Gold Is Discovered in the Transvaal

The discovery of goldfields that would eventually make South Africa one of the world’s largest gold producers rapidly transformed the obscure Transvaal’s Afrikaner republic into a prosperous economic center that would attract a huge influx of outsiders and again make the Transvaal the object of British imperial designs.

Summary of Event

During the 1880’s, South Africa’s Transvaal region was governed under a republic that had been established by Afrikaner settlers of primarily Dutch descent several decades earlier. During the 1830’s, thousands of Afrikaner families began leaving the British-ruled Cape Colony, and most of them eventually settled in the Transvaal and in the region that became known as the Orange Free State Orange Free State . Under the terms of the 1852 Sand River Convention, Sand River Convention (1852) Great Britain recognized that Afrikaners living north of the Vaal River were independent of the Cape Colony. Gold rushes;South Africa
South Africa;gold discovery
Transvaal;gold discovery
Transvaal;gold mining
Wilson, David Mackay
Kruger, Paul
Mining;in South Africa[South Africa]
[kw]Gold Is Discovered in the Transvaal (June 21, 1884)
[kw]Discovered in the Transvaal, Gold Is (June 21, 1884)
[kw]Transvaal, Gold Is Discovered in the (June 21, 1884)
Gold rushes;South Africa
South Africa;gold discovery
Transvaal;gold discovery
Transvaal;gold mining
Wilson, David Mackay
Kruger, Paul
Mining;in South Africa[South Africa]
[g]British Empire;June 21, 1884: Gold Is Discovered in the Transvaal[5390]
[g]Africa;June 21, 1884: Gold Is Discovered in the Transvaal[5390]
[g]South Africa;June 21, 1884: Gold Is Discovered in the Transvaal[5390]
[c]Earth science;June 21, 1884: Gold Is Discovered in the Transvaal[5390]
[c]Economics;June 21, 1884: Gold Is Discovered in the Transvaal[5390]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;June 21, 1884: Gold Is Discovered in the Transvaal[5390]
[c]Trade and commerce;June 21, 1884: Gold Is Discovered in the Transvaal[5390]
Rhodes, Cecil
[p]Rhodes, Cecil;and goldfields[Goldfields]

The Transvaal;South African Republic Transvaal Afrikaners called their country the South African Republic South African Republic , but it was better known to outsiders as the Transvaal. In 1877, Britain annexed the Transvaal, claiming that it was acting to protect its people from hostile Zulus Zulu;and Afrikaners[Afrikaners] and from government bankruptcy. The Afrikaners, however, perceived the annexation as an unwanted interference. Tensions rose until December, 1880, when the Afrikaners launched an armed revolt. Under the leadership of Paul Kruger, they inflicted a serious defeat on the British at Majuba Hill Majuba Hill, Battle of (1881)
Boer War, First (1881) in February, 1881. In the Pretoria Convention that settled the conflict, which became known as the First Boer War, Great Britain permitted the Afrikaners to rule the Transvaal under its supervision. Kruger then won election as the Transvaal’s president. In February, 1884, the London London Convention (1884) Convention declared that the South African Republic South African Republic was fully independent.

Several months after the London Convention, the discovery of gold in the Transvaal abruptly changed the republic’s future. Although many people had earlier found small quantities of gold in alluvial deposits, no substantial quartz lodes were known until 1884. Discoveries of substantial South Africa;diamondfields
Diamondfields, South African
Kimberley diamondfields diamond deposits in nearby Kimberley during the late 1860’s had inspired prospectors to seek sizable mineral riches rumored to exist underground in the Transvaal’s mountain ranges. The Transvaal government encouraged prospecting by offering rewards as large as eight hundred pounds for discoveries of gold reefs.

South African Republic president Paul Kruger.

