The Waynad Gold Rush


In India Gold is not just a precious metal, it is the bone and marrow of Indian life and culture. The passion for the yellow metal is traced back to thousands of years. Indians see this metal as a symbol of purity, prosperity and fortune. The mythological legends reveal the relation of Indian deities and the Precious metal. Over the years of history, many kings, emperors and dynasties made many attempts to conquest Indian sub-continent with a great ambition on Gold and other valuable materials.

Many historians made remarkable reference about the gold hunt in India like Megasthene’sunusual story about the Indian Gold digging ants. The story of the precious treasure in Nilgiri-Wayanad was revealed only after the massive research done by the materialistic East India Company and their greedy allies. The early history of gold mining industry in Nilgiri-Wayanad is largely conjectural but it would seem probable from the local traditions that the auriferous reefs were known to and worked by the natives at least two centuries ago.

The History of Gold boom begins from the late 18th century. Reportedly in 1798, the Governor of Bombay applied to the local officials for information on the subject of gold washing and mining. The matter was again taken up in 1828 and many attempts have been made to establish the Gold industry on a remunerative basis.

During 1831, H.L. Huguenin a conanoor based Swiss watch maker initiated exploration of mineral resources in Malabar and Wayanad and they began their search in the surroundings of Devala (6 Km from Pandalur). Due to some practical difficulties these attempts were abandoned. A.M. Ferguson, the editor of Ceylone Observer, after his visit to “Alpha Gold Mining Company” in Devala described that Devala is haunted by malariousJungle fever.In Dec,1874 the Pal Mall Gazette’s article titled “The new Indian Gold field” stated “The search after the precious metal will have to be conducted under conditions involving considerable personal risk. Thus in any case gold mining in Wayanad will have to be carried on the teeth of danger from the climate”.

These references clearly state why these hidden treasures were left untouched by themankind for centuries.After four decades in 1874 Alpha Gold Mining Company began operations in a valley about a mile and a half south of Devala. The visit paid to Alpha Gold mining company by the Governor of Madras Lord Hobart showcased the special interest Government of India had establishing the Gold industry in South East Wayanad .

In 1875, Dr.W.King of the Geological of Survey India examined this area and submitted a favorable report.Unfortunately at the time of his visit none of the reefs had been exploited sufficiently for proper sampling, but he was consequently compelled to take sample for assay from isolated exposure of reefs which were exceptionally rich in Gold.

The real Gold mining boom in Pandalur area began after the temporary appointment of Australian mining engineer Robert Brough Smyth by the Government of India in 1878 to report on auriferous deposits at Wayanad reefs. Robert Brough Smyth, who had an extensive mining experience in Australia and was the most competent mining engineer of the time. On 5th of November 1878, he reported to Government of Madras that gold was found in large quantities in the vein about thirty chains south east from Devala Alpha Mill on 17th October 1878. They found jagged pieces of gold and disseminated fine gold in throughout the blocks on the stone which was took from the vein. Robert Smyth added in report that an area around 325 square miles in Devala District is intersected by Quartz vein and he expects the presence of auriferous quartz in entire district.

After completing his report of Alpha mine, he started surveying Richmond, Elizebeth, DownHam, Tervelyan, Provident,Dingley Dell, Needle Rock other properties.He also he examined Sand Hurst and reefs in the summit of Hadiabetta Mount (aka: Kurisumala) north of Glenrock Bungalow.

In 1880, The Government issued the official report “Gold mines of South India” including Robert Smyths report on Wayanad gold fields to the public. Reaction to the positive report on the richness of gold ore in the known reefs located between Nadugani and Cherambadi resulted in wild ripe on the London stock market, thus began the great “Boom of 1880”. Many English companies started investing millions of sterling’s and they spent big amount of money to acquire lands and expensive machineries. In 1880 more than 30 companies (Listed below) with an aggregate capital over 4 million Pounds floated in the London market.


