Daily Archives: 17 January 2021

Transvaal’s Gold Boom Years, 1890s

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 291-293:

The Transvaal’s new wealth from gold transformed Pretoria from a village into a town. Grand public buildings sprang up around Church Square; electric light and telephone systems were installed. Ralph Williams contrasted the character of Pretoria when he first arrived there as British consul in 1887 with the changes that occurred within the space of a few years. Government buildings then, he said, were ‘homely to a degree’.

Flush with gold revenues, Kruger ordered the construction of an opulent new building for government offices and for parliament on the west side of Church Square. Laying the foundation stone in May 1889, he remarked: ‘Who would have believed five years ago that such a building was possible?’ Designed in the Italian Renaissance style by the government architect, Sytze Wierda, the Raadzaal cost £155,000. Kruger took a lively interest in all its details. On the ground floor, he was provided with two offices to the left of the main entrance. On top of the central tower stood a female statue. Some said it was an allegorical figure representing Freedom or Liberty; others that it represented Minerva, the Roman goddess of war. When Kruger was shown the statue before it was put in place, he was said to have objected to it being bare-headed. ‘A lady can’t stand up there in public with nothing on her head. She must have a hat.’ Accordingly, a helmet was fashioned and fixed on with rivets around the brim. The building was completed in 1891. An 1893 guidebook, Brown’s South Africa, A Practical and Complete Guide for the Use of Tourists, Sportsmen, Invalids and Settlers, described it as ‘one of the handsomest and probably the costliest pile in South Africa’. Kruger enjoyed the routine of the daily ride to his office in a state carriage accompanied by mounted troopers; he also awarded himself a huge salary increase, raising it from £3,000 a year to £8,000. Yet despite the new buildings and the occasional pomp, Pretoria retained the ambience of a sleepy village, where Afrikaner traditions of church and family life were closely observed.

Thirty miles to the south, amid a landscape of mining headgear, ore dumps and battery stamps, stood Johannesburg, an overgrown mining camp, brash and bustling, renowned for drunkenness, debauchery and gambling. On windy days, clouds of yellow dust from the ore dumps swirled through the streets. On the northern outskirts, over the crest of the ridge, wealthy whites lived in luxury houses, with views stretching away to the Magaliesberg hills, protected from the noise and dust of the mine workings by northerly winds which blew it all southwards. But most white miners and other employees lived in boarding houses in working-class districts close to the mines, frequenting the bars and brothels set up there. Two-thirds of the uitlander population consisted of single men. Black mine workers were confined to compounds, as in Kimberley.

During the boom years of 1888 and 1889, scores of prostitutes arrived from the Cape Colony and Natal. More came when the rail link to the Cape was completed in 1892. With the opening of the railway from the port of Lourenço Marques on Delagoa Bay in 1894, there was an influx of prostitutes from Europe and New York City. A survey in 1895 counted ninety-seven brothels of various nationalities, including thirty-six French, twenty German and five Russian; the brothels in one part of Johannesburg were so numerous that it became known as ‘Frenchfontein’.

A correspondent for the London Times, Flora Shaw, visiting Johannesburg in 1892, said she was repelled by its brash character. ‘It is hideous and detestable, luxury without order, sensual enjoyment without art, riches without refinement, display without dignity. Everything in fact which is most foreign to the principles alike of morality and taste by which decent life has been guided in every state of civilisation.’ Olive Schreiner, who went to live in Johannesburg with her husband, described it in 1898 as a ‘great, fiendish, hell of a city which for glitter and gold, and wickedness, carriages and palaces and brothels and gambling halls, beat creation’.

Kruger found it difficult to come to terms with this industrial monster in his backyard and the godless uitlander community that lived there; Duivelstad – Devil’s Town – he called it.

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