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, excited by the prospect of sudden riches, set out in ox-wagons and mule carts heading for the desolate patch of sun-baked scrubland in Griqualand where diamonds had been discovered. Some travelled on foot, walking from as far away as Cape Town, a journey of 700 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; ship’s deserters; bogus aristocrats, rogue lawyers, and quack doctors. ‘Each post-cart and bullock-wagon brought its load of sordid, impecunious humanity,’ one diamond dealer remarked in his memoirs.
The stories told of fabulous wealth were real enough. In the early days, diggers using picks and shovels found diamonds lying close to the surface. A day’s work for those in luck could provide them with as many as ten or twenty diamonds. Some made their fortunes before breakfast. A penniless Englishman uncovered a 175-carat stone valued at £33,000. Each big discovery reignited the enthusiasm of others for the hunt. Many having ‘made their pile’ decided to return home, celebrating their departure with gunfire and spreading word to the outside world of the bonanza they had won.
But the mining settlements of Griqualand soon came to be renowned as much for despair, disease and death as for the fortunes made there. 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. ‘Dishes and drink choked with them,’ wrote Frederick Boyle, a visitor from England who arrived in November 1871. 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. 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 fever’ - mainly dysentery - took hold, striking down diggers by the score. Dust storms erupted with sudden fury, ripping tents from the ground and tossing sheets of corrugated roofing into the air. ‘In a perfectly still air one could see a distant wall rise far away on the plain,’ one resident remembered. ‘In a few minutes it would be on us with a roar, darkening everything, filling one’s eyes, nose and ears, stinging one’s face, forcing one to turn one’s back on it.’ Layers of dust coated everything. ‘The dust of the dry diggings,’ moaned a journalist in the Diamond News in November 1871, ‘is to be classed with plague, pestilence and famine, and if there is anything worse, with that also.’
Moreover, for most diggers the rewards were meagre. Some scraped away with picks and shovels for weeks on end but found nothing of value, and hundreds of claims were abandoned every month as diggers ran out of money to pay the required licence fee. Just as every day brought wagon-loads 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.
Among those who listened avidly to tales of diamond riches was seventeen-year-old Cecil John Rhodes, who had been sent from England to Natal to join his brother Herbert in a cotton-farming venture in the colony. Shortly after his arrival in the Natal capital of Pietermaritzburg in September 1870, Rhodes encountered a British army officer, Captain Loftus Rolleston, who had recently returned from diamond diggings on the banks of the Vaal River. Rolleston had been a member of one of the first organised expeditions to the area where, in January 1870, they had discovered a gravel bed containing an extensive ‘wash’ of diamonds.
‘To hear Rolleston talk and to see his diamonds makes one’s mouth water,’ Rhodes wrote to his mother in September 1870. He went on to tell of ‘three whoppers’ found by diggers, one worth £8,000, another £9,000 and another £10,000. ‘The man who found the £10,000 diamond offered his claim for 15s. [shillings] the evening before, and no one would buy it!’ Diamonds, he wrote, were being found in ‘unheard-of numbers’. He related how Rolleston had told him of an African who had traded for a roll of tobacco a diamond which had subsequently been sold for £800. In another letter, he mentioned the story of ‘a Dutchman who trekked in, outspanned [his oxen], found a diamond worth £14,000, inspanned and trekked out all in one day’.
Rhodes initially resisted the diamond fever sweeping Natal. ‘Of course,’ he wrote home, ‘there is a chance of the diamonds turning out trumps; but I don’t count much from them. You see it is all chance.’ Cotton, he added, was more of ‘a reality’. His brother Herbert, however, a restless adventurer, relished the gamble and soon forsook cotton-farming for the diamond fields of Griqualand.
A year later, Rhodes followed him there. In October 1871, he set out on horseback with a few possessions loaded into an ox-cart, and rode up the interior escarpment to the highveld, curving around the edge of the Drakensberg mountains. The journey of 400 miles took him more than a month. Along the way his horse died, so he continued on foot.
His first glimpse of the diamond fields he described in a letter to his mother written shortly after his arrival: ‘Fancy an immense plain with right in its centre a great mass of white tents and iron stores, and on one side of it, all mixed up with the camp, mounds of lime like ant-hills; the country round is all flat with just thorn trees here and there: and you have some idea of Dutoitspan, the first spot where dry diggings for Diamonds was begun.’
This was the place that marked the beginning of an industrial revolution. It was also the place that was to make Cecil Rhodes one of the richest men in the world.
