World history of gold

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From The Canadian Rockhound, August 1979

Even before the dawn of recorded time gold has gripped mankind’s heart and soul in an enduring and passionate embrace. Immense treasures of soil gold were buried with Scythians in their tombs on the vast steppes of Russia. The early Egyptians worshiped the radiant yellow metal for its kinship to the glowing sun –source of all life to them. And the ultimate in the dream for gold was expressed by the legendary King Midas, who asked that all he touched be turned to gold.

Even today in such widespread parts of the world as the Orient, India and Europe, gold is appreciated for its absolute permanence and value. For gold unlike any other metal, is not only beautiful, it is indestructible.

And it is incredibly rare. Imagine: all the gold ever mined in the entire history of the world could be stored in a single warehouse just sixty feet square and only seven stories high.

When the conquistadores set out for the new world in 1511, King Ferdinand of Spain had only one command for them. “Get Gold”, he ordered, “humanely, if possible, but at all hazards, get gold”. He knew that governments may topple, population may be dispersed, but gold goes on –its beauty and its value untarnished by the ages.

Is it any wonder then that the greatest artists the world has ever known have so often chose this imperishable and exquisitely beautiful metal for the full expression of their genius.

The United States is the fourth largest gold producer in the world whose production last year was worth 194 million dollars. Since 1970, when the United States abandoned the fixed price of gold, the value of gold has soared many times over, fed by a rush into the precious metal by millions of people seeking to protect themselves from inflation.

But the main gold rush for Americans began in 1848 when gold was discovered by James Marshall in the American River near Coloma, California. Uncontrolled by governments or large companies, the metal was free for the taking. A year later 40,000 adventurous miners had swarmed to California by sea and 6,000 covered wagons had made the trip overland, with 5,000 persons losing their lives on the trip. By the mid 1850’s the easy-to-get-out surface gold was gone and the rest was in hard to mine veins in the Sierra Nevada. The largest of these was the Mother Lode, a sweep of gold-bearing ore over 100 miles long, and measuring from several hundred feet to about two miles wide. Today, the U.S. Treasury is No. 1 in world gold holdings with a total value of 49 billion dollars.

Canada is the second largest country in the World after the Soviet Union and is the World’s third largest gold producer. Last year’s production was 53 metric tons worth $303,000,000. This vast country was the site of the last great gold rush.

It began in 1896 with a strike on the Klondike tributary of the Yukon River, and quickly a town sprang up where there had been nothing before: Dawson. By early 1897, 100,000 eager hopefuls had started out for Dawson, but only 30,000 to 40,000 got there. The Mounties turned back at gunpoint all who didn’t have at least a year’s supply of food with them. For the land was bleak and inhospitable. The way was strewn with dead pack horses. It is said that at the height of the gold rush a saloon keeper could sweep up $275 in gold dust each night from the sawdust on his floor, where it fell from the miner’s pockets. Yet an egg was often impossible to buy at any price. Four years later the rush was over.

In 1652, the first Dutch settlers arrived in South Africa and established Cape Colony. In 1814, after the Napoleonic Wars, Britain gained final possession of Cape Colony. Fifteen years later a dispute over the colony’s true ownership, the Boer War broke out between Britain and the Boers (descendants of the original Dutch Settlers who speak Afrikaana, a Dutch Dialect). The English won. In 1961, South Africa became a republic and formally withdrew from the British Commonwealth.

In 1866, an out-of-work prospector named George Harrison discovered gold on a farm near what is today Johannesburg, for which he received $30 in thanks by the grateful farmer on whose land it was. Today South Africa is the world’s largest gold producer, mining more than half of the world’s total gold output. Last year over 400,000 workers laboured to produce 729 metric tons of the notable metal, worth 4.2 billion dollars on the open market. To do this they had to bring to the surface nearly 73 billion tons of gold-bearing ore, often from as far as 2 miles underground.

The Soviet Union is the largest country in the World and the world’s second largest gold producer after South Africa. However, a century ago they were first with discoveries in the Ural Mountains that were producing 60% of the world’s total supply. The Russians mines were owned by the Czars who became fantastically wealthy. The palaces and churches of the Kremlin were lavishly decorated with gold inside and out, and Moscow soon became the chief goldsmithing centre. The greatest jeweller of them all was Carl Faberge.

Each year he made a fabulous golden Easter egg for the Czarina, the outer shell of which was enamelled gold. The egg opened to reveal a golden yolk which itself contained a tiny golden hen. Inside the hen there was a diamond reproduction of the Imperial Crown in which was hidden a ruby pendant. Experts estimate that the Soviet Union mined 371 tons of gold in the past year worth 2.13 billion dollars.

Australia is the 7th largest gold producer in the world today, mining $90 million in gold last year. It all began with Edward Hargraves, an Australian prospector who had previously joined the great American Gold Rush to try to make his fortune. While in California he noticed great geological similarities between there and his native country. He returned to Australia and within the space of just one week, he discovered gold. In gratitude, Queen Victoria awarded him with a life pension and $10,000. The discovery drew 357,000 people to Australia in 1852 alone and did much to help settle the land. In 1872 the largest gold nugget ever discovered was found in Australia. It weighed 160 pounds!

Formerly the southern part of the Netherlands, Belgium, has become an independent nation since 1830. In 1885, King Leopold II of Belgium became absolute monarch, and owned as his personal property, the vast Congo Free State, with an area 88 times larger than Belgium itself. Later, after years of mismanagement, the King was forced to cede incredibly rich territory to the Belgian nation. Belgium’s wealthy past can be seen today in the Brussels town square, the Grand Palace extravagant with colour, mural paintings and gold.