The Witwatersrand - the Ridge of White Waters - was named by Boer farmers after the glistening streams that appeared to run from it after rainfall. It was a barren stretch of highveld, 6,000 feet above sea level, often swept by fires in the dry winter months. The gold reef that broke the surface there, running for some sixty miles from east to west, was different from all previous discoveries made in the Transvaal. Its gold deposits were contained not in quartz reefs but in a compressed water-worn gravel conglomerate of sedimentary origin. On outcrops on the surface, the conglomerate disintegrated into a mass of smooth quartz pebbles, of various shapes and sizes, white and red in colour. Boer farmers called the conglomerate banquette or banket, because it resembled a favourite type of sweet - nuts or almonds coated with sugar. Below the surface, the conglomerate dipped away at an angle, descending to unknown depths. The trace of gold contained within the reef was minute; what distinguished it was its vast extent.

The first prospectors to strike gold on the Witwatersrand were two German brothers, Fred and Harry Struben, who owned farms in the Roodepoort area. Both had participated briefly in the diamond rush in 1871 before returning home; Fred had also tried his luck at Barberton. In 1884, Fred broke off a piece of quartz surface rock, crushed and panned it, and came away with a teaspoon of gold. Further samples showed a high gold content. But the gold soon ran out. The Struben brothers were nevertheless convinced that ‘payable’ gold was to be found in the area, not in the form of alluvial deposits or quartz finds but as thin traces in hard rock. On 5 June 1885, Harry Struben disclosed their findings at a gathering of members of Kruger’s executive council and the Volksraad assembled on a tennis court behind the Union Club in Pretoria. The Witwatersrand, he said, could prove to be richer in gold than any previous discovery in the Transvaal.

There was, however, considerable scepticism about such a notion. The Barberton bubble had left many mining men wary of such claims. One ‘expert’ sent by a prospective syndicate in Natal to investigate the Struben properties concluded after three months that there was more gold to be found in the streets of Pretoria than on the whole of the Witwatersrand.

When reports of new gold finds first reached Kimberley, the reaction was generally cynical. Only one of Kimberley’s magnates, J. B. Robinson, decided to take a look for himself. Robinson had been ‘squeezed out’ during the amalgamation of the diamond mines and he now saw a chance to restore his fortunes. He was, however, heavily in debt; all his assets were held by the Cape of Good Hope Bank as collateral against loans advanced to him. Needing funds, he decided to approach Beit for help.

Beit’s version of his encounter with Robinson was recorded by the journalist Frank Harris:

One day he came into my office and said that he had lost all his money, that Rhodes and I had ruined him. He wanted to know if I would give him something to go to the Rand with and make a fresh start.

I did not know what to say. At last I asked him how much he wanted. He said he would leave that to me.

‘If I give you £20,000,’ I said, ‘will that do?’ Of course I was not obliged to give him anything at all.

‘Oh yes,’ he said ‘How good of you. I can win with that.’

So Beit gave Robinson a cheque for £20,000 in return for a one-third share in what was to be called the ‘Robinson Syndicate’. Robinson took one-third for himself and gave one-third to his partner, Maurice Marcus.

Setting off for the Rand in July 1886, Robinson found himself sharing a coach with Hans Sauer. Sauer had received a letter from a medical colleague in Potchefstroom telling him of the gold finds. They arrived at the farm Langlaagte two days later and stayed the night with the owner, Petronella Oosthuizen. The next morning, they were shown the reef by an itinerant French prospector who had dug a small inclined shaft about thirty feet deep. They then moved on a mile to the east to an encampment on Turffontein farm set up by Colonel Ignatius Ferreira, a Boer adventurer from the Cape Colony. Ferreira had acquired a dozen claims in the vicinity and opened the reef in a cutting. The ore from both sites had a high gold content.

That night, Robinson, flush with Beit’s money, made an offer to lease the widow’s part of the farm and the next day began hunting for other properties, buying outright another part of Langlaagte. Sauer walked westwards for ten miles, accompanied by Mrs Oosthuizen’s son, following the line of the reef outcrops, taking samples as he went, and becoming all the more convinced that a major goldfield lay beneath.

After two days of investigation, Sauer returned to Kimberley with his samples, in a state of considerable excitement. His brother-in-law, Harry Caldecott, advised him to approach Rhodes, whom he had met only a few times before.

