Taming the Rivers: Science on the Making in the Alluvial Gold Mines in Nineteenth-Century Antioquia, Colombia

“Several foreigners, attracted by their knowledge of these facts, attempted to gain access to these mighty hidden treasures by more easy and ingenious means, but they did not succeed, partly from the unfitness of their means, but they were always baffled by the force and rapidity of the stream. The bed of this river is probably the richest unexplored depository of gold in the known world.”

Like Pedro Nisser, a Swedish engineer who migrated to Colombia in the 1820s, several nineteenth-century French, British, and American travelers commented on the immense gold deposits in the Porce, Atrato, Cauca, and Nechí rivers. From the 1540s until the nineteenth-century global gold rushes, Colombia was the largest gold-producing Spanish colony, and the beautiful pre-Columbian pieces in the gold museum in Bogota testifies to the indigenous expertise on gold before the Spanish arrival.

According to the literature on this period, mining became more industrialized and productive thanks to the foreign engineers and capital that arrived in Colombia after independence from Spain in the 1820s. While searching for British mining companies in the archives of the Board of Trade in London, two things struck me the most. First, the ephemeral life of the British mining companies in Colombia between the 1820s and 1880s. Second, the list of shareholders that decided to invest in mining companies in Colombia. Contrary to the image of all-powerful foreign companies going to Latin America, I found that before 1850, none of the British companies in Colombia gave significant profits to their shareholders and actually failed pretty soon after their creation. The shareholders were not powerful tycoons, but rather widows, landscape painters, splinters, butchers, and “gentlemen.”

After reading Pedro Nisser’s book—from which I extracted the opening excerpt—I entered into the rabbit hole of finding some more information on his background. Nisser widely addressed the contingencies of the environment in which alluvial gold mining was attempted, and I wanted to know why those British companies had failed. Huge rocks, rapid streams, and deep rivers got in their way of extracting gold and, no matter how scientific their enterprise was, there were some unexpected ways in which these elements reacted to human labor.


And then, I found Nisser in some Australian newspapers! While living in Antioquia in 1865, Nisser went to Australia in order to obtain a patent for a cheaper and more powerful gunpowder of his own invention. In Sketch of the Mining Operations, published in 1834, one of his frequent complaints was that there were no successful techniques to get rid of enormous hard rocks in the alluvial mining works. Nisser described how some promising enterprises had to be abandoned due to the impossibility of blowing up the huge rocks that obstructed the mining works.

The fact that Nisser invented a new explosive of huge importance for mining made me rethink the way in which the technological innovation in mining happened in Antioquia. I started finding more and more evidence in American mining newspapers that engineers working in Colombian mines, like Nisser, were developing—instead of applying—new mining techniques that better suited the geology and geography of gold in Colombia. From a mere site where foreign techniques came to be applied, Colombian mining sites were themselves laboratories for innovation.

Vernacular mining was already widespread in Antioquia. Independent prospectors called mazamorreros, their companies, and elite miner entrepreneurs populated the rivers seasonally using their techniques to extract gold. Among them, there were the zambullidores and zambullidoras, men and women who skillfully dived to collect the alluvium from the bottom of the rivers (but this is a topic ng for another day).

Vernacular miners as portrayed by the Chorographic Commission in the 1850s (source).

Moving forward, during the Mining History Association Annual Conference in South Dakota, we visited some of the Superfund sites close to Deadwood—some of which produce immense amounts of mineral.

Picture of the Gilt Edge Mine NPL Site, South Dakota Hills

The state government invests immense amounts of money and technology restraining poisonous leaks and other potentially harming effects of mining. In general, such sites produced almost none of the richness they promised, but the environmental consequences are still paid by taxpayers to this day. Some of the engineers that joined us consider that the dilemma of exploiting natural resources at the cost of environmental damage could be solved through using better techniques in order to practice more sustainable mining, and implementing better mechanisms in order to ensure that companies reserve money for remediation. Paradoxically, the same engineering techniques and knowledge applied to extract the riches would also be needed to contain the damages.

It’s a very Hollywood belief that science will save us from our environmental destruction. And indeed, science has saved us from many perils. However, the unintended ways in which tailings and mining waste behave, and the contingency of nineteenth-century mining enterprises in Colombia show the limits of science and the importance of questioning techno-scientific discourses that promise gains without pains.


*Works Cited & Suggested Reading:

  • Digitized Newspapers by the National Library of Australia.
  • Nisser, Pedro. Sketch of the Different Mining and Mechanical Operations Employed in some of the South American Goldworks, as Well Ancient as Modern […] (1834).
  • The National Archives, Kew, Board of Trade Collection.