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100 Years since the young Saarukka men mined gold in Africa


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Picture courtesy GSF
Erik Leander Saarukka of Nedervetil had a restless family. His oldest son Viktor emigrated to America 1891 and later returned to Finland. His sister Ida spent the rest of her life there. There were 13 children in the family. Sons Axel, Ernst and Hugo traveled to South Africa. Axel and Hugo also spent two years in Canada; they are buried in South Africa.

Ernst Saarukka’s son Heimer showed us notes and photos and pointed to the globe, indicating it’s a long distance between Saarukka in Nedervetil and Johannesburg, South Africa. Going back in time 100 years, they had to take a horse and cart to go from Nedervetil to Gamlakarleby?, took a train down to Hangö and waited for a boat to go to Hull, England, then continued with a long boat trip to South Africa.

He talked about the adventurous travel between their home town and the gold field in Johannesburg, and then how they toiled in the dangerous mines, breathing suffocating stone dust and heat for 5 shillings a week.

World’s Richest Gold Field

The gold field in Transvaal was discovered in 1886 and became the world’s richest gold field. At the turn of the century it produced half of all the gold in the world. A mine opening could go vertically down 1,000 meters into the ground, with tens of thousands of meters of openings going sideways. There was the noise from the drilling machines, the thundering hammers and clattering dump cars. It sounded like a thunder clap when the carts were overturned and the contents skidded through iron pipes to the elevator. Heimer said when his father and uncle were there the dust flew around in the air, filling their lungs, and producing attacks of coughing.

Heimer’s father made two trips with Axel during 1898-1905. He was the only one of the brothers who ended his days in Finland. By 1895 Axel had traveled to Johannesburg. He was a 21-year-old bachelor. Earning possibilities were good and an able-bodied man managed well. A man could advance to foreman of the mine. No wonder that brother Ernst was tempted by the adventure and income possibilities.

In 1896 Nedervetil residents Johan Julius Hongell, Johan Julius Emmes, Karl Viktor Emmes and Anders Gustaf Skriko emigrated to that dark part of the world.

Ran Away from Guards

In 1897 General Bobrikov had been named as Governor-General of the Grand Duchy of Finland?. He decided that Finnish men should perform their compulsory military service in the Russian Army. When Ernst refused to report for duty, he was arrested and transported under guard to Nikolaistad (Vasa). But Ernst, who was married to Milla Peitso in 1898, had other plans. While he took a loving farewell of his wife at the station in Östermyra, the armed guard looked away discreetly. Ernst took advantage of the inattention and disappeared in the crowd. He hopped on a northbound train, crossed the Swedish border at Haparanda and went on to South Africa.

In 1899 the Boer war began in South Africa, a war between the English and the Boers. It was a bloody transaction and went on for three years. In the Orange Free State in Kimberly diamonds were discovered in 1869 and in 1886 gold was struck in Transvaal. England was expanding in every direction, and the greed and temptation were so great that war broke out. Because of the war mining stopped in all the gold mines. Brothers Axel and Ernst decided to return to Finland to wait for the war to end.

According to Heimer, his father said they had to watch two fronts – the English and the Boer front. They went on foot and bicycle in the direction of the east coast toward the Indian Ocean and Mozambique. Wandering Through the Jungle

The African jungle was a constant danger. The men were armed but had to be watching constantly. Getting provisions from the Boer farmers wasn’t entirely risk-free because the Boers mistook them for Englishmen, enemies, and squareheads. Week after week went by. Eventually they were far enough from the war action to use the railroad. The name of the city where they began their return journey is unknown. But finally Axel and Ernst were home and their mother met them with a horse and wagon at the railway station in Gamlakarleby?.

From Canada to Rhodesia

When the Boer war ended Axel Saarukka, who was married and living in Canada, returned to South Africa and Rhodesia. It was a long journey. The first ten days were by train through Canada, two weeks on a boat to London, and then five weeks by boat to Cape Town.

Axel’s brother Hugo, who followed them to Canada and later to Rhodesia?, died of an illness of the mind in 1913 in Johannesburg. At the same time that Axel left Canada Ernst, who had stayed home while Axel was in Canada, traveled again to South Africa. He stayed there nearly three years until 1905.

Axel and his family returned to Finland in 1906. For a few years he was a farmer, bought a truck to transport merchandise and built a house in Hakalax. Several years later he returned to South Africa. His wife and several children followed in 1913. Two years later she returned to Finland for the birth of her 8th child. Daughter Arla was born 28 November 1915. Six months later she received information that Axel died of pneumonia 16 June 1916. In 1924 Helga and the children moved to Canada. She died in 1954 at her home in Capitol Hill, Vancouver, 71 years old.

Thereby ends the changing destiny of several emigrants.

Ole Granholm, Österbottningen, 15 June 1997

Translated by June Pelo

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