Gold: The Race for the World’s Most Seductive Metal

“A saffron light was seeping onto the veld when I drove out to the gates of hell.” So begins Matthew Hart’s journey through centuries of murder, brutality, bribery, theft, and devastation, through inexhaustible greed and boundless ingenuity. This is the story of gold in human affairs and the subject of Gold: The Race for the World’s Most Seductive Metal. Hart, who has already polished off diamonds in Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession and told an extraordinary tale of abducted art in The Irish Game: A True Story of Crime and Art, shows once again that he is a master at displaying the ugly side of beauty.
The present book begins with South Africa’s Mponeng mine, a manmade abyss descending almost three miles into the bowels of the earth, along the way spawning 236 miles of tunnels. That subterranean labyrinth is made only barely tolerable by a vast cooling and ventilating system that uses as much electricity, he says, as a city of 400,000. It is a terrible universe of exploding rock face, collapsing tunnels, faulty cables, and bands of pirate miners, some of whom rarely see the earth’s surface.

The pillage of the Inca empire by Spanish conquistadores under Francisco Pizarro is the next theater of horror to which Hart treats us. Holding Atahualpa, the divine head of the Inca people, hostage, Pizarro demanded and received a vast ransom in gold. It came pouring in from all over the empire in the shape of finely wrought vessels, statuary, ornaments, adornments, and sacred emblems (including a throne and altar made of solid gold). With only a few exceptions, which Pizarro retained as trophies, these exquisite creations of the goldsmith’s art were melted down into ingots. Hart sums it up: “The artistic output of a thousand years vanished into the furnaces. It must be one of the most potent images in history — the transformation of a culture into cash…. To the scratch of pens the Inca’s patrimony went into the furnace and a river of gold flowed off to Europe.” In the end, though it practically goes without saying, Atahualpa was killed. (It gives me pleasure to report that Pizarro himself was later assassinated by a rival conquistador.)

Hart also brings the reader through history and into the present, often as a visitor, to the gold fields of California, Nevada, China, Ghana, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, each with its own tale of discovery and unedifying, even phantasmagorical, frenzy. But the book is more than a story of indefatigable human badness; it is also an absorbing account of the technology and science of gold extraction. To be sure, this, too, devolves into more badness: poisoning land, water, and human beings with cyanide, mercury, and sulfuric acid; rerouting rivers; laying waste to the earth; supplanting traditional ways of life with single-minded scrambles for wealth; and giving rise to slavery, thuggery, banditry, and territorial wars.  

The beauty, incorruptibility, and comparative rarity of gold — the qualities that made it valuable, even sacred, in noncommercial societies — long ago became insignificant in comparison to its function as money. According to Hart, gold coins appeared in the seventh century BC, the first step on the metal’s path to its starring role in human history. Thus the story of gold is, perforce, a key part of the story of money itself. In looking at money through gold, Hart’s book provides a glimpse of the extent to which what we take for realty is in fact the manifestation of a mathematical grid, one that affects even the ground under our feet.

With gold at $32 an ounce — as it was for years under the gold standard — vast stretches of the earth are merely the ground, but as the price of gold rises, greater and greater areas are transformed into “ore,” which is to say, material from which the increased expense (and mayhem) of extracting minute amounts of gold will produce a profit. Even more striking, however, is gold’s transcendence of its own materiality as it enters the financial cosmology of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The severing of the dollar’s direct relationship to gold (an exciting story of Nixonian stealth!) and the creation of bullion trusts, both clearly described by Hart, had the strange, almost mystical effect of stripping gold of intrinsic worth while, at the same time, grotesquely increasing the amount of money it pulled to and fro. In the first quarter of 2011, according to Hart, “the value of gold traded was $15,200,000,000,000…125  times what the world produced in a year, or twice as much as gold as had been mined in all of history.” Gold — like everything from corn to real estate that passes into today’s digitized financial sphere — dissolved into derivatives. In this case they are derivatives of stashes of gold that, I gather, only those who believe financiers are men of good faith are convinced actually exist.

Gold, Hart observes, no longer occupies “a special asset class ordained by history: all you can say is that it did.” The story of gold as told here is a tragedy, a grotesque illustration of the centrality of greed in human nature — not to mention the eternal strain of vulgarity in the shape of “cashed-up tycoons.” It is not a pretty picture, but it is completely engrossing and, despite its melancholy subject matter, written with high-spirited grace.