At LocalPlaces, we tell the history of both cities we operate in: Johannesburg & Cape Town. In the firs series of blog posts, we will be unpacking the history of Johannesburg – a city that has been rebuilt 7 times in its short history! This is the story that we tell as background to all our walking tours and city immersions.
Here we focus on the pre-history of the city as well as the fist city during the goldrush, the Victorian shantytown.
Founded in 1886, Johannesburg is an incredibly young city. A city that personifies the Industrial Revolution in every possible way – founded in the same year the motorcar was invented. While the world’s new imperial powers were scrambling for resources.
With the invention of the combustion engine and electricity, industrial mass production became a reality. The need for resources to support manufacturing, as well as access to new markets to sell the products to, resulted in an era of imperial expansion. Johannesburg was caught in the centre of this new world.
Yet, in the 1880s, this region – then known as the Witwatersrand (White Waters Ridge) – was dominated by rural ‘Boer’ farms, with no industrialisation in sight. Imagine African grassland with clusters of trees on the rocky outcrops or along the streams. Imagine impala and eland, perhaps zebra, giraffe, and lions too.
Everything changed, though, when George Harrison, an Englishman, ambled along the farmland of this region in 1886. He knew there had to be gold here, as traces of gold had already been discovered in the streams 40 years earlier. It was on the farm Langlaagte, halfway between today’s Old City and Soweto, where he bumped into a rocky outcrop. He probably hurt his foot. He probably swore a few times, then looked down and realised he had hit the jackpot!
What Harrison saw was the kind of rock that would contain gold. On an October morning of 1886, Harrison discovered the world’s biggest gold reef. So significant a reef, that by today Johannesburg has produced 40% of all the gold ever mined on planet earth.
Johannesburg’s modern history spans only 136 years. To put this in perspective, consider that Nelson Mandela lived to the age of 95 and only died in 2013. Joburg was only 32 years older than he was when he died. Everything that happened here, took place in little more than one person’s live time! No wonder then that Johannesburg still appears slightly chaotic today. It is a city in its teenage years, still trying to find its way.
If the ancient history of this region is considered, though, then Johannesburg could also be the oldest human settlement on the planet. Some of the world’s oldest hominid ancestral skeletons, dating back 3,5-million years, originate from Sterkfontein and Maropeng, just 45km northwest of the city. It is therefore not impossible that the great migration of humankind, originated here.
It is a myth that no one lived in this region prior to 1886. Researchers agree that San communities occupied the area 500 years ago. They were replaced by Sotho and Tswana communities 200 years prior to the city’s founding. Even today, south of the city, near Suikerbosrand, remnants of stone walls can still be found, dating back to an erstwhile Tswana settlement of over 20 000 people.
By the early 1800s, southern Africa was in turmoil. In what today is known as KwaZulu-Natal, the Zulu Nation was in formation One of the Military Chiefs, Mzilikazi, split off from King Shaka and took his people and migrated north, eventually settling at what is today the Hartbeespoort Dam, northwest of Johannesburg.
The many tribal movements of the time became known as the Mfecane and caused the scattering of people. Mzilikaze had skirmishes with the local Tswana Chief, Mogale, as well as the Boers. He eventually took his Ndebele people and migrated further north, settling in what is today Matabeleland in Zimbabwe.
Soon after, by the late 1830s, the Boers arrived in this region. They found the area sparsely populated with fountains on the hills and semi-fertile land and considered it a practical place to farm. The Boers simply grabbed land, settled, and created their own farming communities. By the 1880s they had established their own Dutch speaking republics as independent territories outside of the British colonies. But they had no idea they were farming on top of the biggest pot of gold the world had ever seen.
But how did two Dutch speaking republics come into being in the interior of southern Africa in the 1880s? To understand this, we must delve a bit further back in history. It was in 1652 that a few Dutch ships came sailing along the Atlantic Coast of Africa, with the plan to turn around Cape Point and travel along the Indian Ocean coast up to India. They were following the sea routes opened by the Portuguese a century earlier. Their purpose was to return with spices, a valuable commodity in Europe.
