Notes of Manganese Mining in Spain 1876

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A Little About Manganese and Its Uses

(Chambers’ Journal No. 659 pp. 543-44 August 12th 1876)


…. (Manganese) ore is most variable in appearance; sometimes it is dark brown, other times blue-black, and then again it is found in beautiful crystallised masses. The principle supply comes from south of Spain and Portugal, where it is found amongst the mountains in what are called ‘pockets’ – a miner’s phrase for a detached mass of ore – which may vary in size from a few tons to several hundred. Very often it is found on the surface of the ground, and it is seldom that it is met with at a greater depth than ninety feet.

Manganese, unlike other minerals, seems to follow no rule, so the most experienced mining engineers are at a loss to know whether ore exists in certain places or not; the men who know best where to find it are miners who work in it every day. As these men are totally ignorant of science, they, of course, do not stop to think whether the ore ought to be there or not; but recalling their experience, are seldom wrong, and seem to know by instinct where the ore is. After the ore is got out of the ground, it is roughly sorted from the pieces of rock in which it is found, and then piled in baskets on mules’ backs, when it is taken to the nearest water, which is sometimes a long way off; there it is washed in sieves by the women and children, after which the ore is properly sorted according to quality, for it varies as much in this as in appearance. Here again, it is strange how clever the sorters are in knowing the different kinds: to a stranger they look all alike; but the poor women know the various grades as well as any clever chemist.

….The poorer classes are steady, industrious workers: they begin work at sunrise, and work until sunset, with an interval of two hours in the middle of the day for the siesta, which is very necessary in that hot, shadeless country, where they are exposed to the full glare of the sun all day. The only holidays they get are on saints’ days, for Sunday is like any other day there; but it must be borne in mind that saints’ days occur rather frequently. The men get about two shillings a day wages, and the women and children from eight pence to one shilling. Very young children are employed, some of them not being eight years old.

As a rule, the mines are very quiet, orderly places, where quarrels are all but unknown. The ‘truck’ system, which used to be so well known in England, is in full vogue in Spain; every little village – and there is nearly always one near a large mine – has its almacen, or general stop, at which the workmen have to purchase all they want: they do not pay ready-money, but tell the almacenista, or master, how many days they have worked, when he, as he well knows what wages they get, credits them with a certain amount of goods. At the end of the month the almacenista presents his account to the manager of the mine; and the balance, if there is money over, is given to the worker.

This system – as has been found in England – is very injurious in its working. By an agreement with the manager of the mine, to whom the almacenista pays a certain percentage, no one else is allowed to open a shop near the mine; so there is no opposition, and he can charge what he likes for his goods. Still, the people are so accustomed to this system, that it is doubtful whether they would give it up if they could.

Manganese is met with in considerable quantities in the north of Spain, but during the late unfortunate war none of it was exported. Large quantities were, however, met with in the south of Portugal, which are now being extensively worked, the mines being managed in exactly the same way as in Spain. In England too, in the county of Devonshire, are mines of manganese of excellent quality; and it is occasionally met with in Wales.

Germany used to supply a great deal of this ore, but owing to its poor quality; it has been almost entirely superseded by the Spanish and Portuguese, which, so far, is the best which has been found.

Besides these sources of supply, shipments of roe have been made form California, Virginia, and New Zealand; but at present, the supply from these last-named countries is very limited, owing to the difficulty of getting a freight low enough to  make it renumerative.  Recent reports shew large deposits of manganese exist in the Cape of Good Hope, and the specimens of it which have been sent to England to be tested, shew it to be of excellent quality.

In many of the manganese workings in the south of Spain, abundant evidence exists that this ore was worked by the ancients; and it is supposed that Toledo blades owed their peculiar qualities to the presence of manganese in the iron ores with which they were made; and one of the uses to which it is being pout in this country is in the manufacture of steel by the Bessemer process. But the principal use for manganese now is in the manufacture of bleach-powder, ir chloride of lime which, as everyone knows, is a powerful disinfectant, and extensively used in making paper, bleaching calicoes etc.

(There follows a description of the various industrial processes which involve the use of manganese plus a reference experiments in Belgium investigating its possible future use in gas lighting).


(Slightly edited to remove material ‘off topic’.)

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