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Likker and early Joeys
07 April 2008

The history of Johannesburg is well oiled with liquor - both legal and illegal. And the various governments have always had a hand in the spirits trade.

Neil Fraser

I HAVE been reading Peter Ackroyd's magnificent history of the River Thames, and have been struck by the vast differences between a city built around such a gigantic natural resource and one built in the middle of a savannah, as it is in our case.

Whereas there was a sense of almost natural evolution with London, our development was far more managed and manipulated, all in the search for wealth, thus serving the base desires of mortals and, in particular, the early owners of the mines – known as “the capitalists”. Inextricably woven into the story of gold and the beginnings of Joburg, are the stories of a wide range of men - from chancers to nobility (not that many of them weren't chancers!) - with all the appurtenances that accompany the male psyche, including wine, women and song.

So I thought we'd spend some time looking at these three aspects, intermittently, over the next few months.

At the time of the discovery of the gold reef, the area was an agricultural one. What came to be known as the Witwatersrand was the site of 25 farms with a population of about 200 people. The vast majority of the initial surge of hundreds of prospectors proved to be more speculators and “claim-traders” than the capitalists needed to finance organised mining.

They followed shortly behind and, more particularly, when it became clear that to truly extract maximum wealth it was necessary to dig deep and to use far more complex, and thus expensive, extraction processes. But the area and the excitement generated acted like a magnet, drawing not just miners and prospectors, but also all sorts of speculators and traders on the look-out for a quick buck.

This was a totally male-dominated society with skilled mineworkers from Cornwall, Cumberland and Lancashire finding domicile in boarding houses in the working class suburbs of Jeppe and Fordsburg, and unskilled workers, local as well as from Mozambique and the Cape, being housed in poor quality mine compounds in between.

As Charles van Onselen records (in New Babylon, New Nineveh): "Drinking, gambling and whoring … assumed a central role in the lives of thousands of skilled and unskilled miners." A great deal of what follows is drawn from his research.

The pursuit of drinking appears to have been largely assisted by the government (the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek, or ZAR, was the government of the time) and the mine owners/management. It is interesting that the ZAR president, Paul Kruger, who was known as a strong Calvinist, granted AH Nellmapius a concession in 1881 for the making of alcohol from the agricultural surplus of the Boer farmers - grain, potatoes, and so on.

The concession was designed to accomplish two ends. Firstly, the government would earn income through the concession and, secondly, the farmers, or boere, would have a market for their excess production. Nellmapius was a Hungarian mining engineer who had achieved a certain degree of success in the Pilgrim's Rest diggings. He was quite an entrepreneur and also provided a “mule train” from the diggings via the ships frequenting Delagoa Bay to other parts of the world.

The story is told that when the mules returned from Delagoa Bay, they were laden with “cheap, contraband Portuguese liquor” for the Pilgrim's Rest mining camp. Nellmapius later started farming near Pretoria and became friendly with the ZAR president. The concession gave rise to a new business, De Eerste Fabrieken in de Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek, but it evidently struggled until the discovery of the reef and then it flourished with the instant market provided.

In fact it flourished to the extent that it went public as the Hatherley Company in 1892. Hatherley was the name of the farm on which the distillery was built – the farm had belonged to Sammy Marks who was, of course, the major shareholder in the distillery and a good friend of the president. By late 1889, the distillery was producing about a thousand gallons of proof spirit a day from grain supplied by local farmers. Rand mine owners were prominent among the company's shareholders and directors. Nothing much changes - little in the way of real corporate governance and presidents appeared to be above reproach.

First pub
The goldfields had proved to be a prolific base for the liquor trade from the very beginning. The first reference I could find was to the very first visit of Johannes Rissik and Christiaan Johannes Joubert to the Witwatersrand from Pretoria in 1886 to investigate the proclamation of the goldfields. They evidently addressed a meeting of about 250 men, near Ferreira's Wagon.

After the meeting the gathering moved on to Edgson's canteen, one of the first pubs on the goldfields and, it is said, drank firstly a toast to President Kruger and then continued drinking until they had cleared the pub of all stock.

In late 1886, when the new mining town was visited by Bishop Brousfield, he recorded that of the 26 shanties erected, 16 were for the sale of drinks. Three years later the 16 had become 127 saloons!

Anna Smith in the early publication Pictorial Johannesburg reflected that, considering the dust storms, it was not surprising that liquor brewing was one of the town's first industries.

In 1891, an enterprising newspaper editor organised a “Barmaids Referendum” – of a population of 30 000 men, women and children, 17 000 votes were cast using the then 288 bars as voting stations. At the final count a Mrs Groth of Kimberley Bar was declared winner by 2 000 votes. She was described as an "Aphrodite, blessed with an ample body and great personal charm".

Licensed “canteens” skyrocketed from 147 in 1888 (just two years after gold was discovered) to 552 four years later! Mine owners, in fact, used alcohol as one of their methods of attracting and retaining cheap labour – many of the migrant workers spent a large proportion of their earnings on liquor and therefore were prepared to work for excessively long periods before returning home.

They did this clearly to replace what they had spent on liquor so that there would be money to repatriate home.

Portuguese entrepreneurs
The Portuguese in Mozambique weren't slow in realising the potential for liquor profits from the goldfields, especially as they had a deal with the ZAR government that imports to the ZAR through Delagoa Bay would be tax free. Access became even easier once the railway line between Delagoa Bay and the reef was completed in 1895.

They manufactured rum from sugar, which cost a fraction of grain distillation – in fact, having exhausted the supply of locally grown sugar, they started importing vast quantities from Natal and Mauritius. Even cheaper was German potato spirit, but all kinds of subterfuge was necessary before it could be landed in the ZAR because of the ZAR import duties.

