Littell's Living Age/Volume 133/Issue 1722/The "Find" in the Land of Midian

From The Spectator.


It is now more than six years, since, writing about an effort then being made to recover a galleon wrecked off the coast of Venezuela, we pointed out the improbability that the discovery of any great buried treasure would ever again reward an adventurer's daring or discernment. The kings of the ancient world never had the treasure with which they are credited, or rather, they never had the masses of metal which would now tempt men into serious expeditions. Their treasure, owing to the limited quantities of gold and silver then in the world, would purchase so much, that it loomed large in the world's eyes, but the hoards of the Lydian king, if rediscovered now, would not greatly attract an English millionaire. Solomon, whose wealth made such a permanent impression on the imaginations of mankind, for a few years was the merchant prince of his epoch, and had the carrying-trade of the East in his hands, but it may be questioned if his treasure in gold would have outweighed a million in sovereigns, though it may have purchased thirty times or fifty times as much. The lost Spanish galleons often contained the equivalent of £2,500,000 — never more, we believe, the Cadiz treasury being timid about storms, buccaneers, and Netherlandish enemies, — but the actual sum recoverable from any one of them would not now exceed £180,000. There is no record anywhere in the world of the existence of a vast deposit of treasure, unless we can trust — which is not impossible — the persistent Peruvian legend of Atahualpa's mountain storehouse of gold, a temple filled with the plunder of a dynasty and the accumulations of generations of digging and smelting, on which he drew to pay his ransom to Pizarro, or unless — which is conceivable, though unlikely — the barbarians missed the secret of the enormous treasure which must once have been collected under the protection of the oracle of Delphi, the banking-house of the East, then the richest section of earth. That would be a "find" indeed, and as we said once before, we should like a good, scientific, persevering dig round Delphi and under the old shrine amazingly, and rather wonder some English Schliemann has never made the attempt. We pointed out at the time, however, that with these two exceptions the only chance for a grand "find" now left is the opening up of some mine known to have been profitable, in spite of the unscientific processes employed by the ancient world. Since that time two "finds" of the kind have been made, one of which has been attracting attention this week. We do not know the sums extracted from the scoriæ-heaps piled up at the entrances to the silver mines of Laurium, but they have been considerable enough to attract the attention of all Greece, and to be the foundation of heavy lawsuits, and even of international disputes; and now Captain Burton thinks he has rediscovered the ancient Ophir. That may be doubtful, though Dr. Kitto shows that Solomon's ships which sailed there were launched on the Red Sea, and that Ophir was probably in Edom; and though the country does not produce peacocks now, the early Midianites held the carrying-trade between Egypt and further Asia, and they may have had a central depôt, which in popular phraseology gives its name to everything sold thence, as at present in Asia all European goods are said to be London-made; but the explorer has certainly discovered something. He has gone prospecting about the world a good deal, has a keen eye to business — witness his search for sulphur in Iceland — has a regularly-trained engineer with him, and as usual, has reported only what he has seen. If his account is correct, he has made this time a very considerable discovery. He has visited the "land of Midian," the wild and unpeopled country east of the Wady Arabah, the easternmost of the two fiords which jut into Egypt from the Red Sea, the land where Moses crushed the Midianites, whoever they were, for being idolatrous and pleasure-loving — Hellenic and not Hebraistic — and has found it full of the evidences of an ancient civilization, based upon mining operations. There are remains of strong cities, of aqueducts, of smelting-furnaces, and of roads, and evidence of the existence of gold and silver mines, tin mines, and even of turquoise quarries, the latter more attractive to the mineralogist than to the man of business. Turquoises, like garnets, are not very profitable to those who dig for them, except when found in very unusual pieces; they are very destructible, and, if found in considerable quantities, would speedily become almost unsalable. But it is perfectly possible that very important mines, both of gold and silver, may exist in Midian, and have remained almost untouched by races who knew there was gold there, and found some of it, but were perfectly unable to crush quartz, or sink deep shafts, or pursue any process of extraction oy amalgamation. It paid them to work hard for a very little result in weight of metal, one of the facts connected with ancient mining we are all very apt to overlook. There was so little gold and silver in circulation, that a very small bit of either would pay for a week's work, and a treasuryful like that discovered by Dr. Schliemann, though it would now melt down to very little money, so impressed the imagination of men, that the tradition of it descended through the ages. The legend of the riches of Solomon lives forever, but his bank-balance would not in modern money impress Mr. Kirkman Hodgson very much. It is impossible to read the Bible or the "Iliad," or — centuries after — the books of the Middle Ages, without seeing how the excessive value of gold as evidence of wealth impressed the imaginations of men till, in the early Eastern world, the ornaments of the women were the great rewards of the soldiery after the sacking of a city; and in Europe, so much later, gold was credited with any number of mystical virtues. The early alchemists were hunting for a metal of which a small potful meant wealth for life, and a helmetful a fortune. Mines, therefore, could be worked to a profit, and were worked to a profit for centuries without being exhausted, the only outlays being the food of the slaves employed and the cost of a little firing, and the gains worth possibly the equivalent of £100 an ounce. If there are mines at all in Midian, which seems evident, the ancient workings will not have depleted them seriously, and the khedive, with his command of forced and convict labor, guided by European science, may have made a really perceptible haul. We rather hope he has, not for his sake, for he is the far inferior of the Ptolemy who preceded him by twenty centuries, but because every sixpence he gets without taxing or borrowing relieves the most oppressed race on the Mediterranean; and because Captain Burton, much as we dislike most of his books and many of his ideas, deserves that some prize of a kind he wishes for should fall to his extraordinary energy and courage. When a man has the nerve and the nous to hunt in a place like Midian, in the most neglected corner of the most sterile of earthly lands, for a new source of wealth to be suddenly acquired, he deserves the reward he seeks, if only for clearing the way for men with higher aims. A company to work the mines would hardly succeed, free labor in Midian being an unknown quantity and the expenses of carriage indefinite; and the khedive's request for capitalists' assistance looks like a tentative towards a new loan, on the security of a new Daira, producing turquoises instead of sugar, but still he himself and his own servants may find a treasure there.

