The initial attempts to discover valuable metals and minerals in the Cape of Good Hope, in the midseventeenth century, proved largely unsuccessful.
The first of the Dutch settlers, under the watchful eye of the Dutch East India Company, determinedly prospected the extent of the Cape Peninsula but, time after time, their hopes of valuable discoveries were dashed.
The authorities began to despair of success.
However, in the early 1680s, hopes were raised not by exploration but by reports that there was copper in Namaqualand, a region far to the north of the fledgling Dutch settlement.
(While it is not possible to determine when copper-mining started in Namaqualand, it is clear that the indigenous people of that region were involved in artisanal mining activities long before the arrival of the first European explorers in the fifteenth century.)
In 1681, the commander of the fort at the Cape of Good Hope, Simon van der Stel, tried to induce the Namaqua chiefs to visit him and, on December 21 of that year, a Namaqua deputation arrived in Cape Town.
They brought with them specimens of very high grade copper ore, which, they said, they had taken out of a mountain in Namaqualand with their own hands.
These specimens were of so rich that Van der Stel determined to make an inspection of the mines from which such generous samples of mineral richness had been so easily procured.
For, already in those early days of South African history, it had come to be realised that discoveries of mineral wealth would enormously promote and foster the success of the Dutch East India Company.
It was only in 1685 that Van der Stel received official authorisiation to lead an expedition to Namaqualand.
On August 25, 1685, he left the fort in the Cape of Good Hope, leading a well-provided party to Namaqualand, which consisted of 56 white men and five servants, a carriage, eight carts, seven wagons, 289 oxen, 13 horses, eight donkeys, and a boat.
Van der Stel meticulously documented his expedition to Namaqualand in his diary, which was later published under the title Simon van der Stel’s Journey to Namaqualand in 1685.
One of the members of that expedition was Frederich Mathias van Werlinckhof, a mineralogist in the employ of the Dutch East India Company, who had been sent out as chief mining engineer to be in charge of operations on the west coast of Sumatra but who was also to report on the minerals at the Cape on route.
Two months after setting out from Cape Town, the expedition reached the aptly named Koperberg hills, in Namaqualand.
These hills were found to be stained green with copper minerals, so holes were made in the hills and shafts were sunk.
Van der Stel and Van Welinckhof began a close examination of the copper occurrence and particularly concerned themselves with the economic viability of the mine, for there can be little doubt it was the commercial prospects of the deposits rather than any scientific value attached to them that appealed principally to the Commandant of the Cape.
About two weeks was devoted to extracting the ore and examining the surrounding country.
Van Werlinckhof was at first disappointed with the result of digging, but his opinion grew more favourable as the shaft sunk deeper and the grade of copper ore increased.
Van Werlinckhof noted in his diary that the place was of a very promising appearance for mining operations and believed that the deeper one were to sink the shaft, the richer the quality of the ore would be.
The diary also revealed that he was “entirely convinced of the favourable character of these mines” and, in the event of mining operations being continued, “richer and richer, and better, minerals will be found, for the hills concerned extend several miles in length and breadth, and hold minerals almost everywhere”.
The mineral exploration of the region revealed that ore, rich and easily mined, was in abundance in Namaqualand.
However, the remoteness of Namqaualand from Cape Town, coupled with the arid and harsh conditions of the region, discouraged the contemplation of commencing mining operations in the Koperberg.
In addition, the costs of transport precluded the opening up of those mines and, more significantly, with the appliances at the Dutch East India Company’s disposal, it could not be removed in such quantities as to pay expenses.
Van der Stel realised that these difficulties were too great for profitable mining and so the expedition party left the Koperberg in early November and arrived safely back in Cape Town in early 1686.
Under these circumstances, the Dutch East India Company considered it needless to spend more money or thought upon the matter and so the rich copper deposits were left unexploited until the improved means of communication of modern times made it possible to turn the mineral wealth of Namaqualand to account.
This early examination of the copper deposits of the north-western Cape, therefore, demonstrates a fundamental truth in the economics of the minerals industry in South Africa, or in any other country: unless the ores can be worked at a profit greater than the capital embarked in the enterprise, none will trouble to work them at all.