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TSUMEB MINE NAMIBIA HISTORY. The first written report of copper being seen in the Tsumeb area was made In 1857 when the Rhenish Missionaries H. Hahn and J. Rath in the company of the hunter-trader

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Tsumeb Mine A History Of Copper Mining in Namibia (part 1)

The de Wet Shaft ore body was the most diverse ever discovered.

Tsumeb Mine: The First Reports:

The first written report of copper being seen in the Tsumeb area was made In 1857 when the Rhenish Missionaries H. Hahn and J. Rath in the company of the hunter-trader F. Green made an expedition to the north with the objective of meeting with Ovambo Chiefs. On 17 June they camped East of Grootfontein at the foot of the Otjitjika Mountain where they met Ovambo traders carrying neatly woven palm-leaf baskets that contained copper ore from the Otavi Mountains. Hahn's report is quite detailed and even estimates the weight of each basket to have been about 90lbs.


An unusually Green Hill far, far away:

The Grootfontein | Otavi  | Tsumeb block was traditional land under the control of the Hain//om Bushmen. Different groups mined and smelted copper ore at several sites, one of which was a Green Hill where the oxidized copper-lead ore glistened in the sunlight. The Bushmen called the place Tsomsoub  meaning -'to dig a hole in loose ground (that keeps collapsing)'. They mined the rich copper ore from the Green Hill, which would later become known as the Tsumeb Mine,  and carried it back to their settlement near Lake Otjikoto where they would later use it as barter with travelling Owambo traders.


The 3 Englishmen and 1 American:

In 1875 four traders, I.Hickey, CC Thomas, WHC Willmer,  accompanied by an American G. McKiernan trekked from Walvis Bay and settled at Otavi-fontein where a hunter named Brooks told them of the nearby native copper workings. The men began to search the mountainous area and some 20 miles away came across the native's smelting hearths. They described their find, "Old smelting places were plentiful. Calcinated stones, charcoal and fragments of copper-ore in heaps. Lion tracks were plentiful and a close guard was kept on the bullocks. Soon after dark we heard lions roaring and growling at no great distance in the jungle at the foot of the mountain, but they did not come near the wagon. I had frequently seen tracks on the road in, but it was the first time that I had heard them give tongue, and it was a novelty to me; but I was assured that there was no danger except to the oxen. The next morning we began a search for the mine, but were unsuccessful for nearly half the day; and when we finally did find it, it was not more than 200 yards from the wagon. Such is the nature of that part of the country, a dense jungle; and not withstanding the frequent visits of the natives no footpaths led to the mine. The mine seemed to be of great richness and pits were dug along the line of the lode for a considerable distance. There were masses of ore of many tons in weight exposed in many places, and seemed to have been left for want of proper tools to breaking it up into a portable form. We had a large hammer, and I broke off about 300lbs. of it for a sample. It was very hot work, the thermometer being 106F in the shade, and we were excessively annoyed by  a species of gnat which is common in parts of the country. The mine would be very valuable if near the sea, but is too far to transport it by wagon, I do not think a railway feasible. In fact, between the mine and Walwich Bay there is not water enough to feed one engine a day. The distance is about 350 miles." They shipped ore samples to Cape Town for assaying. However, the men understood the difficulties of exploiting the remote deposit, a factor which along with growing hostilities from the Ovambos and Hereros saw them abandoning the venture and leave Otavi in January 1876 The

British Special Commissioner To Tribes North of the Orange River W. Coates Palgrave was sent to Great Namaqualand and Damaraland to make an assessment of the Native problems. With regards to the mining of copper, he submitted his opinion that, "metals and minerals are not of any greater account to the future welfare of the country, than the trade with the interior tribes, which must grow more and more important as the 'Reserve' becomes occupied by a population in which the European element is certain to predominate."



Wheeling and Dealing with the Ovambos:

In the early 1880s a group of Trek-Boers, from the Transvaal, who became known as the Dorstland (thirst-land) Trekkers trundled across the north of Namibia. Their leader Will Worthington Jordan had promised them the founding of a new and free republic that they were going to name Upingtonia. On 21 April 1885 Jordan concluded with the Ovambo Chief Kambonde of Ondongua the purchase of a tract of land south of the Etosha Pan that included the Grootfontein - Otavi - Tsumeb triangle, an area of about 50,000 sq miles, for the sum of 300 British Pounds, 25 Rifles, an immunized horse and a barrel of brandy. Jordan distributed the land amongst the Trek-Boers, but reserved for himself the mineral rights and the area included the Tsumeb Mine deposits.


This Land Is My Land. The Re-Arrangement:

The deal that the Ovambo Chief Kambonde had made with Jordan was the cause of great concern to the Herero Paramount Chief Maharero for he considered that the lands of the Grootfontein Otavi Tsumeb triangle might be his. He sought the help of an old friend and confident who had been in the country since 1858, Robert Lewis, adventurer, elephant hunter, trader and a man known for 'getting things done'. Lewis travelled north where he exerted his influence on the Ovambo Headmen to cancel the deal with Jordan. Returning payment to the trek-boers was not an option for the Ovambos, and Chief Nehale Mpingana provided a quick and simple solution by attacking, looting and killing many of the trek-boers along with Jordan. Some of the survivors managed to escape to Angola, their dream - independent Republic of Upingtonia, the victim of greed and political expediency.