Potato spirit was, therefore, loaded on to German ships that then set sail for Lisbon, where a 24-hour stay would enable them to receive a certificate of naturalisation, which meant that when the goods arrived in Lourenço Marques they did so as Produce of Portugal. And here we are today unable to even sort out our power problems!

Making rotgut
Once they reached Johannesburg, the raw spirits had to be processed into something both drinkable and marketable, for which three things were required - bottles, various chemicals and essences, and forged cork tops and labels. All of these were easily come by locally.

So brandy for the mineworkers was made of 15 gallons of Delagoa proof spirit; 15 gallons of water, one gallon of cayenne pepper tincture, half a pound of mashed prunes, one-and-a-half ounces of sulphuric acid, and one ounce of nitric acid; the whole concoction was coloured with burnt sugar.

Whisky was slightly cheaper, being made from 100 gallons of Delagoa proof spirit, one gallon of tincture of prunes, three pounds of glycerine, one pint of green tea, half an ounce of acetic acid, 20 drops of creosote, and 12 drops of oil of cognac. Liquor for the slightly more discerning taste was the same mixture as the rotgut but filtered more frequently.

All-in-all there was a liquor boom in Joeys for the 10 years leading up to 1896, but at the cost of hundreds of workers who died from these concoctions – it was quite normal for “cause of death” to be listed as “alcoholic poisoning”. As is so often the case today, life from the perspective of those who stood to gain the most, was cheap; people were expendable.

By 1895, it was estimated that between 15 and 25 percent of the black labour force was always unfit for work because of drunkenness. This was the ugly face of capitalism - exploitation at its most callous level.

Peruvian Connection
But eventually as drunkenness and the resultant absence from work began to affect the production and pockets of the capitalists, various countermeasures were proposed. By the beginning of 1897 a new law was enacted that declared a “total prohibition” on the sale of liquor to Africans. The ban badly affected Hatherley's financial performance and Sammy Marks himself devised a recovery strategy that included buying out all the competitors situated in Mozambique and taking control of the liquor market.

The ban also resulted in half the canteens being closed, but this didn't mean that there was a reduction in demand! Illicit liquor sales started to generate super profits. Super profits attracted newly arrived Jewish Russian immigrants, many of whom were penniless and without work. In 1869, they were estimated at 7 000 strong and the illicit liquor trade was ruled by what became known as the “Peruvian Connection”.

Illicit liquor distribution ranged from one-person businesses (driving carts from place to place selling liquor to the black population but never being in one place for long enough to be caught), to legitimate bars selling liquor to white folk in the front and illegally to black folk at the rear. Some of the syndicates were large and engaged in wide-ranging activities, some legal but mostly illegal.

They went to great lengths to reap the profit from illegal liquor sales. Two adjacent buildings would be bought, a licence applied for one property, which would then conduct legitimate liquor sales. An underground tunnel would connect the two buildings, the second securely fenced off and with various look-out points – the tunnels were protected through a system of trapdoors and partitions and warning bells and such, and often the “seller” would operate from a small space with a slit big enough to receive cash and deliver a bottle.

The illicit liquor outlets were known as “dens” or “forts” and were the forerunners of the shebeens.

Huge fights broke out between those who supported prohibition and partial prohibition, and the illegal liquor traders, with various crusades that resulted in deputations to the president – remember that through the concession system the government was provided with an income.

Kruger's main approach thus seems to have been towards creating a state liquor monopoly in which Hatherley would be the sole producer and the police would ensure the removal of the illegal suppliers. But the police, or ZARPS as it was known, was susceptible to bribes and the situation continued to be problematic.

British solution
The solution came from an unexpected quarter. After Pretoria fell to the British on 5 June 1900, a proclamation under military law prohibited the manufacture and sale of all spirituous liquors. As with all such bans, the liquor trade wasn't initially really seriously disrupted. However, when it came to enforcement, the military regime was far more effective than that of the previous government's police, and all outlets were systematically shut.

At the end of 1901, Milner proclaimed a new liquor law for the Transvaal, totally prohibiting the sale of liquor to Africans and, in 1902, preventing the distillation of any spirits for commercial gain in the Transvaal. He also deported “undesirable immigrants” and broke up the syndicates.

The bars reopened in Johannesburg in January 1902 but, in terms of the new legislation, only for white persons and within certain limited hours, when a meal had to be provided with any alcohol served. We'll pick up the story next week.
Cheers, Neil

Here are the details of two tours planned for April by the Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust:

Saturday, 14 April
"Promenading down The Valley Road to see the plaques" – walking tour

The Valley Road Conservation Trust has commissioned the Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust to place plaques at many of the homes in this beautiful street. The first plaques will be unveiled today. Visit some of the gardens and join the trust for the unveiling.

The cost is R70 each and booking is at Computicket. Meet in The Valley Road, at the Jan Smuts Avenue side, Parktown at 2pm. For information telephone Eira Bond on weekdays between 9am and 1pm on 011 482 3349.

Sunday, 20 April
"Battle of Nooitgedacht" – bus tour

This exciting new tour is to the South African War site of the Battle of Nooitgedacht, on a beautiful private game farm in the Magaliesberg. The farm is still owned by the descendents of the original settler family and the tour will visit a church built by them, as well as two family cemeteries.

While being bussed to the top of the mountain, the tour will pass a vulture colony and a black eagles' nest. Visitors may be lucky enough to see some of the wildlife on the game farm. To fully appreciate the views and the battle sites, will require some walking on flat but rocky terrain – please bring sun screen, a hat, sturdy walking shoes, plenty of water and a packed lunch. There are no toilet facilities.

For information telephone Eira Bond on weekdays between 9am and 1pm on 011 482 3349.

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Last Updated on 07 April 2008