Dressed in full imperial regalia, Britain’s first governor of Griqualand, Sir Richard Southey, was given a tumultuous reception on his arrival in the diamond fields in January 1873. In accordance with local tradition, crowds on horseback and in carriages gathered at a rendezvous on the road several miles outside the mining settlements to give him a resounding cheer and escort him into town. Preceded by brass bands, the governor, wearing a plumed hat and embroidered tunic, rode in state with his wife through triumphal arches specially erected for him. In the evening, residents entertained him with a fireworks display and a banquet.
With the coming of British rule, names were changed. The colonial secretary, Lord Kimberley, complained that he could neither spell ‘Vooruitzigt’ (‘Foresight’), the former De Beer’s farm where the two richest mines - New Rush (Colesberg Kopje) and ‘Old’ De Beer’s - were located; nor did he consider that ‘New Rush’ was a sufficiently dignified title for the latest addition to Queen Victoria’s empire. What was needed, said Kimberley, were ‘English-sounding names’. Accordingly, a proclamation was issued, declaring: ‘The encampment and town heretofore known as De Beer’s New Rush, the Colesberg Kopje No 2, or Vooruitzigt, shall henceforth be designated the town of Kimberley.’ New Rush became known as Kimberley mine; and its diamond-bearing blue ground was now technically called kimberlite.
Kimberley by 1873 was fast growing into the second-largest town in southern Africa, boasting a population of some 13,000 whites and 30,000 blacks, with Dutoitspan two miles away adding a further 6,000 to the total. At the town centre, amid a chaotic jumble of tents and canvas-covered frame houses, stood Market Square, a vast open space crowded by day with wagons and Cape carts, where diggers, their families, diamond dealers, tradesmen and merchants gathered to peruse piles of goods for sale and exchange gossip and rumours. Each morning, Boer farmers drove wagonloads of produce to the square - springbok at a shilling each; blesbok and wildebeest at half-a-crown; vegetables and firewood. Other wagons, piled with mining equipment, building materials, household utensils, provisions and liquor arrived from Cape Town and other coastal ports, having survived the journey of hundreds of miles over rough tracks.
At one side of the square stood the ‘Griqualand Share and Claim Exchange’, where claims were bought and sold. On Saturdays, auctions in Market Square attracted large crowds, looking as much for a bit of entertainment as for products on offer; a brisk trade was done in second-hand mining equipment, sold by diggers on their departure, some leaving jubilantly, others ruing their ill-fortune.
Adjoining Market Square was Main Street, a business thoroughfare lined with stores, canteens, bars and the frame tents of diamond ‘koopers’. Diamond-buying was as important to Kimberley as diamond-digging and often far more profitable. At the top end of the trade were agents for leading diamond firms in Europe with large financial resources who rarely deigned to leave their offices. As aristocrats of the diamond market, many affected a flamboyant style of dress, wearing velvet jackets, white cord or buckskin breeches, long, tight-fitting, highly polished boots and glittering spurs. Other diamond buyers with Main Street offices ventured out to the mining camps, bars and canteens on the lookout for promising items. At the bottom end of the trade were the ‘kopje-wallopers’, itinerant diamond buyers too poor to establish their own offices, who scoured the mines each day in search of diggers selling small, cheap diamonds they could purchase on the spot. ‘Many of these were young men who were averse to manual labour but whose business instincts were acute,’ William Scully wrote. ‘The equipment of a “kopje-walloper” consisted of a cheque-book, a wallet - known as a “poverty bag” - a set of scales, a magnifying glass, and a persuasive tongue. In the course of a morning one’s sorting table might be visited by a dozen of them.’
Scattered around Kimberley was an array of rough hotels, boarding houses, billiard halls and gambling ‘hells’. Drinking, gambling and sex were the town’s main diversions. For every one hundred tents or so, there were two or three drinking saloons with their regular daily and nightly clientele. ‘Nothing is more common than to see the canteens adorned with a row of dead-drunk corpses at ten a.m.,’ complained John Merriman. Vast quantities of champagne were consumed to celebrate success. The most popular drink was ‘Cape Smoke’, a powerful brandy, never matured and frequently adulterated by unscrupulous canteen keepers and illicit liquor dealers. A Scottish doctor, Josiah Matthews, who set up a medical practice in Kimberley in 1872, estimated that at least two-thirds of his caseload could be traced to ‘excessive indulgence in alcohol’.