The sea journeys were long and difficult though. Fresh produce was in short supply. The Dutch East India Company (DEIC) decided to establish a stopover at what later became Cape Town. Here they planted a vegetable garden to grow fresh produce for their ships. The vegetable garden grew over time. Once the Europeans officials of the DEIC reached retirement, they were given permission to claim land in the vicinity and establish farms – and supply produce to the DEIC.
Over time the Cape became an informal Dutch Colony. Indirectly so, as it was mostly governed by the DEIC, in combination with the free ‘burgers’ (citizens) who settled there. By the late 1700s, early 1800s, Napoleon was marching across Europe where he eventually met his Waterloo. Napoleon got imprisoned on the Atlantic Ocean island of St Helena. The closest port to St Helena was Cape Town and it was then that Britain started attaching significance to Cape Town. They sent a whole lot of troops and money to the Cape, annexed the territory and turned it into a British Colony.
Soon, the new British colonial dispensation, introduced significant changes to the governance of the region by abolishing the slave trade. By then the large farming community of Dutch, German, and French settlers, relied on slaves to drive the agricultural economy. Many German and French settlers arrived here in the 1700s, fleeing for freedom of religion while protestants were persecuted in Catholic Europe.
Most of the slaves in the Cape were not local. Instead, they were brought here from other Dutch colonies in the east, such as Malaysia and Indonesia. Also, from Madagascar. It was the merger of Dutch, German and French with Malay languages, English and local African languages, that eventually became Afrikaans.
The farmers of the Cape, known as ‘Boers’ (the Dutch or Afrikaans word for ‘farmer’), were appalled by the British colonial government abolishing slavery. They argued that they were paying all the taxes and that the new government had no right to remove their labour.
Many Boers rebelled and decided to migrate out of the Cape Colony, looking for different land to farm on, where they could be free from British rule. They possibly were inspired by the tales of Americans moving the frontier on the other side of the Atlantic. They must also have been prompted by the arrival of British Settlers in 1820, who settled along the eastern border of the Cape Colony. There they created a protected border between the British Cape Colony and the Xhosa people.
The Boers set off along a conglomeration of informal migration routes. Later this migration became known as the mythical ‘Great Trek’. First, they settled in the Free State area and then KwaZulu-Natal where they battled the Zulus. They eventually left and trekked back over the Drakensberg, further north, to settle where Johannesburg and Pretoria are, by the 1840s.
By the 1870s, the Boers had established two independent, Dutch-speaking republics outside of the British colonies: the Zuid-Afrikaanse Republic (also known as the Transvaal) and the Orange Free State. Here they controlled a part of Africa, not yet claimed by Britain or any other imperial European power during the Scramble for Africa.
Just as the Boers were settling in the interior of southern Africa, prospectors discovered diamonds north of the Orange River, just outside the British Cape Colony. The area was being claimed by the Boers and the Griqua people with Khoi heritage. However, Britain gave the situation one look and decided to extend the border of the Cape Colony by 70kms, including the diamond wealth in their territory.
As if diamonds were not enough to awaken the resources-greed of imperial European powers, the discovery of gold in Pilgrim’s Rest followed in the 1870s, (in what is today Mpumulanga Province). A short-lived gold rush ensued, with Britain promptly annexing the two Boer Republics. They were eager to control the new-found wealth which could underpin its scramble for more territory and resources in Africa.
The Boers defended their territory and a short war, the First Anglo-Boer War ensued. The Boers won the most significant battles and were soon given their independence back. However, this time, under the watchful eye and ‘guardiancy’ of Britain, which by then controlled most of the surrounding territories.
When Harrison discovered gold in 1886, the memory of Britain grabbing both diamonds and gold previously, was still fresh in the minds of the Boers. Even though Johannesburg did not exist yet, there was a dirt road passing through this area, that stretched from the capital of the Transvaal, Pretoria) back to the Cape Colony. As this road entered the Cape, it led to Kimberley, the City of Diamonds and by then the wealthiest city in the world. It had more millionaires than any other city on the planet. It is claimed that Kimberley was the second city in the world to get electrical streetlights! Only after New York and prior to London, Paris, or Berlin.
