Peter Sutherland – SA’s first government geologist

18th November 2016 By: Jade Davenport - Creamer Media Correspondent

There are two main reasons why geology was vigorously pursued in the various colonies during the nineteenth century.

Firstly, the study of the ancient environment fostered an impression of the colonies as primitive places that were inferior to Europe. This led to the development of theories of race and environment determinism, which were used to justify the ideology and practice of imperialism.

Secondly, the study of rocks and strata facilitated the discovery of metals and minerals that could be used to finance, or at least partially underwrite, the administration of the colonies and contribute to the wealth of the empire. It was for this reason that South Africa’s first government geologist was appointed and the first official geological survey commissioned in 1854.

While one would expect the first survey to have been commissioned by the Cape colonial government, given the foundation of geological and paleontological work that had been undertaken by geologist and surveyor Andrew Geddes Bain in the 1840s, as well as the known existence of rich copper deposits in Namaqualand, it is surprising to note that it was Natal that undertook that pioneering initiative. What is perhaps more surprising is that the initiative was not spurred by the need to determine the nature of Natal’s coal resource, as one might expect, but rather by the discovery of that most sought-after precious metal – gold.

The existence of coal, particularly in the vicinity of what is present-day Dundee, had been known, at least from a colonial perspective, since the arrival of the first white settlers in the late 1830s. However, the fuel needs of the communities that inhabited the land were fairly limited – and would remain so until the introduction of steam locomotive transportation in the 1860s – and did not warrant the expense of employing a geologist to undertake a full-scale survey. It was only when traces of gold, a metal that could certainly be used to underwrite the fledgling colony, along with other valuable metals, were discovered in northern Natal in April 1853 that curiosity in the colony’s resource potential was seriously piqued.

Given that Natal’s surveyor-general at the time, William Stanger, was himself a geologist by profession, it was a foregone conclusion that the discovery of gold would be investigated by means of a proper geological survey.

With the backing of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Henry Pelham-Clinton, who also understood the value of a geological survey, Stanger was authorised to appoint a full-time government geologist for the project. The man chosen was a fairly young medical doctor and geologist by the name of Peter Sutherland. Although born in Latheron, Scotland, in 1822, Sutherland spent much of his youth in Nova Scotia, Canada. Sadly, when the family decided to return to Scotland in 1841, their ship was wrecked in a storm and only Sutherland and his younger brother survived. Now orphaned, Sutherland had to support himself through his medical studies, undertaken at King’s College, in Aberdeen, which he did by coaching fellow students and working on ships during holidays. He qualified as a doctor of medicine in 1847.

Sutherland was certainly an adventurer at heart, for, once he had completed his studies, he joined a number of outlandish expeditions, ranging from whaling hunts in the North Atlantic to examining guano deposits in West Africa and searching for explorer Sir John Franklin, who went missing in the Canadian Arctic. During all these expeditions, he made many pioneering geological observations and collected fossils and plant specimens. He was recognised for such efforts when he was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society on his return to England in 1852.

During his adventures, Sutherland developed such a keen interest in geology that, when he was informed that the colonial office was considering a geological survey of Natal, he decided to sail to South Africa in the hope of winning the appointment. He arrived in Durban in November 1853 and, while waiting for the colonial office to make a decision, he practised as a medical doctor for a few months. With some influence from celebrated Scottish geologist and president of the Geological Society of London Sir Roderick Murchison, Sutherland won the appointment and started his duties in March 1854.

However, Sutherland did not get to complete a full survey of the colony, for which he had originally been hired, because, exactly a year after his appointment, Stanger passed away. With no one more qualified for the position, Sutherland was promoted to Stanger’s post as surveyor-general of Natal in March 1855.

But during the year when he was government geologist, he was very active in his stratigraphic investigations. Although he sketched the overall structure of the colony, he concentrated his efforts on Natal’s coastline, as well as the northern areas, where coal and traces of gold had been discovered. These geological observations were published the following year as ‘Notes on the Geology of Natal, South Africa’ in Volume 11 of the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London.

Having read that paper, Sutherland’s most interesting observation, at least from a mineral resource perspective, did not concern coal or gold but rather the traces of copper that had been discovered in the northern districts. “I am not very sanguine that the sources hitherto discovered will prove productive,” wrote Sutherland. “I believe, however, that, beyond the Vaal river, the ore is in considerable abundance, but, up to this time, I am not aware that any attempts have been made to develop a trade in that valuable metal from the inland quarter in question.” No doubt, Sutherland was making reference to the Musina and Phalaborwa copper deposits in what is today Limpopo province.

Although promoted to surveyor-general, Sutherland continued his geological observations of the colony in his spare time for the next 15 years. While he published many papers in this regard, the most important of these was ‘The Geology of Natal, South Africa’, which was read before the Natural History Association of Natal on June 27, 1868.

It would only be in 1904 that the first full geological survey of Natal and Zululand was finally completed.