the great diamond rush -- 7/7/15

Today's selection -- from The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor by Martin Meredith. In 1871, a small, fifty-eight square mile stretch of Griqualand, Africa, was the most valuable pieces of real estate in the world.

"As diamond fever spread throughout southern Africa and beyond, the rush to the diamond fields of Griqualand turned into a frantic escapade that one Cape Town newspaper likened to 'a dangerous madness'. In their thousands, shopkeepers, tradesmen, clerks and farmers set out in ox-wagons and mule carts, heading for the desolate patch of sun-baked scrubland in Griqualand where diamonds had been discovered, excited by the prospect of sudden riches; some travelled on foot, walking from as far away as Cape Town, a journey of 600 miles across the great thirstland of the Karoo. They were joined by a horde of foreign adventurers: seasoned diggers from the Australian goldfields; fortyniners from California; Cockney traders from the backstreets of London; Irish dissidents; German speculators; army officers on furlough; ships deserters; rogue lawyers and quack doctors. ...

"In the early days, diggers using picks and shovels were able to scrape up diamonds lying close to the surface. Some made fortunes in a matter of days. Below an upper layer of limestone, they found 'yellow ground' -- a yellowish, decomposed breccia which proved to contain diamond deposits even richer than those close to the surface. Beneath the yellow ground they came across 'blue ground' -- a hard, compact blue-coloured ground that at first was believed to contain no diamonds. To many diggers it seemed that 'the party was over'. But then they discovered that that blue ground was not rockhard but friable, decomposing rapidly once exposed to weather. Moreover, it contained an even higher density of diamonds than yellow ground.

DeBeers Diamond Mine - Kimberley S. Africa

"Within weeks, the main mine sites were transformed into a sprawling mass of tents, wagons, mud heaps and mining debris. The air was thick with fine dust stirred up by the constant digging, sifting and sorting of dirt that went on from morning until night. New arrivals were immediately struck by the stench and squalor of the settlements. The approach roads were lined with the carcasses of exhausted pack animals left to rot where they had fallen. Open trenches served as public latrines, sited at random amid the haphazard jumble of diggers' tents. Flies swarmed everywhere. An acute shortage of water meant that most diggers were rarely able to wash; the nearest river for bathing was twenty miles away. In summer, the grey, cindery plains of Griqualand were like an oven; in winter, the nights were bitterly cold. When the rains came, 'camp
'camp fever' -- mainly dysentery -- took hold, striking down diggers by the score.

"Working conditions were hazardous. At Colesberg Kopje, the diamond pipe on the De Beers' farm that later became known as the 'Big Hole' of Kimberley, thousands of white diggers and their black labourers were crammed into a labyrinth of pits, endlessly filling buckets and sacks with broken ground and hauling them up and down ladders or on pulleys to the surface. The roadways above were permanently choked with carts and mules taking 'stuff' to sieves and sorting tables on the edge of the mine. Every day, some tumbled down into the pits below. The hazards became increasingly severe as the pits reached eighty feet or more below ground-level without support: roadways linking the pits to the mine edge frequently collapsed, leaving claims beneath buried under tons of soil.

The Big Hole of Kimberly

"Moreover, for most diggers the rewards were meagre. Some scraped away with picks and shovels for weeks on end finding nothing of value. Hundreds of claims were abandoned every month when diggers ran out of money to pay the required licence fee. Just as every day brought wagonloads of new arrivals brimming with hope and expectation, so in the other direction destitute men in ragged clothes trudged dejectedly away from 'the Fields', unable to afford the fare back to their homes. Everything depended on luck.

"Nevertheless, the output of diamonds continued to soar. By the end of 1871, a small stretch of Griqualand, covering in all no more than fifty-eight square miles of scrubland, had become one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the world. It was also the place that marked the beginning of an industrial revolution in Africa.


Martin Meredith


The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor


PublicAffairs a Member of the Perseus Books Group


Copyright 2014 by Martin Meredith


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