The year was 1871. Michael Fitzgerald Lavelle, a retired Irish soldier from the British Army, had made Bangalore cantonment his home. Retirement was a drag for Lavelle, who had just returned after fighting the Maori wars in New Zealand.
Although he hoped to make it big post-retirement, Lavelle spent much of his time reading; and a four-page article from the 1804 Asiatic Journal he came across, set Lavelle on a journey that eventually birthed the world’s second deepest goldmine – the Kolar Gold Fields.
While 2018 movie ‘KGF’, touted as the biggest Kannada movie of the year, has built curiosity about this forgotten mining town, and India’s gold rush, the makers admit the movie isn’t a historical account but a work of fantasy. However, this pales in comparison to the real story of the Kolar Gold Fields.
An article that started the gold rush
Lavelle had developed an interest in gold mining during his time at war in New Zealand. So, he was understandably excited, when an old report by one Lt John Warren spoke about possible gold reserves in Kolar.
Lt Warren’s encounter with Kolar gold began in 1799, after erstwhile ruler Tipu Sultan was killed in the battle of Srirangapatnam by the British.
The British decided to handover Tipu’s territories to the Mysore princely state, but for this land had to be surveyed. Warren, who was then serving in his Majesty’s 33rd regiment of foot, was summoned to Kolar for this task.
Warren had heard rumours of gold reserves and fables of people digging gold with their bare hands, during the time of the Chola dynasty.
Intrigued by the rumours, he announced a reward for anyone who could show him the yellow metal. Soon, villagers appeared before him with bullock carts filled with mud, which they washed in front of the officer to isolate gold powder.
After an investigation, Warren concluded that for every 120 lbs or 56 kg of earth, one grain of gold could be extracted using the villagers’ crude methods and in the hands of professionals, this could open up large gold reserves.
“Should we still fancy for the belief that gold occurs only on a narrow region? Why can’t the gold veins under the ground near Maarikuppam extend far beyond.” he wrote.
A Soldier’s Start-up
Between 1804 and 1860, there were several studies and explorations of the gold mines in the region, but in vain. As some explorations in the ancient mines led to accidents, underground mining was prohibited by law in 1959.
After more than two years of research, in 1873, he wrote to the Maharaja’s government seeking a licence to mine. Government authorities, who believed gold explorations were not viable only gave him permission to mine coal, but Lavelle insisted on searching for gold deposits.
“Should I be successful in my search, it will be of greatest value to the government; in case I fail, it will cost the government nothing as the only assistance I require is the right to mine…” he wrote in the letter to the chief commissioner Mysore and Coorg.
Lavelle securing the 20-year lease to mine in the Kolar, on 2 February 1875, started the era of modern mining in India.
The angel investors and modern tech
But more than a miner, Lavelle was the poster boy of the gold rush. Lavelle was not rich, which limited his capabilities to explore the gold reserves. But his vision of creating fields of gold and the dangerous gambles of mining, soon became the premise of a novel – ‘Living Dangerously’ by FE Penny. This made him a popular man, even though his savings were depleting.
But by 1877, the young entrepreneur was unable to scale his business further and was desperate to raise funds. But due to his popularity, support came from another armyman – Maj Gen Beresford of the Madras staff corps in Bangalore. He along with three others – McKenzie, Sir William and Col William Arbuthnot –formed a syndicate with several other army officers called ‘The Colar Concessionaries Company Limited’, which took over the mining operations.
But things changed, when the syndicate, under pressure from their investors, approached John Taylor and sons, a company which brought state of the art mining engineering to India. The arrival of these engineers from Norwich, England started the golden era of KGF.
India's first power plant
As Operations in the KGF surged ahead, the British planned Asia’s second and India’s first power plant in Kolar. Officers of the Royal Engineers approached the Mysore Maharaja with a proposal to build a hydroelectric plant in the Cauvery river, in 1900. Central Electric Company from New York and Eicher Wyss from Switzerland were given the task of establishing the power plant and 148 km of transmission lines, the longest in the world. Machinery imported from Britain, America and Germany were transported in carts pulled by elephants and horses.
Soon, the candles and kerosene lamps in KGF were replaced by bulbs, even before Bangalore or Mysore were electrified. While in 2018, several parts of the state experience power cuts, by 1902, KGF had uninterrupted power supply.
Little England and The Hell Next Door
One of the British era bungalows in Kolar (Wikimediacommons)
For British engineers and others from the across the globe, Kolar was ‘Little England’. Weather like England, bungalows and clubs made KGF an ideal home. Being a British mining colony, life in KGF was greatly influenced by British culture.
This was in sharp contrast to ‘coolie lines’, the name given to the makeshift homes occupied by miners, a majority of whom were Tamil migrants. Life was hard on the other side, with more than one family often occupying one such shed. It was famous for its rat invasion, where workers killed over 50,000 rats a year.
Workspaces were no different. Despite the constant supply of dehumidified air into the underground tunnels, temperatures in the tunnels shot up to 55 degree Celsius and accidents were commonplace.
The end of an era
The remains of a ford shaft (Archival photos/Srikumar)
As the gold reserves in KGF began to reduce, expatriates began to leave Kolar, however key positions were held by the English until Independence. When the central government decided to take over all the mines in 1956, ownership of most of the mines had already been handed over to the state government.
Apart from the British, many from the Anglo-Indian community, who were in managerial posts began leaving the country for greener pastures. Other mining experts from Europe left for the Gold Mines in Ghana and West Africa.
The mines that produced 95 per cent of India’s gold output, were nationalised to keep them from shutting down. However, in 2001, despite massive protests, Kolar Gold Fields were shut down.
The abandoned underground tunnels, once pathways of gold, are now flooded with groundwater. Despite government plans and multiple court orders, the resurrection of the KGF seems far-fetched.
Thus, even though KGF continues to bear gold in its belly, the cost of retrieving it would be greater than the value of the gold itself.
(This article first appeared on The Quint and has been republished with permission)