Labourers in a gold mine In South Africa [c1890-1923] Frank & Frances Carpenter:

After the gold rush

01 November 2015

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‘Between the plough and the pick: informal mining in the contemporary world’ takes place at Crawford School on 5-6 November. For more information:

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This week at Crawford School a major conference will look at artisanal and small-scale mining. In this piece, one of the presenters at the conference, Deborah Fahy Bryceson of the University of Edinburgh, gives a preview of her paper which juxtaposes 19th and 21st century experiences of gold rush mining in America, Australia, Africa and Asia.

The value of gold as a metal appreciated for human adornment and as a medium for facilitating exchange dates back to the mists of history in many parts of the world that have witnessed wealth accumulation. By contrast, in areas away from world trade routes, gold is likely to have been noticed but not widely valued by indigenous native populations.

As capitalist commodification expanded, appreciation of gold spread. From the mid 19th century to the present, many gold rush episodes have occurred around the globe, some far more memorable than others in terms of marking turning points in the demographic, cultural and political destiny of nation-states.

The ‘easy entry’ nature of artisanal mining can make for momentous change, as mounting numbers of incoming migrant miners using very basic skills and implements gravitate to a strike site hoping to gain a livelihood and participate in an economic bonanza. In addition to the rough and ready atmosphere of strike sites, where miners work hard as well as play hard, gold rush settings have been known at specific historical junctures of an evolving nation-state to give rise to frontier democracy.

I define ‘frontier democracy’ as the social levelling associated with large numbers of people comprising a broad spectrum of skills, educational levels and class backgrounds, working alongside each other at rough parity in open access, high potential gold mining. Many, if not most, have had no previous mining experience and face a relatively level playing field, where muscle power and willingness to work hard are the main entry criteria. Egalitarian-leaning collaborative labour relations tend to evolve that starkly contrast with the social hierarchies of miners’ places of origin. Myth or reality, such gold rush circumstances have been documented during the 19th century in California, the Victoria gold rush of Australia and the North American Yukon.

The paper I will present at this week’s conference juxtaposes the literature on these 19th century experiences with more recent 20th and 21st century African and Asian artisanal gold rush experiences, questioning why and what kinds of people take up pans, shovels and picks seeking their livelihood or indeed a fortune in gold-rich regions. Tracing the relationship between the global market for gold and labour during the 19th century as opposed to now, and contrasting differences and similarities in the nature and outcomes of artisanal mining in 21st century Africa and Asia compared to 19th century experiences, paradoxical aspects of artisanal mining’s frontier democracy emerge. Miners’ growing collective occupational identity may evolve towards collaborative political association. The democratisation of economic opportunity and the pull of the windfall gain of high value gold finds may catalyse a national democratic ethos associated with a nation-building trajectory.

Inevitably, however, the ephemeral nature of artisanal mining’s frontier democracy becomes evident. Gold is a non-renewable resource and the demographic pressure of more and more gold rush miners hastens the demise of frontier democracy. Sooner rather than later gold availability sinks to levels beyond the extractive capacity of artisanal miners’ basic technology.

Miners may form collective political protests hoping to offset their deteriorating position but the fact remains that a gold rush frontier democracy cannot last. At best it remains a vivid historical memory. And may even linger on as part of a national ethos in some countries, which cherish the burst of human vitality that happened all of a sudden in a fit of mass endeavour.

Between the plough and the pick: informal mining in the contemporary world takes place at Crawford School on 5-6 November. For more information:

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