The father of South African geology

21st October 2016 By: Jade Davenport - Creamer Media Correspondent

The study or, at the very least, observance of the rock and mineral formations that make up South Africa’s landscape has, in all probability, been pursued since the advent of mining – more than 43 000 years ago. However, the survey and classification of rocks as a specialised field of scientific study is a relatively new undertaking, having started only in the first half of the nineteenth century. The man who pioneered the study of our physical landscape and its rock formations and is, thus, regarded the father of South African geology, is Andrew Geddes Bain.

While our field of geological study has certainly been graced by some remarkable, even genius, figures, Bain certainly ranks in the upper echelon of that group. What makes Bain such a remarkable character is that all his achievements, which include producing the first geological map of the region, uncovering significant fossils and writing numerous influential papers on local stratigraphy, were accomplished without any university or scientific training. Indeed, Bain was, quintessentially, a self-taught geological genius.

Relatively little is known of Bain’s early years except that he was born in mid-1797 in the coastal town of Thurso, in Scotland, was raised by an aunt after the death of both parents and received a nonvocational education in Edinburgh. The rationale for immigrating to South Africa and his fledgling years in the far-flung territory is similarly unclear. What is known for certain is that he arrived in Cape Town in late 1816, aged 19, and married Elizabeth von Backström two years later, before moving to Graaff-Reinet, the little Karoo town he would call home for the remainder of his life.

What is fascinating about Bain’s geological career is that it only began at a relatively late stage in his life, for he was already 40 when an interest in rocks and fossils was aroused. Until that point, he had pursued widely differing careers – ranging from a tanner and saddler to expedition leader, soldier in the Royal Engineering Corps, artist, poet, journalist, road surveyor and civil engineer.

While it is superfluous to this account to elaborate on these varying careers, it is necessary to mention that it was while he was employed as a road surveyor and engineer on a number of projects during the 1830s – including the Van Ryneveld’s Pass, near Graaff-Reinet, the Queen’s Road, between Grahamstown and Fort Beaufort, and the Ecca Pass and Fish River Bridge – that he became especially interested in the physical landscape he was attempting to tame.

Such interest led him, in 1837, to borrow a copy of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. This three-volume body of geological theory served to not only cement Bain’s interest in the subject but also proved highly influential to geologists and scientists generally in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Further reading on the subject confirmed his determination to apply geological and palaeontological knowledge of the rocks of the Cape in a personal capacity.

For the next decade, while overseeing various road construction projects across the Cape, Bain assessed the physical landscape with a keen eye. He amassed a wealth of specimens, both rocks and fossils, and developed stratigraphical theories, all of which were documented in a series of articles published in the local Eastern Province Monthly Magazine.

While not necessarily complete or even entirely accurate at times, Bain’s endeavours represented the first major geological survey undertaken in Southern Africa and the first essential step in determining and ordering the complex succession of geological strata covering most of what was then the Cape Colony. It was through his efforts that the stratigraphic successions of what came to be known as the Cape Supergroup and the Malmesbury Group were identified. He also recognised the rock type now known as Dwyka tillite, which extends through the southern Karoo.

Having analysed and hypothesised on the nature of the Cape’s strata for more than a decade, by the early 1850s, Bain had collated enough material to produce the first comprehensive geological map of the Cape Colony. This was completed and sent in sections, with a corresponding paper titled ‘On the Geology of Southern Africa’, to the Geological Society of London in 1851 and published the following year. The society praised his efforts, describing them as “the triumphant results of the single-handed labours and unaided research of one who, by his own perseverance and talents alone, has not only worked out so grand a geological problem, but has trained and wholly educated himself for the task”.

So impressed was Sir Roderick Murchison, then president of the society, that he wrote to Sir John Pakington, Secretary of State for Wars and the Colonies, urging that Bain be appointed the first full-time colonial geologist of the Cape. Murchison wrote: “Her Majesty has a loyal subject at the Cape, Mr Andrew Geddes Bain, who is singularly well qualified to execute all the duties of a colonial geologist . . . Recently, he sent to the Geological Society of London a geological map of the whole colony from west to east . . . which has so excited the administration of the president and council of that society that they have empowered me to suggest to you the desirability of creating a post in which, under due guidance of the director- general of the British Geological Society, his services might be considered highly valuable.”

While the colonial administration certainly acknowledged Bain’s capabilities in that field and commissioned him from time to time to do mineralogical surveys, they regarded him as far too valuable as an official road surveyor engineer to reassign his position. Moreover, Bain preferred to continue as a road surveyor, as it enabled him to pursue his geological endeavours on his own terms, which he did until his death in 1864. Instead, the Irish geologist, Andrew Wyley, was appointed the first geological surveyor to the government of the Cape of Good Hope.

The first reference to Bain as the ‘father of South African geology’ was made by the British naturalist Edgar Leopold Layard in the South African Museum’s annual report for 1857.