Recalling gold burst on the Nilgiri hills

Dharmalingam Venugopal

[Nilgiri Documentation Centre,Kotagiri]

Hindustan Photo Films was not the first industrial misadventure on the Nilgiri hills. 140 years ago the South India Alpha Gold Mining Company, ‘the biggest venture to date’ was set up for gold prospecting in Gudalur by two Australian coffee planters who had been gold miners earlier.

The New Zealand Herald of 31 March 1875 was agog with excitement. It talked of famous geologists of the day Messer Foote and King having made the project study, the Governor of Madras Lord Hobart himself having inspected the area and ‘experienced diggers’ involved in the project.

As for the quantity of the gold it was said that the, ‘auriferous quartz veins are as rich as are any which have been discovered in California’. The only danger was the , ‘fearfully malarious nature of the climate’.

The East India Company also notified that, ‘should any gold be found, a portion of it would be considered belonging to the government’.
‘Ootacamund, the delightful hitherto recherché sanitarium on the Neilgherries is to be the new busy and bustling Ballarat (a gold mining town in Australia)’ concluded the report and predicted an exodus from ‘Melbourne to Madras’.

However the folly of the whole sordid episode was exposed soon after. As Shyam Rungta says in ‘The Rise of Business Corporations in India 1851-1900’ the whole venture was, ‘founded on incompetence and ended in misfortune’. The average cost of an ounce of gold produced was three times the market price.

The failure of Alpha only added to the speculation. When the gold rush peaked in 1879-81 as many as 41 companies were set up with a capital of over 5 million Pound Sterling in London, Bombay and Madras.
The shares of these companies commanded 50 to 100 percent premium even before any work was started merely on the basis of the cables sent by the ‘mining experts’ one of whom turned out to be a retired circus clown.

From little more than clusters of native huts, ‘gold towns’ of Devala and Pandalur blossomed suddenly into busy mining centres substantial buildings, bungalows, hotels, a store for ‘valuable quartz which was to be extracted’, a saloon and even race course laid out on paddy fields.

When the gold ‘boom’ burst without producing any gold several companies and banks collapsed in London and India. The only people who benefited were the ,’professional promoters, vendors of land, engineers and government of Madras and Mysore and their officers’.
The gold burst left Devala and Pandalur ghost towns, a place which a Times of India reporter had described before the gold rush thus, ‘Nature was undoubtedly in a poetic mood when she conceived and evolved the country, wild and lovely in extreme at one moment suggesting by the impressive grandeur of its mountain masses reminiscences of the Austrian Tyrol, at another recalling the sweet scenary of our own beautiful Wales by the delicate sylvan richness of its wooded valleys’

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