Gold—The Mystique of It
Gold—since ancient times this soft, bright-yellow metal has been valued for its unusual qualities. Its color, luster, malleability, and ability to withstand corrosion make it unusual among metals. Because of its value in the minds of those who have searched for it, gold has a history unlike that of any other metal.
“GOLD! It’s gold, I tell you! Gold!” The discovery of gold has caused the heart to leap, the pulse to quicken, and the imagination to soar. It has been searched for on land, in rivers and streams, and even thousands of feet [thousands of meters] below the surface of the earth.
As costly jewelry, gold has adorned kings and queens. It has decorated thrones and the walls of palaces. Golden idols, representing fish, birds, animals, and other objects, have been worshiped as gods. The relentless quest for gold has been far-reaching, as has its impact upon civilization.
Gold and History
In ancient Egypt the pharaohs sent their merchants and armies to far-flung lands in quest of gold, which was viewed as the absolute property of Egypt’s gods and pharaohs. The tomb of Tutankhamen, discovered in 1922, was filled with priceless treasures of gold. Even his coffin was made of solid gold.
According to some historians, Alexander the Great was “drawn initially into Asia by the fabled gold treasure of Persia.” It is reported that thousands of beasts of burden were pressed into service by his army to carry the gold he seized in Persia back to Greece. As a result, Greece became a gold-rich nation.
One historian reports that Rome’s “emperors freely used gold to secure the loyalty of their officials and to influence dignitaries of other lands. They impressed and often intimidated their people with the magnificence of their wealth, easily established by displays of spectacular golden ornaments.” The Romans acquired much gold from their conquest of Spain and their acquisition of Spanish gold mines, says one source.
However, the story of gold would not be complete without delving into its more sanguinary history. It is a story of conquest, brutality, enslavement, and death.
A History Dripping With Blood
As civilization progressed, larger and more powerful sailing ships set out to discover new lands, settle new colonies, and search for gold. Finding gold became the obsession of many explorers, including the pioneer navigator Christopher Columbus (1451-1506).
The lives of the natives meant little to Columbus when he was on a quest for gold. Recounting his experiences on one island to the king and queen of Spain, who had financed his expeditions, Columbus wrote in his log: “To rule here, one need only get settled and assert authority over the natives, who will carry out whatever they are ordered to do. . . . The Indians . . . are naked and defenseless, hence ready to be given orders and put to work.” Columbus believed that he had God’s blessing. The gold treasures would help Spain finance its holy wars. ‘May God in his mercy help me find gold,’ he once said after he received a gift of a gold mask.
The Spanish conquistadores, who sailed the seas in quest of gold in Columbus’ wake, were ordered by King Ferdinand of Spain: “Bring me gold! Get it humanely, if possible. But bring it to me, no matter how you come by it.” The ruthless explorers slaughtered by the thousands the natives they encountered in Mexico and Central and South America. The gold shipped back to Spain by the conquistadores was figuratively dripping with blood.
Then came the pirates, flying the flag of no nation. On the high seas, they plundered the Spanish galleons that were laden with gold and other valuable treasures. The galleons, often outgunned and outmanned, were no match for the well-armed pirates. In the 17th and 18th centuries, piracy was the scourge of the seas, especially in the West Indies and along the American coast.
19th-Century Gold Rushes
In 1848 a major gold strike occurred in the Sacramento Valley, in California. Word soon got out, and a steady migration of settlers rushed to establish their claims. By the following year, California was besieged by tens of thousands of “forty-niners”—fortune-seekers who came from all parts of the world. California’s population increased from about 26,000 in 1848 to about 380,000 in 1860. Farmers abandoned their lands, sailors jumped ship, soldiers deserted the army—just to make the trek to seek their fortune in gold. Some were described as being “bloodthirsty rogues.” With this melting pot of humanity came a wave of crime and violence. Those caught up in the lure of gold but not willing to work for it turned to robbery, pillaging stagecoaches and trains.
In 1851, on the heels of the California gold rush, came the news that large deposits of gold were being discovered in Australia. “The yield was truly fantastic” was the report. For a short time, Australia became the greatest producer of gold in the world. Some who had migrated to California soon packed their bags and descended on the land down under. The population of Australia skyrocketed—from 400,000 in 1850 to over 1,100,000 in 1860. Farming and other work came to a virtual standstill as many rushed to find their fortune in gold.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the mad stampede to find gold moved to the Yukon and Alaska, following the discovery of gold in those areas. Thousands of people made their way to the Far North, to the Klondike region and Alaska, fighting the bitter cold to stake their claims on land rich in gold.
In the 20th century, with the development of deep-sea diving, gold-seekers turned their attention to the bottom of the sea. There they searched shipwrecks for sunken treasures—gold jewelry and other artifacts made centuries ago.
On September 20, 1638, the Spanish galleon Concepción sank in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Saipan, after being driven onto the rocks by severe weather. It was carrying a cargo of gold and other treasures worth tens of millions of dollars today. Most of the 400 people on board died. Divers have recovered from the wreck 32 gold chains, each measuring about five feet in length and weighing several pounds [kilograms]. Altogether, divers have brought up 1,300 pieces of gold jewelry—chains, crosses, buttons, brooches, rings, and buckles.
Other wrecks have also been discovered. In 1980, divers off the coast of Florida, in the United States, located the wreck of the 17th-century Spanish galleon the Santa Margarita. By the end of the following year, divers had recovered more than 118 pounds [44 kg] of gold bullion, along with other gold artifacts.
Following the capitulation of the German government in 1945, Allied troops made a startling discovery in the Kaiseroda salt mines, in Thuringia, Germany. According to The Atlanta Journal, “the mines yielded a staggering $2.1 billion in gold bullion, artworks, currency and securities.” Also found were bags full of gold and silver dental work, some already melted down, that had been extracted from Holocaust victims. This huge cache of gold helped the Nazi warlords finance a protracted war. An estimated $2.5 billion worth of gold has been returned to about ten countries once occupied by Hitler, reports the Journal. Because of a common belief that not all the hidden Nazi gold has been found, the search continues.
Gold, to be sure, has value. The Bible, however, states that gold, like other material riches, cannot give life to those who seek it. (Psalm 49:6-8; Zephaniah 1:18) A Bible proverb says: “The getting of wisdom is O how much better than gold!” (Proverbs 16:16) True wisdom comes from the Creator, Jehovah God, and is to be found in his Word, the Bible. By studying God’s Word, the seeker of such wisdom can learn God’s laws, principles, and counsel and then apply these in his life. The wisdom thus gained is far more desirable than all the gold that has ever been discovered by man. Such wisdom can mean a better life now and eternal life in the future.—Proverbs 3:13-18.
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Some Facts About Gold
• Gold is the most malleable and ductile of all metals. It can be beaten to a thickness of four millionths of an inch [0.1 micrometer]. An ounce [28g] of gold can be hammered out to cover an area of about 190 square feet [about 17 sq m]. One ounce of gold can be drawn to a length of 43 miles [70 km].
• Because pure gold is so soft, it is usually alloyed with other metals to increase its hardness for use in making jewelry and other gold items. The content of gold alloys is expressed in 24ths, called karats; thus, a 12-karat gold alloy is 50 percent gold, 18-karat gold is 75 percent gold, and 24-karat gold is pure.
• The leading gold-producing nations are South Africa and the United States.
[Picture Credit Line on page 25]
Alexander the Great: The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore
[Pictures on page 26]
Painting depicting the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Bahamas in 1492 in search of gold treasure
Courtesy of the Museo Naval, Madrid (Spain), and with the kind permission of Don Manuel González López