For his services, Chief Maharero presented Robert Lewis on 9 September 1885 a written grant ceding to him the prospecting and mineral rights of the Otavi Block for a period of 20 years. The Chief further granted a lease over the Otavi mining area including the Tsumeb Mine deposits, or a period of 20 years on the proviso that ownership remained in British hands. The Hereros having grown a distrust of recent German expansionism. The annual fee in respect of this grant was 10 British Pounds, plus 2 shillings and sixpence per ton of ore exported.


The German Protectorate:

By the middle of the nineteenth century several British adventurer businessmen had established lucrative trading posts throughout the vast area of land that lay north of the Orange River that was known as Great Namaqualand and Damaraland. However, it was the Germans who were first to raise their flag on the soil of the land on the 7th August 1884 on another hill far to the south in Luderitz-bucht. By 1886 German influence had increased from the Orange River to the Southern edges of the Etosha Pan. They called their protectorate - German South West Africa.


Chief Maharero's agreement with Lewis had completely ignored any rights that the Berg Damara or Bushmen may have had on the said area, but whether this influenced the German decision not to ratify the 'Lewis' agreement is unclear. Lewis eventually sold his rights to several South African syndicates and by March 1890 had sold his remaining rights to the London based Damaraland Exploration Company.


 The South West Africa Company is formed in London:

Meanwhile, in Germany a group of interested parties along with government support sought a way in which to further explore the far away ore deposit. On 3 August 1892 they entrusted the Damaraland Concession to attorney Dr. J Scharlach and Hamburg businessman C. Wichman, pending the formation of the proposed mining company. On 18 August the South West Africa Company was incorporated in London and on 14 November an amending protocol was added to the Damaraland Concession granting the South West Africa Company the exclusive mineral rights over an area of 22,000 square miles that included the Otavi copper mines, plus absolute ownership over ground chosen by the company and covering 13,000 square kilometres, plus an area 10 kilometres wide on each side of the railway that was to be built between the mines, and the exclusive rights to build a harbour and railway line to serve the territory, on the proviso that the company acted promptly and without delay. The initial capital of 300,000 British Pounds was later increased to 2,000,000 Pounds. The company reacted quickly and dispatched two exploration teams, one under Mathew Rogers to investigate the ore body and another under D. Angus to survey a rail route to the coast.


The First Expedition:

The expedition force landed at Walvis Bay on 20 October 1892 and began to equip for the journey inland. While at the harbour town Rogers met with 2 emissaries of Samuel Maharero who had come to collect the semi-annual rent monies from the Damaraland Exploration Company for the Otavi Mines.


The wagon train left Walvis Bay on the long trek inland, where, at Omaruru they were to encounter their first obstacle when the local Herero Chief Manasse refused them passage until he had satisfied himself as to the validity of the expedition. The natives expressed previous disappointment that Palgrave and the English had left the country, for they disliked the oppressive Germans, and their satisfaction that the 'English' were returning.


On 19 December Rogers camped at Otavi-fontein, where the following day, with a local guide he rode to the mine workings at Gross Otavi and Klein Otavi. Rogers wrote in his diary, "The native workers have made a perfect network of holes in the limestone rock wherever small veins of copper were seen intermixed. Made an examination of these holes, one of which, said to be sunk by Englishmen, is about 30 feet diagonally. There is either a large deposit of copper underneath, or they have nearly reached the end of it, which will take us from six to nine months to prove. Some very rich specimens of copper glance and other copper ores found."


On 30 December Rogers wrote, "I am informed there are several places in these hills the Bushmen work for copper, but on asking to be shown where am coolly told permission must first be obtained from the Bushmen Chief and he lives some considerable distance from this place."


On 12 January 1893 Rogers visited the Green Hill at Tsumeb and wrote"

"The outcrop of copper here is the finest mineral outcrop I have ever seen. It is associated with quartz, the first time I have seen this mineral with copper in this country. The containing rock appears to be slate, but to definitely determine the soil must be removed."


On 16 January Rogers met with a Johannes Kruger and local native who is only known as 'Winn of Ghaub' who claimed to hold the controlling rights over several of the areas copper deposits. Following extensive negotiations they granted permission to Rogers to mine. Legend has it that they received an ox-wagon and a pair of riding breeches from Rogers.


On 19 January Rogers witnessed the arrival of 6 Damara at his Otavi camp. The following day these were joined by a further group that carried a letter from the Herero Chief Samual Maharero. It was written in Hollands, and as nobody in the camp could read it, they sent for Johannes Kruger to translate. He read the letter and informed them that Samuel Maharero wished them to meet with him as he had only recently received a payment of 100 British Pounds from Robert Lewis as rent for the land as per his agreement, and he wanted to know if they were sent by Lewis! Rogers road south to the Waterberg to meet with Samuel Maharero, but on arrival found that Samuel had departed for Okahandja.


