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Can old metal men still learn?

I was a metal merchant once - but I’m ok now. In a career of forty-one years, I thought I knew some of the trade’s more morally compromised subjects. But every now and then you come across an issue that is hard to wipe clean.

Sample of Uraninite from the Shinkolobwe Mine, Photo Courtesy of Robert M. Lavinsky

The one I’m referring to today is the story of Shinkolobwe – a mine in the Congo. Have you heard of it?

In 1939, its name was proscribed; for to speak of it would imply knowledge of its significance - and that was the treasure of only a few; some military commanders and spooks in the recesses of administrations of five of the countries prosecuting the second world war – America, Germany, Belgium, France and Britain.

To any who dared whisper it, its output was even more secret than the mine’s name. Its was described as ‘special cobalt’ or ‘industrial diamonds’, both as subterfuges to deter the curious.

By using the disguise of one verifiably precious mineral - diamonds – to conceal the identity of another, those interested were successfully thrown off the scent. Diamond smuggling was believable. In fact it was a camouflage for which spies and smugglers died, without knowing the true name of the ore for which they were killed.

The mineral was of course uranium.

And where was Shinkolobwe situated? Of course, in the country chosen, it seems, to be the most wronged and benighted in the world – at that time called Belgian Congo.

Here in the 1940s, the chicotte was still a sadistic instrument of subjugation; a whip made of thin strips of dried hippopotamus hide, a hundred lashes of which would flay a man to death; still in use 60 years after King Leopold II of Belgium became founder and owner of Congo Free State.

The reason for secrecy was because the British and Americans sought to secure the element before the Germans, in the race to create the bomb.

In this place, at the very centre of Africa, no black person oversaw anything, or profited from the supply of uranium for the atomic bomb. The profit for that was all channelled via Union Minière’s New York commercial arm African Metals Corp.

Meanwhile, Belgium, occupied by the Nazis from May 1940, alternately dissembled or collaborated with whichever side appeared to be winning. Congolese workers milled uranium by hand and transported it without protection at radiation levels high enough for the area to remain closed off until this day. Nevertheless, in these conditions 1200 metric tons of uranium was shipped to the USA for the Manhattan project.

Once again, as in the 1880s, Congo was to be cursed because of its unique resources. As it was with vine rubber that made rich men of the founders of Firestone and Dunlop, or elephant tusks for piano keys to play sonatas in genteel salons, or the copper, zinc, and lead to make rich and powerful the Belgian industrial state and adorn its buildings, so with uranium. All was exploited with almost no benefit to the country from which it was taken, while Catholic priests promulgated the teachings of Christ.

To ordinary folk, not in the metals or minerals trade, Shinkolobwe is a simple resource story to comprehend, because uranium is so indelibly associated with nuclear weapons, and because the atomic bombs for which the uranium was used, caused the death of 100,000 Japanese in August 1945.

However, in the scale of iniquity it should perhaps not overshadow the less dramatic but equally amoral ways in which this resource story lives on in the Congo in 2022.

This time the mineral is not just called ‘special cobalt’, it is indeed ‘cobalt’. Like uranium, the Congolese cobalt ore of Katanga is a freak occurrence in nature, richer than any geological formation to be found elsewhere on the globe. At Shinkolobwe the U308 content was between 65-70% which compares to commercial uranium mined today at Rössing in Nambia at a mere 100 ppm (or 0.01%). Cobalt surface artisanal ores in Katanga are said to be Co 10-15% while larger volume corporate mines containing as little as Co 0.5% are commercial.

The only thing that has changed is that Britain, France, and Germany are not in the frontline and not presently at war. While the UK stock market is the domicile for a portion of the shares of one or two of the exploiters, and Germany and France are consumers of cobalt for the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles, China, USA, Israel, and Switzerland are the diggers.

Rapaciousness in the 1940s was justified because of war, even though indigenous Africans had little role in it except as cattle fodder for their imperial masters. Today, the exploitation of Congolese cobalt is justified because the world genuflects before the altar of green technology. In all this, it matters not that small boys and whole families subsist in pre-biblical conditions mining cobalt ores with their hands, while poisoning water systems with tailings and heavy metals, causing malformations in pregnancy and pollution of crops.

And which company is common to both the uranium and cobalt stories? The one that states on its website that its ambitions lie in ‘clean mobility and recycling’. The company was once called Union Minière du Haut Katanga (UMHK). Today it is called Umicore where you can read on their website of their battery technologies. But go to the Umicore corporate history section and you may be surprised to read that nothing of note happened between 1906 and 1968 (although there are ten entries between 1989 and the present). Or pick up a copy of Umicore’s educational book of elements (2003) and you will note that Uranium is omitted. Metal merchants, it would seem, can bear only a little reality.

If there is a conclusion to be drawn – one that isn’t too trite or revisionist – it is that we should try harder to recognise threads of history that should not be forgotten. The arguments you will hear aired to justify the expropriation of uranium are that the side of the good had to have the biggest gun, or that the atomic bomb shortened the war.

I’ll leave the last word then to a family friend whose father was in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. A couple of weeks ago when we discussed this subject, he said that he felt it had been wrong to drop the bomb, even though the longer the war went on the more unlikely it would have been that his father would have survived.

Some moralities exist, it appears, on a higher plane than self-interest. Who knows, perhaps we could learn from Shinkolobwe and do better in the Congo today?

By Anthony Lipmann and Published on 03.02.22

Further Reading: ‘Spies in the Congo: The Race for the Ore that built the atomic bomb’, by Susan William (2016)

Image: Uraninite from Shinkolobwe, Katanga. [Courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Natural History]


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