In 1880 and 1881, many London based mining companies campaigned for investors by the tales of rich auriferous reefs said to carry anything form a few pennyweights to over two hundred ounces of gold per ton. Many of the investors dreamed the existence of Ophir is now ascertained by the wide extend of Auriferous quartz in Waynad but later resulted in high speculation and investment loss.After a slow start, the machineries and mining staff arrived, Devala and Pandalur blossomed suddenly into busy mining centers. Reference to the reports of Samuel Jennings (theSecretary to the Indian Glenrock gold mining company), Pandalur was not yet developed during his first field visit to Glenrock during 1880 and there was a small native town at Devala with a good hotel and Sunday market. Later in Pandalur, they setup a township with all basic facilities including a new race course. even the head-quarters for the Head Assistant Magistrate were hastily transferred to Pandalur.The possibilities of the new industry attracted the planters in south east Wayanad.This had a major impact on the agro industries especially the Coffee cultivation.

The vanishing Ophir

The misfortune started after the poor performance of the mining companies, most of the crushing that had resulted much smaller than the anticipation. The so-called boom was followed by equally severe slump. In 18th January 1876, The Morning Post reported that “The Alpha Gold mining company, who lately commenced in operating in Wayanad, in the Madras Presidency, expected to have secured an outturn of 45oz of gold for one month crushing; but he yield provided to be 6dwts only. The Directors have resolved to try again”.

Majority of the companies were administered from London and it seems the promoters had not wisely calculated on the money wanted in India and the return of the investment back from India. Most directors of these companies had no practical knowledge on gold or any other mining and majority of them were retired officials. Due to poor profitability, few companies only existed in 1880 and 1881. Investors did many attempts to revive the industry. Some of them tried improved and modern methods for ore extraction.Mean time some other companies merged, some withdrew. Few companies like Indian Gold Mining Co., and Alpha Gold Mining Company planned to work together by sharing the expenses and profit. Similarly the Indian Phoenix Gold Mining company decided to amalgamate with Indian Consolidated Gold Mining Company Limited.

In the year 1883, services of Mr. John Darlington were obtained by “Indian Consolidated gold mining Co” to report on six properties, The general conclusion at which he arrived was that the reefs were not sufficiently thick and continued to afford even a moderate amount of ore and low grade ore were remunerative and the mining is impossible. Later in 1899, Mr.Hayden from the Geological survey of India did another gold investigation in Wayanad. During the inquiry, He reported “Tend to show that the majority of the reefs are probably too poor in gold to offer any prospects of remunerative working, yet it’s possible that one or two may prove sufficient reach to justify mining operation, provided they are carried on judiciously and under strictly expert supervision”.During the same time span London witnessed many Winding up notice against these companies and some of them were liquidated. The collapse of the new industry was accelerated even more by the financial miss management by the company representatives.A major incident wasreported in “The New Zealand Herald” on Tuesday March 10th, 1903, about the financial scandal in Glenrock Gold Mining Company, In London. The Secretary of the company was stealing cheques belongs to the company and transferred a huge amount of the company shares by forging share documents. Thus the industry collapsed in a very young age tragically before its establishment, Pandalur and Devala lost the importance and diminished to the faithlessness.

Informal mining

The lost dynasty killed the hopes of many English mining companies but the wound and scars theyleft on the belly of the earth opened a new opportunity for the locals. In the early days, immediately after the collapse of the industry, many of the labors from Malabar worked in the mines started panning for the gold in the streams of abundant mines. For decades, it was continued only by a few individualsfrom the tribal communities and clever Mappilas.

Unemployment, low wages in the estates labor and the uncertainty in the agricultural industries attracted the locals to artisanal mining. Later, a good number of SriLankan repatriates engaged in this field, well managed artisan mining were carried out in the area specially in Nadugani, Devala, Pandalur and Cherambadi, Many of the poor performing flour mills were turned in to profitable stone crushers. It is estimated that more than 1500 people are working in various mines in and around Pandalur. Even though such mining is prohibited by central and state laws, some of the locals invested and established comparatively largescale mining with crushers and sluice boxes. They employed locals with a higher wage, sometime even with profit share.

Majority of the artisanal Miners were working very hardly from morning to evening to get few grains of gold. They are working in a hazardous environment without any safety precautions, neither any detection technology nor sophisticated scientific methods were utilized to finding the ore. As per the locals, many incidents happened inside the mines which included major injuries, even death but none of the incidents were not reported to protect their interests or to escape from the legal complications.