The first diamond was discovered by accident. It was picked up by a Boer farmer’s son in 1866, close to the banks of the Orange River on a farm named ‘De Kalk’ in the Hopetown area of the Cape Colony, and used to play children’s games of ‘five-stones’. A neighbour, Schalk van Niekerk, spotted the stone several weeks later and, thinking it might have some value, offered to purchase it. The farmer’s wife laughed at the idea of selling a stone and told him that if he took a fancy to it he could have it for nothing. Van Niekerk told her that if it proved to be a diamond, he would share the proceeds with her. It was later valued in London at £500.
The De Kalk diamond was regarded as a freak and aroused little lasting interest. Though smaller stones were occasionally discovered in the area, geologists confidently declared that the terrain in that part of southern Africa was not ‘diamondiferous’. In 1867, Sir Roderick Murchison of the Museum of Practical Geology in London said he would stake his reputation on it. A leading London expert, James Gregory, who was sent by a London merchant to investigate the Hopetown area, dismissed the whole idea of diamond discoveries as a hoax - ‘a bubble scheme’ set up by land speculators to increase land prices; if any genuine diamonds had been found, he said, then they must have been deposited by ostriches migrating from areas far to the north.
Then, in March 1869, Schalk van Niekerk had his second stroke of luck. A Griqua farm employee brought him a large stone he had found on the banks of the Orange River in the vicinity of De Kalk. Van Niekerk promptly bought it in exchange for 500 sheep, ten oxen and a horse and then sold it to a diamond merchant in Hopetown for £11,200. An 83-carat diamond, it was subsequently purchased in London for £25,000.
In the rush that followed, prospectors concentrated their efforts on diggings along the banks of the Vaal River, north of the Orange River. An eighty-mile stretch of the Vaal was soon crowded with prospectors and speculators wandering from claim to claim, establishing brief settlements - Delport’s Hope, Cawood’s Hope, Last Hope, Forlorn Hope, Fools Rush, Midnight Rush, Winter’s Rush, Poorman’s Kopje. The digging was largely haphazard. Most dug down through sand and gravel for only a few feet, believing that diamonds had been washed downstream from their original beds in distant mountains. If they found nothing, they moved quickly to another site in search of better luck or joined the latest ‘rush’ to some newly favoured spot. Few prospered.
Other diamond discoveries in 1869 aroused far less attention than the river diggings. Twenty miles south of the Vaal River, Boer prospectors found diamonds in a natural basin, or pan, on a 6,000-acre farm named Dorstfontein owned by Adriaan van Wyk; the farm was commonly called Du Toit’s Pan after a previous owner, Abraham du Toit. Van Wyk charged diggers seven shillings and sixpence a week for each claim of thirty square feet. Further discoveries were made on an adjacent 14,434-acre farm, Bultfontein, owned by Cornelis du Plooy.
But these ‘dry diggings’, as they came to be known, were thought likely to offer only modest rewards. The common view at the time was that diamonds were alluvial deposits, as diamond mining in India and Brazil had shown, and most diggers soon drifted back to the river sites. Adriaan van Wyk sold Dorstfontein farm, or Dutoitspan, to merchant speculators for £2,600; Cornelis du Plooy sold Bultfontein for £2,000.
Beneath the farms, however, lay two diamond ‘pipes’ or necks of long-extinct volcanoes containing unimaginable riches. Just two miles away to the north, on an adjacent farm, Vooruitzigt, owned by Johannes de Beer and his brother, were two more diamond ‘pipes’, still undiscovered, with even greater deposits. Put together, the three farms covering an area of about fifty-eight square miles amounted to the most valuable piece of real estate in the world.
It was not until the end of 1870 that a new rush to Dutoitspan and Bultfontein erupted. Within weeks, Dutoitspan was transformed into a sprawling mass of tents, wagons, mud heaps and mining debris. In May 1871, diggers alighted upon one of the two ‘pipes’ on Vooruitzigt, not far from De Beer’s original farmhouse; within two months, 10,000 men were working there. Then in July, a group of diggers from Colesberg found diamonds on a hillock on Vooruitzigt that they named Colesberg Kopje. The rush there turned into a stampede. Diggers from De Beer’s, Bultfontein and the river diggings joined the chaotic scramble for claims.
No one yet understood the geology of the mines. Diggers still assumed that all their finds would be near the surface, as had happened at the river diggings, requiring little more than the use of a pick and shovel to unearth. Beneath an upper layer of limestone, however, they found ‘yellow ground’ - a yellowish, decomposed breccia, often resembling dried mud, which proved to contain diamond deposits richer than those closer to the surface.
