The challenge to write The Tin Heart Gold Mine

Ruth HartleyAfrica, Mining, Politics, The Tin Heart Gold Mine, Writing Process5 Comments

My life in Zambia was a challenge but wonderful. I was lucky to have extraordinary and enriching experiences. It gave me respect and love for its people, its wilderness, wild animals and beauty. There aren’t many stories written about this period so that was an opportunity to write something new. It was a time full of confusion and conflict as colonialism ended and Africa struggled with underdevelopment and the fallout of the Cold War and it provided me with the political and historical background of The Tin Heart Gold Mine.

I met people who were passionate about Africa. They weren’t all good or altruistic but many were courageous. They inspired The Tin Heart Gold Mine.

Writing The Tin Heart Gold Mine was a challenge

A 19th century watercolour painting showing a dead elephant lying on broken gound near the elephant is the white-bearded hunter Henry Hartley. Several naked African men are pointing to the gold seam in a hole in the earth.

Detail of a painting by Thomas Baines of the discovery of Gold by the hunter Henry Hartley after shooting an elephant.

The Tin Heart Gold Mine had as long a gestation as my first book The Shaping of Water. The idea first came during a visit to an isolated safari camp in the Kafue National Park. It was close to the defunct Hippo Copper Mine, 26 years ago. It was an extraordinary sight — an ugly scar in the bush hundreds of miles from anywhere. It recalled tales of old explorers and gold-hunters who after punishing and dangerous journeys into Africa in the forlorn hope of becoming wealthy ended up with broken dreams. It made me think of Henry Hartley — no relation of mine — but a game hunter who accidentally discovered gold when an elephant he killed disturbed the earth as it died.


Black and white photo of mine head gear and hoist with white overseer and black worker. The inspiration for my novel about a gold mine: The Tin Heart Gold Mine. width=

The Phoenix goldmine where my father worked during the Depression

Gold mines and my father

My father had searched for gold on the rough hillside above his farm as a boy. He made his farm labourers dig pits in the rocky ground of the kopje. Each pit was as long and deep as a grave. They were never filled in and became deadly traps for unwary animals and walkers in the bush. As a child, the unfulfilled promises of gold fascinated me. I remember bellowing cattle dying from accidental cyanide poisoning from the nearby mine dump. My father had worked on the isolated Phoenix goldmine during the 1930s depression and I had an alcoholic auntie with a mine-blasting licence. I knew the greed that grows from desperation and deprivation.

What I wanted in my book

I wanted a female protagonist who was driven into danger by her passion for art and sex.

I wanted to write of the beauty, the fragility and the strength of the African wilderness.

I wanted to write a different version of Kurtz, the exploitative villain in Joseph Conrad‘s“Heart of Darkness”. I had grown tired of the racist scenario which blamed the failures and political instability of developing countries on Africans alone. European wars and imperial ambitions had impacted on the continent for 100s of years, as Conrad’s book shows. Readers imagine that the dark heart is African, in fact, it is Mr. Kurtz’s heart that is in darkness.

It was economic migrants displaced by wars in Europe who became the new colonialists though not always from choice.

5 Comments on “The challenge to write The Tin Heart Gold Mine”

  1. John McDonnell

    My dad grew up in India. There the British Indian Army and governors set themselves above the locals. Within the army there was a hierarchy amongst the native Indians and indeed the ruling Europeans . Privates sepearated from NCO’s socially. Officers divided by inherited commissions and bought ones. From here came the Muslim word kafir.

    The Rhodesias inherited this class system. Immigration was a qualified one. The Europeans and the Africans were separated. Working in the tribal trust lands set aside for African settlement one came across naked children their parents dressed in animal skins. A hunter’s only possession his cooking pot kaross and spear.

    1. Ruth Hartley

      Hello John McDonnell Thank you for your comment. I wondered if you had a personal connection with Zimbabwe or Rhodesia yourself?
      Perhaps you have lived in Africa yourself and written about it?

  2. Pingback: Love Stories, World Wars, Armistice Day & why I wrote The Tin Heart Gold Mine - Ruth Hartley

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *