Gold Rush in the Nilgiris

In the late sixties, Coonoor was hit by a series of burglaries. There was no particular pattern in the break-ins, except that nothing significant was stolen.  Of course, in those days people did not obviously display their wealth and a thief would have to be really discerning to know that the dull painting hanging over the fireplace was actually a Ravi Varma original: this was long before people stored black money in their fridges and sofas. However, most people kept their gold in the cupboards which the thieves left untouched.

Photo courtesy Jude Thaddaeus

Nenagh was the last in the series of break-ins. It happened one rainy night; with the heavy rain beating down on the gutters between the sloping tiled roof.  So we never heard the burglars. They entered the house, quite easily by removing the window pane.  They had stolen my entire collection of Classic Illustrated Junior, Classics Illustrated and Harvey comics:  my brother’s knapsack (to carry the books), my mother’s medal for best player which she won at the district badminton tournament, and our Telefunken radio.  As I said, nothing significant was lost, but what was stolen was a big loss to me all the same.

My father refused to call the cops; but my mother was rather peeved about the break-in.  In her routine call to her sister-in-law, she mentioned that break-in and that the cops had not been called. Dad’s brother, the architect, was livid; he immediately called Madras and spoke to the Commissioner of Police, who was a personal friend and told him about the burglaries and, of course, the final straw, the break-in at his brother’s place.

The trunk call to Madras was made at 8 am, in half an hour’s time the whole place was swarming with policemen – uniformed and plainclothes. The Superintendent of Police (SP), Ooty arrived at 9 am and the Sub-Inspector a few minutes later and got bawled out for the late show. Then the police dog arrived, sniffed around and then lay down under the apple tree.  The handler said that because of the rain, the dog was not able to pick up any scent.
This was followed by the fingerprint expert; who dusted the window panes, the sill and frames.  While this was going on, the SP asked a senior constable, who was hovering around if he had any ideas who could have committed these burglaries.

“Looks like the work of Painter Selvan,” said the older man.  In half an hour’s time, the so called Painter Selvan was picked up and brought to the house. He was soundly thrashed and let off. Then the police packed their gear and left.
A few days later, we heard that the thieves were caught. Painter Selvan was one of them. They were caught not by the police, but by the manager of a neighboring estate who on hearing reports that there was some activity near the abandoned gold mines on the estates; rushed there with some laborers, caught the thieves, tied them up and handed them over to the police. The manager of the estate later told my father that the thieves were reading comics – my comics.
This is when we first heard of gold mining in the Nilgiris. A gold reef was said to have been found at this particular estate and the family bankrupted themselves trying to find gold. The gold boom was really big in the Nilgiris, especially in the Wynad region.

Gold has been extricated from this region for a long time but it is only with the advent of the British that gold mining on a larger scale was planned.  J W Bond and Arnold Wright in their book, “Southern India: Its History, People, Commerce and Industrial Resources”, write: “In Nilambur in south east Wynad, the mines were worked by Kurumba slaves who were subjected to unspeakable cruelties if the gold they found was deficient in quantity. In 1830, it is reported that there were 100,000 of these slaves, bought and sold like cattle the value of a man slave varying from Rs 5 to Rs 20.4 annas.

Around this time, a Swiss watchmaker in Kannur, H L Huguenin sent a petition to the S R Lushington, the Governor of Madras, asking him for help in exploring the Wynad area, primarily to look for gold.  Accordingly, a small contingent from the 49th Madras Native Infantry, under the command of Lieutenant Woodley Nicolson, started searching the area near Devala, about 16 kms from Gudalur.

The entire company was soon affected by fever. On their descent into the Nilambur valley they found regular mines which were 10 to 50 feet in depth and were worked by Moppila slaves who belonged to the Nilambur Tirumulpad – the local landlord.

Lt. Nicolson met with a lot of opposition from the locals, as is to be expected. They filled up the shafts and give him false leads. Despite all this, Nicolson’s report was very enthusiastic and the Government ordered machinery and pumps to work the mines. But a committee which was appointed later came to the conclusion that the gold would be difficult and too expensive to mine.

It was 30 years later that the area once again started buzzing with the gold boom, around the same time when large deposits of gold were being discovered in California and Australia.  At this time, vast acres of this hilly terrain came under coffee cultivation. The planters who opened the estates found the old mines, the shafts and the rubble lying around. It doesn't take much to imagine what these men would have been talking about, on those long winter evenings as they sat on the verandas sipping their rum. It would have been about gold.
Photo courtesy Jude Thaddaeus 

So in 1874, a company called the Alpha Gold Mining Company with a capital of Rs 6 lakh was set up and the mining activity started near Devala. The next year, the Government’s report on the gold deposits was encouraging. More companies entered the fray.

The gold fever which started in December 1870 with one company, gathered momentum and 41 companies were floated in England with a total capital of over five million sterling pounds: the mission of these companies was to prospect and mine for gold in the Nilgiri Wynad area. In India six companies were started.

By May 1880, the shares of the companies were being traded at 100 per cent premium, despite the fact that the mining machinery had just been shipped and the miners had not yet arrived. The sensational reports of gold prospects that the agents cabled home, kept the share prices artificially inflated.

A large number of `experts’ landed up, one of them a baker and another, a retired circus clown. They reported on properties they had sometimes not even seen. Devala and Pandalur changed overnight from small tribal villages to boom towns which boasted of a saloon, a hotel and a large number of “mining captain’s bungalows perched on commanding sites.” Pandalur even had a race track! 

The bubble was soon to burst. But before that the speculators had another good run. In May 1880 a report from one of the mines said that 4 ozs of gold was extracted from a ton of quartz. The market went wild. Shares were trading at enormous premiums; many companies were acquired at 400 to 500 times their market capitalization.  
Then came another report, which said that the 4 ozs of gold were extracted from just one particular ton of quartz, the following 19 tons yielded barely 2 dwts of gold. The market went into a nosedive. In the following months, many of the companies went into liquidation and mining activity ground to a standstill in this area.

 Looking back, I can’t help wondering whether the whole exercise was engineered; maybe on verandas of the plantation bungalows on those long, winter evenings after the sun went down.

Today, if you really look for it you might find a grave or two of some long lost prospector or miner. There are some ruins on the tops of some hills. Deep in the jungle are the old tunnels and heaps of unused machinery.

If you stand very still, you might hear the twang of the banjo in the wind and if you let the sound in, you will also dream the dreams those men dreamt.

Source: The details about the mining is from The Madras District Gazette - W Francis (Indian Civil Service


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