The growth of the diamond industry in South Africa

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After the discovery of diamonds people from all over Southern Africa and many other parts of the world flocked to Griqualand West. Almost overnight this gave rise to the town of Kimberley and a very powerful diamond-mining industry.

Transcript from the radio programme

Diamond Fever: In chemistry the diamond is made from pure carbon, one of the most common elements. Yet it is fashioned by nature into a magnificent crystal. None of the chosen jewels of the Bible, not even the sapphire or the emerald, can equal in truth or legend the multifaceted Great Mogul, the blood-stained Orloff, and the famous Koh-i-noor. Harder than any other gem, it is also more brilliant and more varied in form and colour. Its natural colour can be pink, blue or yellow, or as pure as a drop of distilled water. It sparkles with the brilliance of reflected light and the red, blue and violet flashes of refracted light. – C .W. de Kiewiet

Shortly after the Hopetown diamond was found in 1807, there was a major discovery of diamonds along the banks of the VaaI River near present day Barkley West. These diamonds had been washed down the river and deposited in the alluvial soil along the banks.

It was fairly simple to mine these diamonds as they were near the surface. The rock and the soil along the river bank was dug up and sifted in order to extract the diamonds, This method is known as surface mining. The diggers who owned these ‘claims’, both white and black employed teams of black workers to sift the diamond-bearing soil. Only small amounts of capital were necessary to establish such a mine in the early days.

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By the early 1870s much larger quantities of diamonds had been discovered away from the Vaal River, at a small hill called Colesberg Kopje. This place later came to be called ‘New Rush’ or Kimberley, after Earl Kimberley, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies.

In Kimberley miners discovered a number of extinct volcanic pipes. These are tube-shaped tunnels that once carried molten rock to the surface from deep in the earth, In this case, the molten rock contained diamonds.

Colesberg Kopje was itself the top of one of these tube-shaped tunnels. Here fortune-seekers from all over Southern Africa and other parts of the world fought over claims. The miners soon cut away the kopje and made what was then the biggest human-made hole in the world the Kimberley ‘Big Hole’.

Later other ‘pipes’ or mines were also brought into production at Dutoitspan, De Beers, Bultfontein and Wesselton, all close to Kimberley. From 1870 to 1873 there was a boom in world trade, which led to a rise in the price of diamonds. Competition over claims became even fiercer. Whites competed with one another for wealth and insisted on being the masters of black labour. White claim-holders from Europe, America and Australia ganged up against a small number of Griquas, Tlhaping, Malay, Indian and Chinese claimholders.

African claim-holders were suspected of IDB (Illicit Diamond buying), because they spoke the same language and had similar backgrounds to many of the workers.This led to riots in 1875 in which whites attacked African or Asian claim-holders. The British authorities responded by cancelling all claims owned by blacks.

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After 1875, Africans worked for white claim-holders

Surface mining became insufficient forthe ‘blue ground’ deeper. The holes became too deep with the danger of caving in or getting flooded.

A new method of mining had to be introduced, namely underground mining. This resulted in the making of new laws relating to the holding of claims. At first the rule had been one owner, one claim. After 1874 one owner was allowed to make up to ten claims.

By the end of the 1870s many of these small-scale mine owners were forced to sell out to larger mining companies. This was the result of the collapse in the price of diamonds, as well as the high costs involved in developing underground works. In the early 1870s there were 1600 claims at the Kimberley Big Hole. By 1880 this number was reduced to just under 400.

Finally, by late 1880s, the De Beers Consolidated Mining Company, under the control of Cecil Rhodes, gained control over the entire industry. Through the London Diamond Syndicate, De Beers eventually established a world monopoly of diamond sales.


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