At Colesberg Kopje, the yellow ground extended as far as sixty feet below the surface. Diamonds found there, though mainly of low quality, existed in vast profusion. By August, an average of £50,000 worth of diamonds was being recovered each week. With such rich pickings, the price of claims at Colesberg Kopje soon soared to £100 each, then to £1,000, then to £4,000. But so frantic was the digging there that by November 1871 the yellow ground in some claims was all but exhausted. Beneath, lay a hard, compact, blue-coloured ground believed to contain no diamonds. To many diggers it seemed that ‘the party was over’. Taking advantage of an offer from a syndicate of Port Elizabeth merchants, Johannes de Beer sold his 16,400-acre farm, Vooruitzigt, for £6,000.
After arriving in Dutoitspan in November 1871, Rhodes made his way to Colesberg Kopje where his brother Herbert had acquired three claims and had set up camp on a rise a few hundreds yards from the western end of the mine. Together with a small group of colleagues, Herbert belonged to a bachelors’ ‘mess’, popularly known as the West End, run by Major Drury, an army officer formerly of the Cape Mounted Riflemen. The Rhodes brothers briefly shared a large tent but, as restless as ever, Herbert took off for England two weeks later, leaving Cecil to fend for himself.
At the age of eighteen, Rhodes quickly adapted to the routine of mining life at Colesberg Kopje - the diamond pipe that later became known as the ‘Big Hole’ of Kimberley. The mine itself covered a relatively small area, oval shaped and measuring at the time no more than 220 yards by 180 yards. The last of the four mines discovered, Colesberg Kopje had been laid out in a more orderly fashion than the earlier ones: it was divided into 470 claims, each one a square of 31 feet, with fourteen parallel roadways running the full length of the mine. With the price of claims so high, many had been split up into half-claims and quarter-claims, then into eighths and sixteenths. Thousands were at work there - white diggers together with their black labourers - 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.
‘I should like you to have a peep at the kopje from my tent door at the present moment,’ Rhodes wrote to his mother on 4 January 1872. ‘It is like an immense number of ant-heaps covered with black ants, as thick as can be, the latter represented by human beings.’ Working on one of his brother’s claims, he was finding on average thirty carats a week, he said, bringing him a weekly income of about £100. ‘You will understand how enormously rich it is when I say that a good claim would certainly average a diamond to every load of stuff that was sorted - a load being about 50 buckets.’
A week later, the diamond fields were gripped by sudden crisis. The enormous output of the mines there had led to a collapse in the price of rough diamonds in London, prompting diamond buyers on the fields to shut up shop. Frederick Boyle recorded in his diary on January 13:
The Nemesis of our success has overtaken us today. A panic rules in the diamond market at home, and the reaction strikes us cruelly. There is no business doing in the Koopers’ tents. Many have closed their doors. The diggers are half-angry, half-dismayed. They had encouraged each other to believe that since the market had borne so much, its patience must be inexhaustible. Sensible men know that catastrophe must come, but they had scarcely provided against it. I know that today there are acquaintances of my own who anticipated a heavy fall, but who will be obliged to sell at panic prices notwithstanding.
He described how later that day he was talking to a diamond buyer outside his tent when two English diggers approached.
Their great limbs were clad in corduroy; their faces were brown and bearded; their hands had not felt water since yesterday - not for a week if one should judge by looks - and they were covered with old scars and discolorations where the poisonous lime had festered in some trifling scratch. They had too the swollen lids and bloodshot eyes that ‘sorting’ entails.
One of the men produced a tin box wrapped in a scrap of rag. Inside were four diamonds - a spotless stone of fifteen carats and three fine white chips weighing together ten carats - the result perhaps of weeks of weary labour. He asked £50 for them, but the buyer declined to make an offer. ‘If I can’t get fifty pounds for all my sweat an’ the health I’ve lost, I’ll just pitch them stones into the Vaal!’ the digger said, and left disconsolately.
Boyle himself, after a series of misfortunes, decided to leave. After examining a dozen locations, in December 1871, he had purchased for £365 a quarter-claim in Colesberg Kopje together with a two-wheeled cart in bad repair, two mules and a harness, and had found three partners to work the claim on shares with all finds to be split evenly. On the first day of working, an adjoining roadway collapsed, throwing tons of surface soil into his claim. In January, one of his two mules fell into a pit and he had to buy two more. Five days later, his cart was wrecked in a collision with an ox-wagon. Five days after that his two new mules bolted, never to be seen again, and his black labourers, after being paid, left in search of a better-paying employer. After two months of work, Boyle’s partners had found diamonds worth only £42. When accounts were drawn up, Boyle calculated that he had made a working profit of only £5; and since the finds on his claim had been so meagre, his investment in the property itself was virtually worthless. He left the diamond fields convinced that diamond digging was a lottery in which there were very few winners.