I went round next morning after breakfast to Rhodes’s cottage, where I found him still in bed. He invited me in and asked me to sit down on the edge of his bed and state my business. He listened to what I had to say . . . without much apparent interest.

Rhodes told Sauer to come back with his bag of samples at one o’clock. On his return, he found Rhodes, Rudd and two Australian miners waiting for him in the backyard of his cottage.

The miners had brought a pestle and mortar, a gold panning dish, and a small tub of water. Without delay, the Australians crushed and panned a large number of samples from my bag and in every instance got fine shows in the pan.

Rhodes still showed no excitement, but invited Sauer to call at the office of De Beers at four o’clock. There Rhodes asked him to return to the Witwatersrand the next day to act on his behalf:

After some hesitation I agreed to go the next day. He then said: ‘What interest do you want in the venture?’ I replied, ‘Twenty per cent.’ He said, ‘Fifteen per cent’, which I accepted. Whereupon he took up a sheet of paper, wrote out an agreement on these terms, signed it, and handed it to me. He then asked me whether any ready money would be of use to me. I said, ‘Yes, £200 to start with, and to be accounted for.’ He reached out for his cheque book, and wrote me a cheque for the amount. He then rose and bade me good-bye, telling me at the same time to draw on him for any reasonable amounts I might require for the adventure.

To his surprise, the next morning Sauer found that Rhodes and Rudd had decided to make the journey to the Witwatersrand themselves, taking the same coach. On arriving at Ferreira’s camp, they stayed briefly at ‘Walker’s Hotel’, a wattle-and-daub building that had been erected in the week since Sauer had left. Searching for a more suitable camping place, they first bought part of a Boer farm called Klein Paardekraal, about six miles west of Ferreira’s camp, then moved headquarters to a farm called Roodepoort, making forays up and down the line of the reef, trying to decide what properties to buy.

Within a fortnight of Rhodes’ arrival in July 1886, Ferreira’s camp was crowded with tents and wagons as each day a stream of newcomers turned up from across southern Africa. Many came from the alluvial diggings in the eastern Transvaal, bringing with them their sluice boxes, pans, picks and shovels. But the Witwatersrand, with its mass of hard rock, offered few pickings for small-time diggers. What was needed was stamp batteries to crush the ore and steam engines to drive the batteries. The only stamp battery available on the Rand belonged to the Struben brothers and that was booked up for trial crushings for months ahead. New orders for stamp batteries took up to twelve months to be delivered. Consequently, for the first year after the gold rush began, the amount of actual mining carried out was negligible. Gold production in 1886 stood at £34,710.

The game instead was to acquire what looked like the most promising properties and claims along the line of the reef. Claim-holders formed syndicates, then floated companies, hoping to attract investors, frequently on the basis of flimsy evidence. No one was sure how deep the gold veins ran. An Australian mining engineer proclaimed that it was geologically impossible that conglomerate reefs could run deeper than 200 feet.

To Sauer’s immense frustration, both Rhodes and Rudd adopted a highly cautious approach. ‘Rhodes,’ said Sauer, ‘knew nothing of gold mining, and still less of gold-bearing ore bodies, and in the back of his mind was the fear that the whole thing might turn out to be a frost.’ Sauer recalled one occasion, after he had tried unsuccessfully to persuade Rhodes to purchase a block of main-reef claims, how Rhodes had told him: ‘It is all very well; but I cannot see or calculate the power in your claims.’ When Sauer asked him to explain further, Rhodes replied:

When I am in Kimberley, and I have nothing much to do, I often go and sit on the edge of the De Beers mine, and I look at the blue diamondiferous ground, reaching from the surface, a thousand feet down the open workings of the mine, and I reckon up the value of the diamonds in the ‘blue’ and the power conferred by them. In fact, every foot of blue ground means so much power. This I cannot do with your gold reefs.

But even mining engineers with gold-mining experience were sceptical about the Rand’s prospects. One expert whom Rhodes asked to investigate was Gardner Williams, the American engineer whom he subsequently employed as general manager at De Beers. Williams spent ten days on the Witwatersrand being given a guided tour by Sauer of all existing strikes along the line of the main reef. At the end of his trip, Sauer asked for his assessment. ‘Doctor Sauer,’ Williams replied, ‘if I rode over these reefs in America I would not get off my horse to look at them. In my opinion they are not worth hell room.’

