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Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Africa (5)


katanga crossRobert Rich Sharp came to the Congo in 1904, as a prospector and surveyor for Tanganyika Concessions Limited (TCL)—a British firm, which held a mineral concession in Katanga.

When TCL merged with Union Miniere, Sharp then joined the latter and continued scouting for minerals, mainly copper. This is what brought him to Shinkolobwe, in 1915: The first of two momentous occurrences, involving Union Miniere operatives.

Katanga had a thriving copper industry, centuries before Europeans arrived. Its metallurgists (the “eaters of copper”) had developed furnaces, ore concentration methods and smelting techniques.
They forged hoes, ornaments and “handas”—the fabled “Katanga Crosses,” widely used as currency.

“Archaeological evidence has shown,” wrote Donald D. Hogarth, of the University of Ottawa (Canada), in a biographical article on Sharp, “that… handas from Katanga had spread throughout the African continent. There is no evidence that technology of extractive metallurgy had been imported…”

Reports of copper mining in the Congo, started reaching Europe in the late 1700s. And when Sharp bicycled into Katanga, copper was the central focus of foreign prospecting. Yet there was also, in Europe, a nascent interest in radioactive elements, particularly radium.

The word “radioactivity,” first appeared in an 1898 paper on polonium. But G.R. Choppin and J. Rydberg note, in Nuclear Chemistry: Theory and Application, that “in the same year” three researchers isolated another radioactive substance “for which they suggested the name radium”.

Sharp was obviously aware of this—since the scientists shared the 1911 Nobel Award. At the same time, he had heard the stories of tribesmen, who painted their bodies with bright pigments and rampaged at night, glowing in the dark.

In 1913, Sharp took samples from a pocket of brilliant reddish-orange, yellow, and green minerals in the side of a copper pit and sent them to Belgium, for analysis. The mineralogist wrote back, counselling that the colours signified “highly radioactive” substances.

Two years later, Hogarth reports, Sharp was delineating boundaries on the Katanga grasslands, near Kasolo. While awaiting his crew’s arrival, the prospector began poking idly into the soil—and gouged up coloured clumps, like the ones he’d sent to Belgium.

Sharp had happened upon the richest cache of uranium on Earth.Yet UMHK’s blessing, proved to be a diabolical and deathly bane for hundreds, possibly thousands, of Black men in the then Belgian Congo.

Harrington, of The Salt Lake City Weekly, termed Sharp’s discovery “The Devil’s Dirt”. “Natives,” he wrote, “were impressed into digging out and accumulating the extremely ‘hot’ ore—up to 65 percent pure uranium.
“Hapless workers,” Harrington continued, “strung from the mines to the transportation and refining [areas]…, were clueless about the harmful effects of radiation”.

In simple terms, the “natives,” as he calls them, were commandeered to process radioactive pitchblende ore, without protective gloves or clothing—and without being told the implications.

Russell is even more cogent: “The African miners who inhaled radon gas and uranium dust carted ore in open wheelbarrows, breathing in particles that would emit alpha radiation from within their bodies, causing lung cancer, leukemia and lymphoma…”

It was Union Miniere’s hunger for radium [found with uranium] and cobalt that motivated this murderous mobilization. With the advent of the U.S. bomb project, and its voracious appetite for Congolese uranium, UMHK’s gluttonous diet would expand. Yet, it still feasted from a harvest of horror.
“They were hand sorting this damn stuff,” U.S. Army Colonel, Kenneth Nichols would recall, with astonishment, years after World War II.

Nichols, who purchased the Katanga ores for MED, was recounting his experiences to Stephane Groueff, during an interview for the Atomic Heritage Foundation.

“My God!” Groueff exclaimed.

To be continued.

J.K. Obatala

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