If he does, we hope the result will stir up one or two of the adventurous men who are always seeking how to obtain treasure without long and monotonous labor in its acquisition to search in one or two other of the legendary treasure-houses of the world. Jewels, with the exception of diamonds, are hardly worth searching for, — though the supply of rubies would have to be greatly increased before the price would be seriously reduced, — or it might be worth while to prospect the emerald mines of Upper Egypt; but it is hardly to the credit of the Indian government never to have asked one or two of the experienced mineralogists in its service to go and ascertain for himself what the world-wide legend about Golconda really means. The probabilities are a thousand to one that it is true, that there is such a place, that diamonds of the true water — the "drops of dew" wholly devoid of that abominable yellow tinge which so often spoils the Cape diamonds — were found there, and may be found there again. If a couple of mineralogists lost a year there, the Indian government would not be ruined, and though we cannot flatter them with great hope of profit, still the viceroys have often wasted a little money in less profitable work than inquiry into the truth of a very curious legend. Lord Lytton wants a reputation with the natives, and there is an easy one ready to be obtained. The ruler who rediscovered Golconda would never be forgotten, and if the people did fancy for a week that all taxes were to be remitted, that would he at worst a comfortable illusion. Then Mr. Layard is at Constantinople now, and is aware that legends, particularly in Asia, have usually some basis of fact, though they are buried under mountains of fiction. Suppose he induces his friends the Turks, who are not too well off for money at present, just to inquire a little into that story about the golden sands of Pactolus, and those ancient "washings," which would suggest to a Californian that higher up the river would be the precise "lo-cation" for a few quartz-crushing machines. If legend is worth anything — and of self-existent legends the tale is not many — a really valuable gold-mine must exist somewhere on the head-waters of the Pactolus. Of course the Turks cannot do the inquiry for themselves. They have had the richest regions of earth in their possession for five hundred years, and have done nothing with them, but have behaved like robbers who should know of a gold-mine, and think the true way to profit by it was to keep on stealing the buckets; but there must be plenty of Europeans in Constantinople with no fears, few scruples, and plenty of adventure in them, and one of them may have seen life in California, or have acquired some tincture of knowledge of mineralogy.

We have always wondered where the Scandinavian heroes got their gold from, and the priests of Upsala. If they brought it from the south, what did they give for it, having nothing that anybody else wanted; and if they did not buy it, whence was it obtained, for they certainly had it, and in considerable quanties, too? There may be old gold-mines yet to be discovered and reopened in Sweden, and mines of very considerable extent must exist in Japan. When that country was first thrown open to the world gold was in free circulation, and was exchanged weight for weight with silver, a fact which caused for a little while a funny rush upon the treasury, and which suggests that gold must be obtained somewhere with very unusual ease. It would never occur to miners, under ordinary circumstances, to class the two metals together; first, because the gold takes so much more labor, and secondly, because there is so much less of it. Legislation had, of course, something to do with the extraordinary state of things discovered in Japan; but still nature settles values in some degree independently of legislation, and the known facts point to the existence in Japan of some unusually accessible source of a supply of gold. Whether it would be worth working is another matter. As a rule, except under unusual circumstances, gold-mining is not one of the most paying of trades, — a good lead-mine is ten times as profitable as a gold-mine, and a market-garden near London will return a larger percentage than either of them. But our theme to-day is not profits, but disused mines of the precious metals or stones, and there are certainly five accessible spots where explorers as daring and well informed as Captain Burton might find it pay to look for them.