Word spread from the new goldfields of the Witwatersrand, up the dirt road to Kimberley and everyone there realised they would make more money from gold than from diamonds. In no time, they all packed up, hopped on ox wagons and horse carts, and raced here to pitch their tents and dig in the ground for gold. The first person to officially arrive here was Ignatius Ferreira. He established the first miner’s camp. Therefore, the southwestern corner of the Old City is still known as Ferreirastown today.
The people who came from Kimberley spoke English since they came from an English Colony. Soon, word spread to Cape Town and from there along the shipping routes, to the entire British Empire. People hopped on ships in places like Australia, New Zealand, India, the Chinese English Colonies (Hong Kong of today), the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States of America.
Until today, a portion of Soweto is called New Canada as this was where the Canadians first camped during the gold rush. Many people came from California in the USA as they had a gold rush there, from 1848 to 1855. The Americans knew the technology needed to mine gold and brought it to the gold fields of Johannesburg.
The 1st Joburg:
The Victorian City and the Anglo-Boer War
By 1894, eight years after the discovery of gold, as many as 80 000 people lived in the new city called Johannesburg. They were mostly English-speaking migrants, trapped in a Victorian shanty town in the middle of the Dutch-speaking Transvaal Republic. The Boers regarded them as ‘uitlanders’, illegal foreigners.
Johannesburg was a Victorian mining town. Pretty, but messy. It had corrugated iron buildings with ‘broekie-lace’ balconies. The city had a phone line system before it had a sewage system as it was more important to phone London and sell gold, or gold shares, than going to the loo. That, people simply did in the streets!
It is no surprise that the all-imported English mining town, found itself at odds with its surroundings. Soon the tussle for control of gold and the new industrial economy ensued. The new English migrants paid all the taxes and generated the entire economy of the Boer republic. Yet they were treated like illegal immigrants, unwelcome foreigners.
By 1894, the English-speaking people of Johannesburg insisted on being given voting rights and citizenship of the Boer Republic. Predictably, the Boer president, Paul Kruger, refused. By then there were more foreign migrants in the country than so-called locals. The irony was that the Boers were migrants themselves, albeit from earlier generations.
In 1896 Johannesburg’s English-speaking population plotted a coup against the Boer government. After all, they were in the majority and had the support of Cecil John Rhodes, the erstwhile prime minister of the Cape Colony. The infamous Jameson Raid, plotted by the Reform Committee, failed at the last moment. Paul Kruger’s Boer government survived the attempt on the country and its gold.
While the Scramble for Africa was underway with Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, and Portugal all claiming territories in Africa, the two Boer republics soon found themselves part of the tussle. The Boers were from German, Dutch, and French descent and most of continental Europe had empathy with the Boer struggle against the British. Of course, they also had their own interests at heart. Who would not want a share of the newly found gold of Africa?
After the failed coup attempt, Keiser Wilhelm of Germany dispatched a telegram to the home of Paul Kruger in Pretoria. It was a letter of congratulations, saying “well done for outwitting and outsmarting the British and surviving the attempt on your country and your gold”. Some of the divisions between new imperial powers of Europe, that later resulted in the 1st World War, were already at play on the goldfields of Johannesburg.
Britain realised that the Transvaal goldfields presented a whole new conundrum. It was not as simple as simply moving the border or annexing the territory again. This time the Boers had international support. But it was the mighty British Empire of Queen Victoria. It had the largest and most modern navy the world had ever seen. With industrial ships that could travel fast, far and invoke the fear of any enemy.
Queen Victoria’s navy sent out its ships to the ports of the British Empire, to collect troops from all over the world. Mostly from New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Soon, as many as 20 000 British troops found themselves on ships. On the way to Durban and Cape Town. With the plan to be railed in, march in, surround the two Boer republics and force them to surrender their countries and their gold.
