The year is 1866. The place, the farm De Kalk near Hopetown. The event, a pretty white pebble found by young Erasmus Jacobs on the banks of the Orange River. Had the teenager known that his discovery was to lead to the great South African diamond rush, he might well have called out “Eureka!” – the name eventually given to this yellow diamond of 21,25 carats.
But it was the deal made by Schalk van Niekerk, a Hopetown farmer, and a Griqua shepherd called Zwartbooi which really drew the world’s treasure hunters to the Northern Cape. Van Niekerk traded all his possessions for a magnificent 83,50 carat diamond, the stone which was to become famous as the Star of South Africa. Its discovery prompted Sir Richard Southey, the Colonial Secretary at the Cape, to declare: “This is the rock on which the future success of South Africa will be built.” The diamond rush had begun.
Enter the Diamond Magnates
The five mines in the area around Kimberley were originally divided into claims 30ft x 30ft which were worked by individual diggers.
According to legend those who were successful went on mammoth sprees, lighting cigars with bank-notes, while the women bathed in champagne. But the complex workings made the Big Hole increasingly chaotic as men dug deeper. Fights and riots became commonplace. Some kind of order had to be introduced.
Enter Cecil John Rhodes, a country parson’s son, and the flamboyant stage actor Barney Barnato. Both traveled from England for different reasons and eventually cherished the same ideal — the control of all the diamond mines around Kimberley.
Rhodes eventually gained control of the De Beers Mine, while Barnato became chief executive of the Kimberley Central Mining Company. An intense struggle ensued between the two men, but in the end, in 1888, Barnato was persuaded to sell out to Rhodes. With the 35-year-old Rhodes running Kimberley as well, the diamond industry stabilized, while his company, De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd. monopolized the diamond markets of the world. This was the start of one of the most important ventures of our time.