Gold: The Race for the Worlds Most Seductive Metal by Matthew Hart

A review of Gold, which offers a close look at the pleasure and pain gold brings today.

Ever since the Lydians of Asia Minor invented gold coinage in the seventh century BC — and perhaps before — humans have been burrowing and scraping through the earth in search of a precious metal that has survived the rise and fall of many a dynasty.

In Gold — The Race for the World’s Most Seductive Metal, writer Matthew Hart takes us from the depths of African gold mines to the top of Bay Street towers for a close look at the pleasure and pain gold brings today.

We start out at "the gates of hell." At Mponeng, about 40 miles from Johannesburg, Hart rides the cage into the deepest hole dug by mankind, describing the darkness, heat and humidity endured by miners. He also introduces us to Bad Brad, a gunslinger hired to protect owner AngloGold Ashanti’s assets from "ghost miners," who illegally enter to scrape out a living selling what gold they find to gangs.

And that’s just the first chapter. The second recounts how 16th-century Spaniards Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro used superior weaponry to annihilate the Aztecs and the Incas and plunder their gold.

We get a break from digging and plundering to learn how gold came to underpin the economies of Europe and of the US. We move from the rise of the gold standard through its demise in Britain during the Great Depression to its death knell at the hands of former US president Richard Nixon.

With currencies no longer backed by gold, Hart explains how the precious metal came to be traded globally as a commodity in various forms, used as a safe haven in times of financial turmoil.

Toronto, which the author calls "the world’s leading gold-mine city," plays a big part in the gold business today, with its large pool of capital available to finance exploration and mining. There is interesting Canadian content about the bankers, lawyers and explorers who have helped make this so. The story of Peter Munk’s escape from the Nazis in Hungary and immigration to Canada is an engaging read for those who don’t know the history of Barrick Gold Corp.

Then we’re off to China, which replaced South Africa as the world’s biggest gold producer in 2008, to visit the Linglong mine on the gold-rich Shandong Peninsula.

We end where we started, in Africa, with a brief history of how the British destroyed the Ashanti state, the last of the continent’s major gold empires, in the 19th century. We visit Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the gold business seems just as brutal and corrupt as it was when the Spanish conquered South America.

The author provides much detail that makes for compelling reading and all the stories he tells are interesting in and of themselves. But Gold would have been more satisfying had he found a unifying theme beyond the obvious — that empires rise and fall, but gold never loses its allure.