Panning for gold is the common method used by the locals for their gold hunt. First, the gold diggers collect auriferous ore from the mines and crush them manually to fine particles by hammering. Some group of local miners setup automatic mechanical stone crushers to increase their yield. The impact of reduction of paddy field and profitability in stone crushing attracted many rice / flour mill owners. Hence the many rice mills were illegally converted to stone rushers mean time some others have special setups for crushing the ore illegally.

Enough quantity of the powdered ore is put in to a special wooden pan called "Gold Pan", held and submerged in the stream flowing out of the mines (most of the mines have good water stream which is enough to carry out the panning process). Then the pan moved in slow circular motion so that the lighter materials will be carried out of the gold pan and only the heavy elements sediments in the bottom of the pan. This process is done until all the particles such as mud, sand are washed out and only the heavy materials were deposited in the bottom. Then mercury is rubbed with the sediment and the mercury trap all the gold particles from the pan resulting a gold mercury amalgam.From the amalgam they extract the gold by the help of local goldsmiths. Some of the diggers had expertise in separating the gold from the amalgam. Onegramof pure gold (locally called Sokkathangam) can sold up to 2500 Rupees or more.

The artisanal mining causing many environmental concernsdue to excessive usage of mercury, water pollution due to sluicing, misshapes of the mine opens due to improper digging, and forest conservation have a major threat as most of the artisanal mining operation are take place in the forest areas. The studies done by the researchers from the School of environmental Science, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala in the Nilambur Valley part of the Wayanad gold field, reveals that the concentration of Mercury in the collected samples from the artisanal gold mining region is higher than the safe value prescribed. As mining in Pandalur region is more active than Nilambur Valley, the chance of Mercury concentration is higher than the Nilambur valley. However, a scientific study is required for solid proof.

In Dec 2013, during the field visit to Pandalurby Dr.KuntalaLahiriDutt – Senior Fellow from Australian National University - as part of her studies on informal mining, suggestedthe need of scientific methods and modern equipment in the Informal mining to reduce the health and environmental hazards. and to educate the miners on the health hazards and environmental challenges of excessive usage of mercury in artisanal mining.

It’s a paradox though, that the environmental impact of excessive usage of mercury, causalities in the mine, hidden danger from the abandoned mines and sinkholes are big threats to the wild animals and human life. Even though its illegal to be engaged in the informal mining (it’s officially referred as illegal mining) it’s a blessing and main source of income for a big number of families who depends on this adventurous filed. It also contributes significantly to the local economy.

References

  • India as described by Megasthenes - Narain Singh Kalota ; P50
  • Memoirs of the Geological Survey of India 1902,v33).
  • Madras district Gazetteers, The Nilgiris ,W.Francis 1908; P14
  • The Morning Post, 14th Dec 1874
  • Madras District Gazetteers, The Nilgiris ,W.Francis 1908; P15
  • Memoirs of the Geological Survey of India 1902,v33).
  • Supplement to the Bendigo Advertiser; Dt:8th May1880
  • The Hudders field Daily Chronicle ; 12th April 1880).
  • Gold Gems and Pearls of Ceylon and India AM Ferguson John Ferguson
  • The Glasgo Herald, 10th Jul 1886.
  • The London Gazette, 20th Jul 1883..
  • Pall Mall Gazette – 9th October 1900
  • A Manual of The Nilgiri District in the Madras Presidency – H.B.Grigg – 1880
  • A Manual of The Nilgiri District in Madras Presidency; H.B. Grigg;1880; Madras Govt Press
  • India as described by Megasthenes - Narain Singh Kalota; P50.
  • Memoirs of the Geological Survey of India 1902,v33
  • The Morning Post, 14th Dec 1874.
  • Memoirs of the Geological Survey of India 1902,v33
  • Supplement to the Bendigo Advertiser; Dt:8th May1880
  • Artisanal Gold Miners in Southern India - A research paper by AmalenduJyotishi, Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt2 and Priya Gupta.
  • Stories collected from Senior citizens which is told and passed down the generations.
  • http://malabardays.blogspot.com by Nick Balmer
  • http://historicalleys.blogspot.com