Rhodes and Rudd turned down a number of Sauer’s suggestions, missing opportunities that turned out subsequently to be of enormous value. On one occasion, Sauer obtained an option to buy twenty-one claims for £500 covering an area that became one of the Rand’s richest mines. For ten days, while the option remained open, he struggled in vain to persuade Rhodes and Rudd to act:

The reef was so rich that Rudd could not bring himself to believe that the pannings were genuine, and persistently claimed that the reef was ‘salted’. To convince him I managed to get, after some trouble, two white miners, who drilled holes in the reef and blasted out chunks of it with dynamite in our presence. We then panned some of the ore thus blasted out, and obtained the same phenomenally rich result. In spite of this absolute proof, Rudd stuck to his theory of the salting and refused to buy the property.

Rudd also turned down an opportunity to purchase at £40 each a mile-long stretch of claims to the east of Ferreira’s camp that also proved to be fabulously rich in gold, supporting six highly profitable mining companies.

Robinson, by contrast, bought heavily, picking up several properties that Rhodes rejected, such as Randfontein; and he was spectacularly lucky. Within weeks, the Robinson Syndicate had gained a leading position on the Rand.

At this crucial juncture, Rhodes’ venture into gold mining came to an abrupt halt. Out of the blue, he received a telegram telling him that his devoted friend Neville Pickering was dangerously ill and he decided then and there to leave for Kimberley on the night coach. Pickering had never properly recovered from a riding accident in 1882; he developed a chronic lung infection that sometimes left him hobbling on crutches. He had recently returned to Kimberley from a visit to his family in Port Elizabeth but had since relapsed.

To Rhodes’ dismay, there were no seats available on the night coach to Kimberley; nor could he persuade any other traveller to give him theirs. He found a place instead on top of the coach with the mail bags, holding on grimly for a fifteen-hour ordeal over 300 miles of rough track. Recalling his own experience of riding with the mail bags across the Transvaal, Sauer wrote:

The discomfort was so extreme and the fatigue produced by the continued effort of maintaining your position on top of the mail bags was such that I have seen strong men, used to knocking about the African veld, weep from sheer exhaustion . . . You constantly ran the risk of being flung from your perch on to the hard ground when the cart, going at a good speed, upset after striking a large boulder or a deep ditch at the side of the track . . . Your misery became acute during the night, the desire for sleep, the fatigue, and the feeling of insecurity becoming almost unbearable.

Rhodes stayed nursing Pickering for weeks on end, indifferent to anything other than his needs and comfort. ‘Everyone knew that Pickering was Rhodes’s greatest friend,’ wrote Percy FitzPatrick, Sauer’s brother-in-law, ‘but until then nobody had any suspicion of the depth of affection and the character of that ideal friendship. Even those who knew Rhodes well would not have believed it possible that he could feel so deeply and be so tragically affected.’

When Sauer urged Rhodes by telegraph to respond to opportunities he had encountered on the Rand, notably an option to buy a part of Doornfontein farm for £250, he heard nothing. FitzPatrick recalled: ‘Without irritation or impatience, but with utter indifference, he declined to see anyone on the urgent and important matters of business that always needed attention.’

The end came early in the morning of 16 October. As Pickering went into a sudden decline, Rhodes sent Pickering’s brother William to fetch Jameson, but there was nothing that Jameson could do. In his last moments, Pickering whispered to Rhodes: ‘You have been father, mother, brother and sister to me’ and died in his arms. He was but twenty-nine.

Pickering’s funeral was attended by a large gathering of miners and diamond buyers. According to Jameson’s biographer, Ian Colvin, Rhodes, ‘alternating hysterically between laughter and tears’, turned to Barney Barnato and said in his high falsetto, ‘Ah Barney, he will never sell you another parcel of diamonds!’ A few days later, David Harris, a De Beers director, came across Rhodes and William Pickering sitting at a table in a back room at De Beers’ offices, both crying. On the table between them was a gold watch and chain belonging to Neville that they were pushing back and forth. ‘All I heard,’ said Harris, ‘was: “No, you are his brother.” And again, “No, you are his greatest friend.”’