(Library of Congress)

On June 21, 1884, a prospector named Graham Barber notified the Transvaal government that he and his brothers had found a large gold deposit in the De Kaap valley. Other prospectors miners soon located the adjacent Umvoti Reef. By late July, officials verified the miners’ finds. Gold Commissioner David Mackay Wilson christened the site Barberton. Mining engineers determined that subterranean goldfields stretched more than forty miles from the Limpopo River to the Vaal River, along the Witwatersrand. International publicity soon alerted people outside Africa of the potential riches to be found in the previously obscure Transvaal. Britain and other European countries again became interested in gaining control over the Transvaal in order to profit from its mineral wealth.

The South African Republic

Prospectors armed with pickaxes flooded into the Transvaal, pegged claims, and jumped abandoned mining sites. Ordered to collect fees for the government, Wilson and mining officials sold licenses that soon began bringing into the government an average of ten thousand pounds per month from the goldfields. Wilson’s staff included Afrikaners, Germans, and native Africans who helped with administrative duties and assisted with court sessions. Wilson rode his horse personally to view every claim. Miners were soon working about two thousand separate operations spread over about 4,500 square miles. Wilson drafted laws that specified rules for pegging and obtaining claims from farmers, defining the size and depth of claims, and outlawing claim jumping. President Paul Kruger Kruger, Paul visited the De Kaap Goldfields in 1885 and discussed opening a government mint.

Meanwhile, the Transvaal government delayed officially recognizing goldfields, thus permitting officials to seize miners’ gold if they wanted. This outraged early prospectors who thought the government was taking advantage of them. Despite the risks of confiscation and other hazards, which included landslides and venomous snakes, miners continued seeking gold. By 1886, the government proclaimed public diggings on nine farms. Thousands of foreign prospectors, whom the Afrikaners called Uitlanders Uitlanders (outsiders), rushed into the Transvaal searching for gold. The mostly British Uitlanders soon outnumbered the Afrikaners, an imbalance that posed risks to the republic’s stability.

Afrikaner leaders considered the miners to be temporary dwellers who might help rivals usurp power, and declared that Uitlanders could neither vote nor participate in the republic’s government until they had resided in the Transvaal for fourteen years. Although the Transvaal had many native African districts, members of tribes were denied voting Voting rights;of Native Americans[Native Americans] privileges. Angered by being excluded from policy making, high taxes, and unfair monopolies that favored Afrikaners, foreign miners reacted strongly. Some ripped down Transvaal flags, and others accused Afrikaner leaders of corruption.

The British resented the fact that Kruger Kruger, Paul contracted with German dynamite Dynamite manufacturers for blasting supplies. A millionaire from his investments in gold, Kruger arranged monopolies with selected Transvaal and foreign vendors for goods ranging from bricks to liquor. High tariffs Tariffs;South African protected Transvaal industries from unwanted competition, and Kruger encouraged high fees for goods shipped to and from the British Cape Colony. Kruger practiced favoritism, offering contracts and positions to relatives and associates, even it they were not qualified to fulfill the contracts.

Language, cultural, and religious differences exacerbated tensions. As the Afrikaners became a minority in their own republic, Uitlanders, the new majority, complained to Cape Colony officials and later petitioned the queen. Uitlanders demanded representation rights because they contributed to the Transvaal’s affluence. Afrikaners resented the Uitlanders for their frequently lawless and immoral behavior. Miners often damaged farmers’ crops, and their crowded towns were dangerous. Everything in the Transvaal became more expensive. As Afrikaners sold their farms to miners and investors, they became landless but rich. These new upper-class elites often relocated elsewhere in South Africa.

Gold offered the Transvaal new economic opportunities. Land values soared. Produce sold for higher prices in markets. Businesses, stock exchanges, boardinghouses, and taverns mushroomed near goldfields to meet the needs of prospectors and take their money. Many entrepreneurs and financial speculators, hoping to profit, shifted from the Cape Colony to the Transvaal. Men who became known as “Randlords,” after the Witwatersrand, became wealthy through buying land and establishing mining corporations. Many British investors had money, often from prior diamond investments, necessary to purchase and install mining technology, including hoists and shafts to extract ore deep underground. Nearby coal deposits fueled machinery.

