Nic Haygarth: plenty of mining fodder for this Tasmanian Historian

Nic Haygarth’s idea of utopia is roaming through the Tarkine searching for old mine sites.

As this area in the State’s remote North West contains the history of 140 years of mining and something like 600 mines, there is obviously the potential for lots more discovery for this Tasmanian historian.

“I try to get into the Tarkine once a week, it’s my way of staying sane and it’s amazing what you find… It’s amazing how nature reclaims itself,” Nic says.

As a renowned historian of the Tarkine region, Nic has written numerous books and articles on mining, including his PhD, a biography on the legendary prospecting figure, James ‘Philosopher’ Smith.  Smith discovered the Mt Bischoff tin deposit near Waratah in 1871 and soon after it was regarded as the richest tin mine in the world.

Nic Haygarth 

Image: Nic Haygarth

“The Mount Bischoff tin mine had a profound effect upon Tasmania’s economy and social structure,” Nic writes in his article: ’Grey gold’: James Philosopher Smith and the creation of a Tasmanian Mining Culture.

“It gave great impetus to minerals exploration which resulted in further major discoveries such as the Zeehan-Dundas-silver-lead field, the Mount Lyell copper mine and the Renison tin mine.  Within three decades of Smith’s discovery (around 1900) mining represented 60 per cent of Tasmania’s export earnings.”  In 2013, it still does.

Nic found Philosopher Smith’s “incredible” papers and correspondence in the Library Archives.  “It was astonishing history of Tasmania as he knew everybody.  I would have written about Smith with or without a PhD.”

Nic says that as a historian you learn that people are not heroes.  Sounding like part historian and part psychologist, he says: “Smith was driven by the stigma of convict parents and his mother deserted him.  He had low self esteem.”

He believes that the reason for Smith’s success was his dogged determination and self-belief in making a significant mineral discovery.  “Smith devoted the decades leading up to his discovery of the Mount Bischoff tin to the pursuit of minerals,” Nic writes in his Grey gold article.  “The name Philosopher, which probably began as a derisive term but captured his scholarly mien, piety and ascetic lifestyle.

“Smith’s courage and privations were legendary… Like most prospectors, Smith began as a poor workingman.  But Smith proved that a prospector could make money and control his own destiny… He was Tasmania’s first popular hero who was not a bushranger.”

While Nic prefers not to comment publicly on Federal Minister Burke’s recent heritage listing of the Tarkine region, he says that he is very pleased that the aboriginal middens have been protected.

“I’m a story teller … I find all of the mining history in Tasmania interesting, aboriginals were miners too.  The osmiridian history is a unique part of Tasmania’s history that is part of our heritage that nobody has got and the story of James Smith and his prospecting is quite romantic.”

In the early 1900s parts of West Tasmania were an important world supplier of osmiridium, used in nibs for gold fountain pens for companies such as Waterman.  In his article 20th Century Tasmanian Osmiridium Mining, Nic says thatthough the State’s osmiridium deposits were small, so was the worlds’ demand. The demand for osmiridium soon stalled after World War 2 with the advent of the ball point pen and synthetic substitute.

“I love both industrial heritage and nature, and that I love to see how nature reclaims industrial heritage,” Nic says.  “Seeing how old mining adits become a habitat for Tasmanian cave spiders (Hickmania troglodytes), cave crickets and glow-worms for instance. I also love fungi and lichen, which are often in abundance in the Tarkine and on the West Coast generally.

“I believe that in the right place and with the right controls, mining can be economically and socially beneficial. In Tasmania there are plenty of examples of ecological devastation as a result of mining, but it has also been a vital part of our economy. For me mining is not a black-and-white issue, not universally good or universally bad, and the opening of any mine needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis.”