The most fascinating aspect of South Africa’s mining history, in my humble opinion, is the diamond and gold rush era of the 1870s and 1880s, when any man with a bit of luck could make his fortune by a swirl of a sluice pan.
This period is filled with some of the most outlandish and compelling characters to have ever graced the stage of South Africa’s narrative. Unfortunately, for the most part, only the most eccentric, ruthless, opportunistic and entrepreneurial of these individuals have made their way into the history books. It is for this reason that the publication of a new book, Pilgrim’s Rest Who’s Who, 1873-1881, which provides the biographical information of the more than 1 400 diggers who lived and worked in that golden valley during the rush era, is not only significant but also highly praiseworthy.
The book, which was published in November last year, is the culmination of more than 20 years of painstaking research by Pilgrim’s Rest-based historian René Reinders. With some 35 years’ experience, having lived in the historic gold mining village and worked for Pilgrim’s Rest Museum Services since 1982, there are few individuals as qualified to have undertaken such a project as Reinders.
Speaking to Mining Weekly, Reinders elaborates that she began working on the book in her spare time in the mid-1990s, being motivated by a desire to acknowledge all the men and women who lived and worked in and around the golden valley at the height of the gold rush. She adds that the focus of the book is limited to the period covering 1873 and 1881, as that constitutes the ‘digger’s era’ of Pilgrim’s Rest’s history before all alluvial and mining operations were consolidated under Transvaal Gold Mining Estates (TGME).
The book features references, in alphabetical order, to an astonishing 1 411 characters who were recorded as having spent time in Pilgrim’s Rest. Some biographical entries are much more in-depth than others, which largely corresponds to the quality and quantity of information available on each individual. For example, while the entry on Donald MacKinnon, one of the pioneer diggers hailing from Australia and, in Reinders’ opinion, one of the most interesting characters, stretches to four pages, the entry on ‘a Mr Mulligan’ simply states: “In 1875, Mr Mulligan applied for permission to open a school in Pilgrim’s Rest.” While this is a considerable disparity, Reinders explains that she felt obliged to include, for history’s sake, all the characters who were known to have lived or worked in Pilgrim’s Rest, regardless of how slight the reference may be.
Indeed, in an era where few official records or even personal papers were kept, Reinders admits that gathering such biographical information was often a challenge. She relied largely on the collections kept at the Pilgrim’s Rest Museum Services Archive, the National Archives, contemporary newspapers, various Internet sources, books and diaries. Reinders adds that there were also a few occasions where descendants of some of the diggers provided some biographical notes when visiting the village or while tracing their family heritage.
Most of the entries in the book relate to the white male diggers and traders who flocked to the valley after September 1873 to find their golden fortune. While Reinders agrees this is unfortunate, she states that, given the nature of the colonial and highly racist Transvaal Republic, very limited information on the hundreds of black men and women who were brought to the valley to provide labour and services was ever recorded.
Having said that, she made a concerted effort to include all the black individuals who were referenced in official records and/or personal transcripts. One example is the reference to a black labourer dubbed Basket, who is known to have worked for Elizabeth Russell, one of Pilgrim’s Rest’s few female diggers. (In that overly paternalistic age, black people were seldom known or referred to by their proper names.) The entry on Basket is brief but interesting from a sociological perspective: “Basket was one of eight black men employed by Elizabeth Russell to work on her and her brother’s claims. Times got bad and Elizabeth could not afford the worker’s wages anymore. The other labourers left, but Basket told Russell that he would carry on working and that she could pay him once she found gold. Soon afterwards, Basket found an 11 g nugget in Russell’s claim. To thank him for his faithfulness, Russell gave him, besides his outstanding wages, a thick warm coat.”
In order to give the biographical entries due context, Reinders has included a 17-page introduction detailing the early history of the New Caledonian goldfield, of which Pilgrim’s Rest formed part. This section offers a fascinating insight into how gold was discovered in the area and how people journeyed to the new goldfield, as well as descriptions of work and general living on the diggings.
The book has made an invaluable contribution not only to South Africa’s mining historiography but also the historiography of the country’s colonial narrative of the late nineteenth century.
The book is available for purchase at the Pilgrim’s Rest Information Centre.