The gold rush was also a catalyst for building better transportation and communication systems. The populations of mining villages at Pretoria and Johannesburg swelled. Locals benefited from jobs related to the mines and associated services for miners. Many native Africans, including Zulus, Zulu;miners worked in mines, although they often were paid low wages or none at all. Black and Indian migrant workers traveled to the Transvaal from Mozambique Mozambique and elsewhere for goldfield employment and encountered racism, often brutal and exploitative, from many Afrikaners and Uitlanders who considered themselves superior. However, Africans rarely complained about labor conditions, realizing that neither the British nor the Afrikaners would help them regain their ancestral lands or compensate them for their losses.


Gold both enriched and altered the Transvaal, enabling its political leaders to assert claims of independence. Greed for wealth and power resulted in rivals contesting for control of other parts of Africa. European nations competed for African colonies to assert their prowess at imperialism and superiority. Gold enhanced the Transvaal’s international stature and became South Africa’s most important export, while lifting the Transvaal’s economic and political assets to surpass all other parts of Southern Africa. Basically unknown before the gold rush, Transvaal had more then 100,000 mines by the 1890’s and yielded gold valued at several million pounds annually. Like Kruger, other leaders realized that money represented political power. Gaining additional African land also appealed to greedy British imperialists. As European powers acquired African territories, they viewed the Transvaal and adjacent lands as prime property. Delegates met at the Berlin Conference in late 1884 through 1885 Berlin Conference (1884-1885)
South Africa;and Berlin Conference[Berlin Conference] to address colonial disputes in Africa.

Gold and its associated political benefits also intrigued Cecil Rhodes Rhodes, Cecil
[p]Rhodes, Cecil;and goldfields[Goldfields] , the Cape Colony prime minister, who had become rich at the Kimberley diamondfields. Concerned about German competitors in southwest Africa, he sought to reassert British control of the Transvaal and incorporate it in a confederated British-ruled Southern Africa. Kruger resisted. He wanted the Transvaal to retain its economic independence. Ultimately, his refusal to cooperate with British leaders resulted in the Transvaal’s suffering its most devastating military defeat in the South African War (1899-1902). In May, 1902, the victories British made the Transvaal a colony. The 1910 South Africa Act joined the Transvaal with the Cape Colony and other areas to create the Union of South Africa South Africa;Union of . During the twenty-first century, the Transvaal’s gold mining industry still continues to extract billions of dollars worth of gold every year.

Further Reading

  • Giliomee, Hermann B. The Afrikaners: Biography of a People. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2003. Study of Afrikaner history that explores the impact of gold on the people who settled the Transvaal and how they dealt with political rivals attempting to destroy their autonomy.
  • Hatch, Frederick H., and John A. Chalmers. The Gold Mines of the Rand: Being a Description of the Mining Industry of Witwatersrand, South African Republic. New York: Macmillan, 1895. Comprehensive contemporary account written by mining engineers familiar with the Transvaal. Contains historical, geological, metallurgical, and legal information supplemented with photographs, charts, mine plans, and maps.
  • Paulin, Christopher M. White Men’s Dreams, Black Men’s Blood: African Labor and British Expansionism in Southern Africa, 1877-1895. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2001. Discusses how imperialism intensified demands for inexpensive, plentiful workers and how the British and Afrikaners both subjugated Africans as they sought control of the Transvaal.
  • Wilson, David Mackay. Behind the Scenes in the Transvaal. London: Cassell, 1901. Memoir of the Transvaal gold commissioner who was intimately familiar with the development of the goldfields. Wilson describes events, people, the violence associated with mining camps, and mistreatment of African workers.
  • Worger, William H., Nancy L. Clark, and Edward A. Alpers, eds. Africa and the West: A Documentary History from the Slave Trade to Independence. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press, 2001. Collection of primary sources including documents relating to European competition for African colonies, the Berlin Conference, and the Transvaal gold discoveries.

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