Rhodes never returned to the cottage he had shared with Pickering and Pickering’s name was never mentioned again in his presence. On the night of the funeral, he moved into Jameson’s sparsely furnished cottage, making it his permanent Kimberley home. He quickly stifled further grief. ‘Well, I must go on with my work,’ he told Jameson that night. ‘After all, a thing like this is only a big detail . . . only a big detail.’

For the Transvaal authorities, the sudden influx of a horde of unruly prospectors and miners thirty miles south of Pretoria required some hasty improvisation. A local official, veldkornet Johannes Meyer, made the first attempt to bring order, introducing a system for prospectors to peg out mine claims. In August, the minister of mines, Christiaan Johannes Joubert, and the surveyor-general, Johann Rissik, addressed a gathering of some 200 claim-holders on the farm Turffontein to outline the government’s plans for the diggings. In September, the gold commissioner, Captain Carl von Brandis, an ex-Prussian cavalry officer, stood beside his wagon and read out in Dutch a proclamation signed by Kruger declaring the Witwatersrand ‘a public digging’. In October, Von Brandis returned to proclaim a triangular stretch of land known as Randjeslaagte, already owned by the government, as the site for a new town. Randjeslaagte lay just north of the pegged claims on the main reef, not far from Ferreira’s camp; it was enclosed by the boundaries of three other farms, Braamfontein, Doornfontein and Turffontein.

The name chosen for the new town was Johannesburg. But the origin of the name - though there were several obvious possibilities - was soon lost. Shortly after Von Brandis arrived, a blustery wind blew away his tent, and among the records to disappear that night were the plans and instructions from the surveyor-general believed to have contained an explanation.

Johannesburg was laid out on a rectangular plan, with wide streets cutting each other at right angles. At its centre was Market Square, a huge open space where wagons outspanned. The main thoroughfare, Commissioner Street, ran parallel to Market Square and marked a boundary between the government town and another district to the south known as Marshall’s Town, formed from blocks of claims converted into freehold building land. Once the government started selling stands, a host of makeshift buildings sprang up - mud hovels, tin shanties, shacks and boarding houses. Commissioner Street was the favourite location, with one side belonging to the government, the other to Marshall’s Town. Height’s Hotel there did a roaring trade. On the other side of the road, the government hastily constructed a prison and a hospital, consisting entirely of mud bricks and wooden poles.

On his return from Kimberley in December, Rhodes was soon involved in choosing a site for a club, an amenity that he regarded as an essential part of a mining camp. After surveying the ground with Sauer, he selected four stands at the corner of Commissioner Street and Loveday Street in Marshall’s Town. A single-storey building with a thatched roof was duly constructed.

As the new town took shape, President Kruger decided to pay a visit. Arriving in February 1887, four months after it was proclaimed, he was given a cordial reception. The gold commissioner read an address of welcome from a stand erected in front of the government offices on Market Square. But even on this first occasion, there were signs of the friction that was eventually to prove fatal. To Kruger’s annoyance, he was presented with a number of petitions listing grievances. The diggers asked for a daily postal service; they wanted their own town council; their own concession-licensing court, and a reduction of customs duties and mining dues. They pointed out that they had no representation in the Volksraad to make their case heard.

Kruger responded by saying he wanted to make laws acceptable to all, but added that the Transvaal’s laws had to be obeyed. ‘I have secret agents in Johannesburg,’ he said, ‘and here, as elsewhere, there are scabby sheep among the flock who want to break the law. I would like everyone, of whatever nationality, to know that if there are any disturbances I will first call on you diggers to catch the diggers, but if this fails I will call out my burghers and treat you as rebels.’

The next morning, the President was in a more conciliatory mood, saying he would look into ways of making improvements to the gold laws. In the evening, he attended a banquet in his honour at which it was arranged that Rhodes should propose the principal toast of the evening: the President’s health. Rhodes urged Kruger to regard the newcomers as friends and to extend to them - ‘young burghers like myself ’ - the same privileges enjoyed by Transvaalers. Kruger replied with a brief word of thanks. This was to have been followed by another toast proposed by J. B. Robinson, but before Robinson could begin, Kruger rose to his feet saying abruptly, ‘Myn tyd es op. Ech moet vertrek.’ - ‘My time is up. I must be off.’

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