Perhaps the most extraordinary reality of the early history of the Witwatersrand goldfield is that the discovery of 1886 was greeted with a fair degree of scepticism, particularly from career mining engineers, most of whom had not only mining college degrees, but also considerable experience with auriferous-bearing deposits in other parts of the world.
While, today, it may seem entirely ludicrous to have denounced the potential of the goldfield, especially given that, over the last 130 years, it has yielded about one-third of all the gold ever mined in the world, it is important to bear two points in mind.
Firstly, the Witwatersrand is one of the unique mineral-bearing geological formations on earth. The goldfield is essentially a 6-m-thick conglomerate series of thin sedimentary layers that is 300 km long and 160 km wide. The layers predominantly comprise rounded pebbles set in a fine-grained matrix, and it is within that fine material that minute but evenly spread traces of gold are to be found. Such a geological formation, particularly an auriferous one, was certainly a rarity in the nineteenth century and knowledge of such would have been almost nonexistent. Most of the payable gold that had been discovered up to that point, and this specifically refers to the major gold rushes of California, Australia and even the old Eastern Transvaal, was either alluvial or embedded within quartz veins.
Secondly, the Witwatersrand was a very low-grade prospect; initially, the mines on the Central Rand yielded just an average of 1 oz, or 28 g, to the ton. This was a far cry from the 8 oz/t that was being yielded at the Sheba mine, some 360 km away.
Given these two points, it is not entirely absurd that even the most respected of mining engineers could have rejected the viability of the Witwatersrand, at least on initial inspection.
Undoubtedly, the most famous denouncer of the economic potential and viability of exploiting that goldfield was none other than Gardner Fred Williams, arguably one of the most famous American mining engineers of the nineteenth century. Having graduated from the famed Royal Mining Academy at Freiberg in 1868, Williams spent the next 16 years opening and consulting on a number of mines across the US. By 1884, reports of his well-established reputation and capabilities had travelled across the Atlantic and he was, subsequently, sought out by the London-based Transvaal Gold Exploration & Land Company to manage its mining interests in Pilgrim’s Rest and Barberton.
During his time there, he made a close examination of all the alluvial and reef deposits and, although many had shown fabulously rich pockets, he could see no great valuable gold quartz reefs to fall back on once the alluvial gravels had been exhausted. Given the lack of long-term prospects, Williams resigned in July 1885.
While it was his intention to return home, Williams was persuaded by the Struben brothers to make a detour through the Witwatersrand to examine their Confidence Reef mining prospect. The importance of both Williams’ reputation and opinion is best expressed in a letter written by Fred Struben on July 22, 1885: “We are daily expecting Mr Williams of Pilgrim’s Rest. The latter person’s opinion is worth more than the whole lot put together, so I am a little anxious and nervous to get it, for if it is favourable, our fortune is made.”
Unfortunately for the Struben brothers, Williams gave a very negative opinion of their operations. In terms of the Confidence Reef, he told them that the reef was of minor importance and they were merely working a highly mineralised zone. After visiting their other farm, Kromdraai, he was even more convinced that those reefs were also of minor importance and that they were certainly not on the main orebody.
Having crushed the Struben’s hopes, Williams then decided to travel to Kimberley to investigate the famed diamondfields. It was on that trip that he first made the acquaintance of Cecil John Rhodes. The acquaintance blossomed into a close friendship a few weeks later while on the same ship to England. There, they spent hours discussing Rhodes’ intention to amalgamate the diamond mines and then gain control of the territory north of the Transvaal.
Williams returned home in time for Christmas that year. However, the African diamond and gold bug had bitten and he was compelled to return to South Africa towards the end of 1886.
On his return, he met up with Rhodes again and agreed to help him consolidate all the diamond mining operations under one monopoly. However, before embarking on that ambitious strategy, Rhodes asked him to investigate the newly declared Witwatersrand goldfield, which he had himself visited in mid-1886, to get his much-valued opinion.
Williams obliged and, in January 1887, he spent ten days on the Rand, investigating all the existing strikes along the Main Reef and the various properties, which included the Ferreira mine, which had been offered to Rhodes and his partners. He was joined on this exploratory trip by Rhodes and his representative on the Rand, Dr Hans Sauer.
At the end of the trip, Sauer, eager for confirmation of the richness of the new field, asked for the great engineer’s assessment. “Dr Sauer,” Williams famously replied, “if I rode over these reefs in America I would not get off my horse to look at them. In my opinion, they are not worth hell room.”
Such a statement must rank as one of the most spectacular misjudgments of South Africa’s mining history. And, given that he only died in 1922, Williams certainly lived to rue his words for a long time thereafter.
It was because of such misguided advice that Rhodes and his partners missed out on acquiring virgin mining property, particularly on the Central Rand, which would eventually be revealed to be richly auriferous. Moreover, it caused him to miss out on capitalising on the first investment rush and, as a result, be incorrectly regarded as a latecomer to the Rand’s gold mining industry.