Before the arrival of Europeans …
The name Tsumeb is derived from the Heikom/Bushmen word "Tsomsoub" meaning, "to dig a hole in loose ground" and from the Herero word "Otjisume" meaning "place of frogs". The Herero named it "Otjisume" because of the varied colours and hues of bright green, red, brown and grey streaks of the copper and lead ores on the rocky outcrops resembling dried scum scooped out of a water hole and scattered on surrounding rocks.
Tsumeb, regarded as a waterless place, had a 12-meter high malachite hill. Due to this scarcity of water, ore trading took place at Lake Otjikoto where an extended San family clan lived. The chief had the malachite hill guarded and bows and arrows were fired at anyone who dared to attempt to steal the ore. Copper ore was then brought from the malachite hill to Lake Otjikoto. Bartering was the form of exchange at this time and the Ovambo people came on foot from Ovamboland to Lake Otjikoto to trade for copper ore with the San, carrying their trading wares in baskets, woven from Makalani palm leaves and carried on their shoulders with long poles.
Upon arrival a fire was lit at the Trading Tree, a signal for the San that ore buyer had arrived. Hand-forged axes, knives, spears, arrowheads, pots, salt and glass beads were spread out beneath the tree - the latter having been obtained through trading in Angola. The San then laid out their wares consisting of copper ore, sinew strings and ostrich eggs. Silent trading then followed, as neither could understand the other's language. With the trading completed, the Ovambo smelted the ore on the spot in termite mounds. The San traded ore for bellows from the Ovambo, but not to smelt the ore themselves, they would rent out the bellows to the Ovambo each time they came to trade.
The smelting process - the Ovambo people produced a huge pile of charcoal. A hollow in a termite mound was used to hold the ore, from which hollow channels ran in all directions. Wood and coal were layered around to enclose the ore mound whilst the fire was poked with bellows. This activity was conducted at night, as the Ovambo people were superstitious and believed the San should not see them smelting the ore. If the smelting process were not completed by dawn, they would suspend the process until the following night! As the copper melted, it would run down the drainage channels and fill the holes, which were bored with special sticks. If the copper was to be used for spear and arrowheads, the holes were deep and narrow. Arm and leg bracelets were produced if a thicker stick was used to make the holes. The copper rods were left until the next day to cool off, after which they were transported to Ovamboland in the baskets. There they were forged into adornments or utensils. The San women were not allowed in the vicinity during this time, to prevent them from seeing the Ovambo men.
The green copper hill
European explorers and prospectors were informed of this dazzling outcrop. On 12 January 1893, a prospector, Mathew Rogers, working for the South West Africa Company, reached the outcrop and in a report stated: "In the whole of my experience, I have never seen such a sight as was presented before my view at Tsumeb, and I very much doubt that I shall ever see such another in any other locality". Rogers negotiated with the local tribe for rights to the outcrop and began a detailed assessment of the quantity of ore, its nature and viability of a mine in so remote a place. Financing and planning of the mine took several years. In 1900, the company formed to work concessions over the area. The Otavi Mining and Railroad Company sent a party of thirty-three miners under Christopher James to commence mining.
Two shafts were sunk into the hill of copper and a hint, the wonders lying beneath the surface was revealed. In the first crosscut, a vein of pure chalcocite was encountered running through rich galena. Such was the pattern of ore in the volcanic pipe, that as miners worked into the pipe they constantly encountered astonishing mixtures, rich veins and unexpected "jewellery boxes" of sensational beautiful rarities. In December 1900, the first shipment of ore was sent by ox wagon to Swakopmund. The mine was developed in the face of tremendous difficulties with transport, while a narrow gauge railway was constructed from the coast. The railway reached Tsumeb on 24 August 1906 and within twelve months the little narrow gauge trains had carried 25,700 tons of ore to the coast. This was the birth of Tsumeb.
During the first year, until a depth of approximately 50 meters was reached, opencast mining was practiced. Underground mining was started in 1909.
Mining methods were primitive to begin with. The mineworkers used ladders and candles when going underground. The ore was broken with chisels and sledgehammers and filled into iron buckets, which were then pulled to the surface with a winch. The winch had to be operated by hand. The first headgear, even the wheels, consisted solely of wood.
The Tsumeb railway line was inaugurated on 21 November 1906 and a tour of the mine offered. The guests were treated to a delightful sight of industrious activity. An unbroken double line of laughing and talking women with small wooden trays on their heads moved back and forth between the ore heaps and the sorting area. The trays were filled at the ore heaps and emptied at the sorting area. A large pile of ore, remains from the first exploratory drives, was carried away to be utilized. By mid-July 1907, 7000 tons of ore had already been shipped. At this stage, smelting was initiated. By then four shafts were in operation. The so-called "Himmelsleiter" - stairway to heaven - was constructed on an inclined plane to bring the ore and waste rock to the surface.
Setbacks caused by World War I
In spite of the depression and political troubles, the Tsumeb mine continued its operations. In 1946, at the end of World War II the custodian put up the mine and other assets of the Otavi Company for sale. A syndicate - the Tsumeb Corporation, was formed to buy the mine. The syndicate consisted of the Newmont Mining Corporation, American Metal Co, South West African Co, Selection Trust, British South Africa Co, Union Corporation and the O'Kiep Copper Co. The purchase price was a little over 1 million pounds. The new management re-commissioned the mine and developed it to its present state of high productivity with levels being worked below 1000 meters.
Mining operations started to carry on and during 1953; the De Wet Shaft was completed to a depth of 3301 feet. During 1948, the first grinding and flotation section of the new concentrator was completed and started to treat 300 tons of ore per day. As it happens in the strange lottery of creation, among the contents of the "throat" were a phenomenal proportion of economic minerals, copper, lead, zinc, cadmium, silver and germanium. If the Tsumeb mine produced only these economic minerals, it would be considered wonderful and equal to the celebrated Comstock Lode in America. However added to the already varied economic minerals created are a dazzling variety of secondary minerals created because of the infiltration of water and several different gasses into the solid body of the throat. The infiltrations produced some of the most startling and beautiful crystals and oxides ever found in the earth. Collectors of mineral specimens throughout the world regard Tsumeb as the single principal source of so vast a range of gorgeous and unusual rocks that anything near a complete collection would be a prize of incalculable value. Tsumeb can be justifiably listed among the greatest natural wonders of earth. Never before has a mineral source delivered
so much extra-ordinary material, mineralogical and aesthetically speaking, in all phases over a period of almost one hundred years. An immense some two hundred and forty different
minerals have been identified from this locality. Although there are other sites similarly rich in minerals, none of them attains the fascination of Tsumeb. This is because so many of the crystals found in Tsumeb are bigger and of much higher quality than those found elsewhere. To date some fifty-five minerals have been registered as occurring only in Tsumeb.
The De Wet Shaft - the "Grand Old Lady" of Namibian mining for more than sixty years and the centre piece of Tsumeb itself, stopped production on June 30, 1996, due to the depletion of economical ore in the Tsumeb ore body. Today she still features prominently in town, representing times of grandeur and trade of a different level.
Tsumeb II - A unique mineral locality, written by Georg Gebhard, GG Publishing, Grossenseifen, Germany - the best informative book on Tsumeb, the history of copper and the world's greatest mineral locality, is advisable to be read before visiting this unique place on earth. This book contributes to Tsumeb's legacy of being a mineral fascination with beautiful stories about discovering and collecting.