The Boers realised they only had one chance. That was to declare war and invade the neighbouring British colonies before their troops had arrived. This way they could attempt to push Britain out of southern Africa all together. In October 1899, the two small landlocked countries, the Boer republics, declared war on the mighty British Empire. It made worldwide headlines. It was on the front cover of the New York Times, but no one was too fazed. The war would last three weeks, or if it went badly, three months. The British would outnumber the Boers four to one.
Of course, it did not work out like that. It became a massive tragedy that lasted for three years. Today known as the South African War, for it created our country. It is commonly known as the Anglo-Boer War, though. It was an incredibly significant war. It was the first war of the 20th century and a war with truly international consequences. It was the fist war to be filmed by movie cameras as the movie industry was just invented. It was the first war to make use of trenches as the official method of warfare – and using truly industrialised weapons.
It was also the war in which a young newspaper correspondent, Winston Churchill was imprisoned. Churchill, though, escaped through a prison window in Pretoria and made his way on a train to Lourenco Marques (today’s Maputo) from where he caught a ship back to Britain.
The Boers had the upper hand in the opening stages of the war and infiltrated the neighbouring British colonies all the way to within sight of Cape Town. But more and more British ships arrived in the ports, offloading soldiers, and as the troops were railed in, they pushed the Boers back.
By May 1900, the British troops marched into Johannesburg, unopposed, welcomed as heroes by the local English-speaking population. For all practical purposes the war was over. Britain attained its objective: control over the gold of the Transvaal. Soon Pretoria fell too, and Britain had control over all the cities of the region.
But the war was not over. The Boers, realising they were losing, climbed out of the trenches and ran into the mountains and hills. There, they regrouped and came up with a new strategy: guerrilla warfare. They decided to attack the infrastructure and to blow up the railways and bridges. Some people would call it terrorism, depending on which side they were on.
Why did the Boers do that? Why would they bomb the infrastructure? It was simple: Johannesburg was a landlocked city and even if Britain controlled all the gold, they could not export it, if they could not get it to Cape Town or Durban. At the same time, cutting the railway lines, would make it difficult for Britain to get supplies into the cities.
By the end of 1900, Britain was desperate. They realised they had to get control over the countryside to end the war. They, therefore, introduced a new policy: the Scorched Earth. Britain decided to burn down the entire southern Africa, farm by farm. All the farms in the Boer republics and all the Boer-owned farms in the British colonies too. Why would they do that? They realised that the Boer troops survived in the mountains and hills by sourcing supplies from the farmhouses – water, food, and ammunition. If they could cut those supply lines, they could bring the war to an end.
Britain started burning the farms, blowing the farmhouses up with dynamite and moving the people from the farms, forcefully, into concentration camps. In the next year-and-a-half, as many as 45 000 people died in those camps. That number was made up of 27 500 Afrikaner (Boer) women and children, as well as nearly as many black people who died in black concentration camps.
Ironically so, when the Apartheid government came into power half a century later in 1948, it suited them to portray the Afrikaner as the only victim of the Anglo-Boer War. They therefore erased all traces of the black concentration camps from local history. The first book about the black camps to be published, was produced by Wits University in 2015.
The tragic Anglo-Boer War, finally ended in 1902. The toil of the concentration camps was too much for the Boers. While their women and children were incarcerated there, the men (including children) were banished to prison of war camps on islands such as St Helena and Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka).
At the same time, the Conservative Party government in Britain, was in trouble because of the human rights campaign of one woman, Emily Hobhouse. She travelled to South Africa, documented the concentration camps, and spread the news in the United Kingdom. As the British public started asking what was happening in South Africa, the government was pushed towards the negotiation table.
On 31 May 1902, the Anglo-Boer War ended in the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging. The peace treaty stated that the two Boer republics would become official British colonies too. However, they would be given self-government six years later. They could orchestrate their own political affairs, as long as the economy was integrated with the British Empire.
The tiny Victorian shantytown would soon grow-up to become a splendorous British city.