European discovery, development, and early exploitation

The first European record of mineral deposits in northern Namibia is written in the diary of the British intellectual and explorer Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), who visited the area in 1851, and camped at Otjikoto Lake, some 20km west of Tsumeb.  Galton met with Bushmen and Ovambo transporting ores of copper, but made no mention of where the ore was mined.

In 1875 a small group of English and American traders trekked from Walvis Bay to Otavi, some 50km south of Tsumeb.  Near Otavi, they observed numerous old smelting hearths and eventually came across a number of mining sites, in rich ore, and located along the line of a lode for a considerable distance.  They sent samples of the ore for analysis.

South West Africa was declared a German protectorate in April 1884, and disputes over the ownership of land and mineral rights ensued.  In August 1892, the South West Africa Company was incorporated in London with a concession that granted inter alia, mineral rights over an area of 22,000 square miles including the Otavi copper mines; ownership rights over 13,000 square kilometres of land chosen by the Company; and generous rights to land for construction of a harbour and a railway line to the Otavi area.   The South West Africa Company immediately sent expedition teams to investigate mining opportunities and to survey a railway route between the coast and the Otavi district.  The mining team was led by a mining engineer named Mathew Rogers.

On December 20, 1892, Rogers visited the mines at Gross Otavi and Klein Otavi (the latter was developed much later as “Kombat”).  Rogers was also told of other mining localities, but the Bushmen were initially reluctant to reveal their whereabouts.

On January 12, 1893, Rogers arrived at Tsumeb and, nine days later, sent a letter to the board of directors in London with his now-famous report and field-sketch of the “Green Hill”.  He wrote: “I have never seen such a sight as was presented before my view at Soomep, (sic.) and I very much doubt if I shall ever see such another in any other locality.”  In spite of the obvious richness of the outcrop, Rogers was reluctant to recommend immediate development because of the distance between Tsumeb and the coast; instead he requested permission to transfer his camp from Otavi to Tsumeb in order to conduct a thorough underground investigation.  During 1893 and 1894 he sunk two shafts to a depth of 20 metres and drove several crosscuts, which demonstrated that the ore was exceptionally rich in both copper and lead. Metal prices were low, however, and as Rogers had feared, the cost of transport to the coast mitigated against immediate development.

Further capital was required.  In 1900 the South West Africa Company collaborated with German banks to found the Otavi Minen- und Eisenbahn- Gesellschaft (or, in English, the Otavi Mining and Railway Company), known as OMEG.   In August 1900 a team of miners led by Christopher James arrived at Tsumeb and began sinking two new shafts. The first shipment of ore – a sample of nine tonnes contained in 181 bags – was dispatched by ox wagon to Swakopmund on 28 December, 1900.


Original OMEG share certificate 

In 1901, James reported that while the grade of the ore would be favourable under other conditions, it would likely be insufficient to pay for the development of a railway to the coast.  Nevertheless, in 1903 OMEG undertook to build a railway from Swakopmund to Tsumeb for ore transport, and the link was completed in August 1906.   Also in 1906, the first new mineral from Tsumeb – otavite, cadmium carbonate – was discovered and named for the Otavi Mountainland (Schneider, 1906).

Ore outcrop at Tsumeb Mine, 1907.  Image credit Digital Namibia Archive

A high pressure water pipeline was completed in February 1907 to bring water for mining operations from Otjikoto Lake although, in October of that year, the first significant flows of groundwater in the mine were encountered, and from about 1910 the flow from the mine was sufficient that the Otjikoto supply was cut off.  The first full fiscal year of mine production is recorded as April 1907 to March 1908 (Söhnge, 1976), and the first smelting plant, comprising two lead-copper blast furnaces began operating in September 1907.

The beginning of underground mining, 1907.  Image credit Digital Namibia Archive

By 1914, mining operations were down to 6 Level, and there were firm indications that high grade ore was present on 7 and 8 levels.  World War I brought production to a virtual standstill; in South West Africa, hostilities ceased in 1915 and permission to restart operations was grated, but marketing difficulties and a shortage of personnel made this impractical.