On 21 January Rogers wrote a letter to the Board of Directors in London. It contained the first professional report of the Tsumeb Ore Body that eventually proved to be one of the richest in the world.

"I have been holding places of trust for the past 24 years; having visited various countries in the world, inspecting mines, mineral outcrops, and prospecting for minerals; having been associated with the minerals gold, silver, tin, copper and lead; but in the whole of my experience, I have never seen a sight as was presented before my view at Soomep, and I very much doubt that I shall ever see another in any other locality... The outcrop is in a valley formed by gradually sloping hills. As if the subterranean forces had made one sudden and special effort to force an entrance through the crust of the earth, a large rent is made. This rent has been filled in probably by aqueous solutions with minerals, having as its chief matrix quartz. In this instance the minerals, as far as can be seen, are different ores of copper and lead. In the process of time... by erosion and denudation, the surrounding strata composing the containing rock have been removed, leaving the fissure vein standing in an inclined position...in some places being 40 feet in height - with the green and blue colours of chrysocolla, conspicuously covering it. By various causes the hard quartz matrix has been shattered and rent, and the smaller fissures again refilled with the same minerals. The following sketches will, I trust, give some idea of the appearance. As nothing has been done to this outcrop, and as the soil and detritus cover the southern side, it is difficult to determine its real width...I will only say that on first seeing such a grand and prominent outcrop I could scarcely conceal my astonishment and delight...were this scheme only one of ordinary speculation I should have no hesitancy in recommending this field for immediate work, but being nearly 400 miles form the coast. that the facilities for working are far from the best, and that various essentials are lacking for cheap and effective mining, I am compelled to ask permission, when we have finished at Otavi to transfer the camp to this place, and to do some work below the surface before I say whether even this grand outcrop warrants the necessary outlay for mining on a large scale. I will, however add that few mineral outcrops present such exceptional indications as this one."


Every Man and His Dog:

On 5 March a group of Damara arrived at Roger's camp. One claimed to be the Chief of the Hereros who had ceded his position to Samuel Maharero. Rogers entertained the party and gave the man a ration of tobacco for which he was then given written permission by the native to commence with his investigation of the nearby mines.

On 16 March Rogers wrote of the dissatisfaction between the various native groups who all wanted 'a piece of the action'. "The Damaras that arrived here yesterday say, internal dissensions are existing in the country because of our being here. Each chief claims the place and consequently disagrees with his brother chiefs."

On 8 April Rogers reported of further hostility from the natives, "Some Hottentot chiefs with a large following arrived at 7pm and peremptorily ordered me to desist working along the valley and demanded the stones I had brought from the shaft, or they would take them by force. This party have been the most hostile we have as yet seen."

On 16 June Rogers spent the night at Ghaub where he met with a council of natives and wrote: "Very cold night, a piece of ice seen on top of one of our barrels. After breakfast a raad (council) held with the Damaras and Hottentots. They first ask questions. where we come from, etc. They neither acknowledge Samuel or Manasse as bearing any special right over this district: they have their own part where they rule, but Kambazembi was the first to settle here, then the Bushmen and Berg-Damaras, and ultimately the Red-Men or Hottentots. They accuse us at Otavi with not being sufficiently hospitable in giving them food, etc. when they visit us."


On 26 June Johann Kruger arrived with letters from Samuel and Kambazembi that gave permission for Rogers to work the Gross-Otavi Mine, but prohibiting the investigation of any other sites.

On 17 July Rogers received a further letter from Samuel Maharero instructing that work at the Gross-Otavi mine should not stop without the authorization of himself and 'Kamabathenbie'.

On 19 July Chief Kambazembi arrived at Gross-Otavi and ordered Rogers to cease all work, but on his departure recommenced work.

On 25 September Kambazembi again visited Rogers and ordered that all operations cease immediately, and made demands that he should be paid 3 British Pounds per month for his rights. He later apologized for his interference and from then on received the usual gratuities.

On 26 September Rogers obtained permission from Samuel Maharero to move camp from Otavi-fontein to Guchab. By October Rogers decided to suspend work at the Otavi mines, prospect the area around Guchab, and move part of the exploration team to Tsumeb.


Rogers patience and diplomacy were once again put to the test when a series of labour unrest amongst the native workers hampered progress, however, by 1894 two prospecting shafts had been sunk to a depth of 20 metres and several cross cuts had been made into the Tsumeb ore body. It was now established that the ore was exceptionally rich with copper and lead, but whether it was economically viable owing to the distance from the coast was still in question. The problem of establishing as to who held what rights and where still required clarification and settlement by the authority of the day.

Orange Attention  Tsumeb Mine A History part 2


Acknowledgements and further reading: G1, G2, H9, H20, H21, P2,

Tsumeb / Grootfontein Area Attractions

Baobab Tree

Hoba Meteorite

 Lake Otjikoto



Gaub Cave

Khorab Memorial




Of Interest: The indigenous people noted that the scum around the edges of the waterholes at 'Tsumeb' were streaked with bright greens, brown and grey. These were chemical deposits that had leeched out from the copper and lead ore.

The Otjihereros called the place 'Otjimuse' meaning, 'the place of frogs'.

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