Without a doubt, the early 1850s was a great time for anyone with an adventurous spirit, a desire for fortune and capacity for hard labour. The whole world, it seemed, had been swept up in an unprecedented gold frenzy, following the era-changing auriferous discoveries in California and Australia, and there was a general conviction that the yellow metal could be found anywhere.
Gold fever was particularly rampant in the colonies, where vast tracts of land had yet to be explored. The fledgling colony of Natal, at the bottom of Africa, was certainly not immune to the fever. In early 1853, a minor rush occurred on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg.
Throughout 1851 and 1852, news of the fantastic finds being made and the progress of the gold rushes in New South Wales and Victoria made its way across the Indian Ocean to Natal. The constant flow of news built up such a frenzy of excitement that, eventually, some of the more affluent colonists were compelled to offer rewards for the discovery of the precious metal so that they, and the colony, might also reap the benefits of a golden bonanza.
One such reward appeared in the January 10, 1853, edition of The Natal Mercury. The notice stated that a consortium of 20 Durban merchants and businessmen had pledged themselves to equally contribute towards a reward of £1 000 “to any person first finding gold in any locality in the district of Natal, such reward to be payable as soon as Five Thousand Pounds value shall have been produced from such locality by the discoverer or other parties”.
Needless to say, such offers had the desired effect of stimulating a search across the length and breadth of the colony. By early March, rumours that the metal had been found began to circulate. The principal rumour concerned a British settler and supposed geologist by the name of Henry Dineley, who claimed to have discovered traces of gold on the 6 000 acre farm Doorn Hoek, at the foot of the Natal’s very own Table Mountain. The farm, located some 12 km east of Pietermaritzburg, was owned by Jan Thomas Martens, who, interestingly enough, was one of the original Voortrekkers of 1838 and had fought in the infamous Battle of Blood River.
News of Dineley’s discovery spread like wildfire and, by the end of the month, The Natal Witness reported that 17 men were at work on the ‘gold diggings’ on Martens’ farm. It was even stated that a specimen of gold-bearing quartz had been produced by the party of diggers. The article amusingly concluded: “The parties digging are full of hope; and some of them, it is said, are showing the first symptoms of gold digging prosperity – by getting drunk.”
Such reports compelled the newspaper to send one of its correspondents to describe, first hand, the current situation at the diggings. The article, published on April 1, read: “On the road [to the farm], every now and then, may be discovered fragments of a quartzlike stone. “Approaching nearer the excavation which is being made, these specimens of quartz increase, and are identical, so far as the writer could judge, with those said to have been brought from Australia. “The diggings are on Mr Martens’ farm, close to the road . . . about half a mile before reaching the Dutch farmer’s homestead. “We found the energetic diggers at work, in high spirits, ‘the indications’ being first rate. Unfortunately, Mr Dineley was absent through illness. Some specimens which we saw drawn up from a depth of about 18 ft out of the pit satisfied us of one thing – that the specimens shown in town were bona fide.”
By the middle of April, the diggers’ confidence that they were literally on a gold mine proved so strong that it was reported in the Independent that they had formed a consortium and had offered to buy Martens’ farm for £7 000. This was quite astonishing, given that, under normal circumstances, the farm would have been worth just £600. Such a purchase never came to fruition, however, for Doorn Hoek remained in the Martens family until 1947.
Perhaps the reason such a sale never occurred is that, by the end of May, the diggers had dug to a depth of 65 ft, supposedly following a gold-bearing quartz vein. But the gold recovered from such efforts did not prove even remotely payable and so the ‘Martens diggings’ were abandoned just as quickly as they had begun.
On June 2, 1853, The Natal Mercury was compelled to publish this note on the failed gold rush: “The reports of the so-called ‘Martin’s Diggins’ [sic] – we did not anticipate that any positive inferences would be drawn; and we regret the publication of any statement on the exciting subject of gold discoveries, which is not most assuredly warranted by facts. Whatever the indications may be, there is as yet no sufficient grounds for pronouncing Natal a gold colony.”
Having perused both The Natal Mercury and Witness for the remainder of 1853, no more mention was made of the ‘Martens diggings’ or of any further gold discoveries anywhere in the colony. It would only be 14 years later that gold would again dominate news reports in Natal.
While certainly a mere blip on the broader history of South Africa’s gold mining industry, that mini rush did prove influential enough to pique the attention of the Natal colonial administration and partially motivate the appointment of the country’s first government geologist and commission the first geological survey the following year.