in Pretoria.
Having been appointed GM of the TGMC, Button returned to the Transvaal at the end of 1872 with a 12-stamp battery and enough dressed Scottish stone to build a boiler and chimney. By the end of 1873, all the necessary facilities were in place and mining operations were fully under way. Such was the initial energy of the enterprise that, by January 1875, some 10 107 g of gold had been recovered. Unfortunately, recovering gold from the quartz became increasingly expensive and the mine soon proved to be barely economically viable. Although operations lumbered on, when war broke out between the Pedi and white settlers in the eastern Transvaal towards the end of 1876, Button was compelled to close the struggling operation the following year. Unfortunately, the history of mining operations subsequent to Button’s pioneering efforts is scanty, at best.
However, what is known is that, in 1934, the Eersteling Good Hope Gold Mine company was formed to develop and work the gold reefs of the Eersteling farm. While it does not appear that the company proved a roaring success, its efforts did serve to stimulate government’s interest in the property. As the government of the day was Barry Hertzog’s Pact government, which was very industrially inclined in its policies, it was only natural that it would seek to honour South Africa’s first gold mining efforts by proclaiming the site a national monument. Thus, it was that, in 1938, Eersteling was given national heritage status, in honour of those pioneering industrial efforts.
The monument, which is located amid beautiful Limpopo scenery, is well worth the visit. It is situated about 18 km south of Polokwane on the R101 South to Mokopane. Take the exit marked Eersteling Monument and drive another 5 km, although take care not to attempt the dirt track after heavy rain.