Friday, January 18, 2013

Lessons in Gold

Mount Rattlesnake in background, Sudest Island.

The discovery of gold near Laloki and Brown Rivers in the 1870s did not make mining an economically viable option.

It was the 1888 discovery of gold on Sudest Island in the Milne Bay Province that led to a gold rush of Europeans from the declining goldfields of North Queensland.

Further discoveries of gold in Woodlark and Misima around the same time saw the heavy presence of Europeans in any one time on these islands.

Eight years later The Brisbane Courier (Qld) of Saturday 17 October 1896 published Sir William Macgregor, the Lieutenant Governor of New Guinea, an account of this mining.

“On the 23rd the steamer anchored at the east end of Hula Bay, on the south side of Sudest island, some half-a-mile from the store built by the British New Guinea Gold Mining Company. It is at the head of this bay that the company is to carry on its operations.”

“Some time ago certain gold-bearing quartz veins were discovered on the main hill range of the Island by some of the old-established miners of Sudest. The site of these deposits is three or four miles west of Mount Rattlesnake, and nearly the same distance north from the head of Hula Bay. The discoverers sold their interests in this reef, or took shares in the new company. The later had the reef examined by experienced and competent men and they are now occupied in getting quart-crushing machinery on to the ground.”

“The company would not, however, enter on this undertaking unless the Government would let them have for twelve months the services of about fifty prisoners. I am well aware that any such arrangement is quite unusual, and can be justified only by very exceptional circumstances, and can be carried out satisfactorily in practice only when the greatest care is exercised in regard to supervision. It seemed to me to be of the greatest importance to this colony that a start should be made in the more permanent form of mining from the quartz reefs. The alluvial workings are not of themselves of much advantage to the Possession on account of the fugitive nature of the Industry.”

“In this country the European miner on alluvial workings leaves whenever he obtains a certain amount of gold; then he and what he has got pass on to some white man’s country, leaving the stock of gold in this colony so much the less. Very few of the men settle here. In eight years only three or four of them have taken up any land in this colony.”

Sir William MacGregor consented to the services of fifty prisoners to work in the gold fields of Sudest. Their contract was for 12 months only. Free labourers were recruited from Rossell Island.

The company had purchased 444 acres of land at Pantava, where they built a general store, kept a small herd of cattle. The landing-place for the mine was on the Hula River.

According to MacGregor, the government “has done everything it possibly could do to facilitate and encourage the operations of the company, even to the extent of seriously interfering with such public works as building a seawall at Port Moresby and another at Samarai-works that languish in the absence of the best prison labour. I trust that the exceptional circumstances of the colony may be held to justify the very few unusual course which I have followed in this matter.”

The Lieutenant Governor’s final remarks were exceptionally telling.

“There are now only a few miners on Sudest Island probably about half-a-dozen. The natives work intermittently in obtaining gold on their own account, many of them being provided with miners’ ‘right’, but they do not exercise the protective rights afforded by these. When a native discovers a good patch, and this becomes known, all his relations and friends come and work on it on their own behalf. The whole Island seemed to be perfectly quite.”

These remarks helped me to see the benchmark to alluvial gold mining in the country. It has also served as the best early account of what would become a fly in fly out operation in Misima mine in later years, between June 1989 and late 2004.

As I sat listening to the narratives of gold mining on the Island I was bothered with knowing that this Island first experienced the heavy European presence in the 1880s the island was never developed enough. Sudest has no modern road system linking all the villagers on the island, the government station at Tagula is in derelicts, and most of the villagers remain in traditional houses, use traditional canoes, and live their way of life as it was then.

Nothing much has changed since that period, except for Griffin Point Primary School and several churches on the Island.

In 2012 Frontier Resources (ASX: FNT) announced its discovery of gold in a trench outcrop on Sudest Island.

According to Peter A. McNeil, Chairman and Managing Director of Frontier Resources: “No drilling has ever been undertaken on Sudest and less than 5% of the strike of the 45 km anomalous zone has been only cursorily evaluated by soil geochemistry or trenching, yet results outlined to date are very promising, including up to 2 metres of 104.5g/t fold along with 2 metres of 15.35 g/t gold, 6 metres of 10.9 g/t gold, 2 metres of 16.0 fold and 2m of 11.6 g/t gold.

“Frontier has so far demonstrated rock assays of up to 256 grams per tonner (g/t) gold with 19g/t silver,” reports Bevis Yeo.

Frontier Resources, a Perth based company, with an exploration licence will continue to assess the exploration of gold and silver on Sudest Island.

The question now is: If full scale mining takes places on Sudest Island what are the developmental benefits to these Islanders with no real government development initiatives in all these years?

If anything, the 12 clans on Sudest Island must not see the repeat of 1880s mining history.

They must see real tangible developmental benefits.

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