All that glitters

Gold fever! How weird that humankind through the ages has contracted this strange disease that’s brought on by the indescribable urge to make a fortune – and quickly.

First gold refinery

Near the town of Polokwane in Limpopo province on the old main road heading north a marker reads: ‘First gold refinery’.

This place is hundreds of kilometers from the site of the largest gold rush in history when massive deposits were found in 1886 and where Johannesburg came into being on the Witwatersrand.

Turn off at a signpost reading ‘Eersteling’ (roughly translated as ‘Firstling’). Here is where a prospector, Edward Button, discovered a goldfield in 1870.

Button managed to convince Jacobus du Preez, owner of the ‘Eersteling’ farm, to sell it to him – for £50. He duly declared the Marabastad Public Gold Diggings, having first informed the government in Pretoria as required by law.

Button and a partner then raised £50 000 in England to form the Transvaal Gold Mining Company Limited – South Africa’s very first commercial gold-mining company.

Their exploits attracted no less than renowned explorer and artist, Thomas Baines, who sketched the mining operations at Eersteling in December 1871. Baines’s lovely painting of the gold-bearing quartz being crushed is now in the Port Elizabeth Library.

The artwork shows two workers riding see-saw on a long pole strapped to the top of a large boulder, a rudimentary crusher. By all accounts, this was dangerous for all concerned and hardly an economical way to extract gold.

Button promptly imported a 12-stamp battery and boiler from Britain, for which he built a tall chimney-stack – of Scottish stone! As if the area here lacked good South African stone! Sadly, that’s all that remained of Button’s gold-mining operation at Eersteling.

Remnants of South Africa’s first gold-mining company at Eersteling.
Image by: Sam J Basch

Although the mine was producing more than 10 000 ounces of gold by 1875, political unrest and high production costs drove Button to call it a day. Prospecting eventually moved to the east of the country where alluvial gold was discovered at Pilgrim’s Rest and in the mountains around Barberton in present-day Mpumalanga province.

The chimney stack for the stamp battery and boiler. The Eersteling gold mine is a national heritage site.
Image by: Sam J Basch

The Eersteling mine was declared a national heritage site in 1938.

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