Gambling hells abounded, ranging from semi-private luxuriously fitted houses to squalid shacks. Dr Matthews ventured into one in early 1873, ‘a corrugated iron building of no great architectural pretensions, from whence came sounds of lively music and the hum of many voices’. An eager throng of players was crowded around the tables. ‘Some, clad in decent clothes, but many in shirt sleeves and rough garb, just as they had come from the mine, had notes of large amounts in their hands, whilst bundles of them protruded from their pockets.’
While Matthews watched, a newcomer was admitted to the croupier’s table.
He was addressed as Captain H. by surrounding friends and we watched his play with considerable interest, as despite a calm exterior his anxiety to win was evidently most intense. Play continued with varying success for some time, until his rolls having dwindled away, it seemed that H. had come down to his last £10 note. This he flung on the ‘red’ with a look of sheer despair, and awaited the issue with an agony of expression that was painful to witness. ‘Red’ would have proved his salvation, but alas! Once more ‘black’ was in the ascendant, and H. was ‘played out’. With a muttered oath, but without any words intelligible to the bystanders, he darted outside the saloon into the open. Those absorbed in play merely jeered at his sudden departure.
From outside the gambling hell, a pistol shot rang out through the midnight air. Then a passer-by rushed in excitedly with the news that Captain H had shot himself and was lying smothered in blood, dead in the road.
Suicide was common; the main beneficiaries of the gambling hells were the proprietors, though occasionally some players prospered. A 19-year-old lad from north London, David Harris, who was lured reluctantly into Dodd’s Canteen by a friend one night and eventually induced to stake £1 at roulette, left with £1,400 of winnings which formed the basis of his fortune. Harris returned briefly to London extolling the virtues of Kimberley as a place of limitless opportunity, before going back.
The same lure of money attracted a host of prostitutes - white, mixed-race ‘Coloureds’ and blacks. At first, the white women, unsure of their ground, stayed quietly in boarding houses, made a pretence of respectability and invented unconvincing pretexts for their presence before gravitating towards bars and saloons. Later visitors were less circumspect. In his Reminiscences of Kimberley, Louis Cohen described the arrival of a well-known octoroon who, from the moment she stepped down from the post-cart from Cape Town, ‘did not conceal the fact she desired to be better known’:
She joked freely with the surrounding miners, and after absorbing a brandy and soda or two, hopped into a Cape cart that was waiting for her, shouting as she went, ‘I’ll be at Graybittel’s canteen to-night.’ And at Graybittel’s she was, and the boys turned up fine. Some of them had dressed for the occasion, and when the lady entered there was some disturbance. Quiet men got restless, restless men got thirsty, vain men posed, and quarrelsome men fought - but the saffron-coloured woman drank with all. The quiet, the restless, the bibulous, the vain, the quarrelsome were alike to her. She frolicked with the lot.
Standing on a champagne case, she offered herself for auction. The bidding started at £5 and a case of champagne and ended when a Dutch diamond merchant offered £25 and three cases of champagne. He took her to his frame tent across the road. ‘But after half an hour had elapsed, “the boys” got round the tent and carried it bodily away, thus exposing to view the amorous pair.’
By late 1873, however, Kimberley was facing another period of crisis. A severe drought in Griqualand West drove up the cost of staple foods. Simultaneously, the price of rough diamonds in London fell by one third, driven in part by recession in Europe but affected as well by the sheer volume of Kimberley’s output. The more that Kimberley produced, the lower the price went. In 1869, the diamond fields had exported £24,800 worth of diamonds; in 1872, the first full year of mining at Colesberg Kopje, the figure rose to £1,618,000; in 1873, despite the increase in production, it stood at £1,649,450. At 30 shillings a carat, diggers made a reasonable profit; at 20 shillings a carat, many could not survive. In the ensuing depression, canteen and hotel keepers suffered the worst; auctioneers were kept busy selling off everything from household furniture to store goods.
The difficulties of mining at Kimberley also worsened. By 1873, all the roadways at the mine had collapsed. Claims at the centre were left stranded. To overcome the problem, diggers constructed an elaborate system of cable transport held in place by a series of massive timber stagings erected around the margin of the mine. Each staging carried two or three platforms, one above the other, that were linked to the claims below by fixed ropes, made at first of hemp or rawhide, but later of wire. Hauling ropes attached to windlasses were used to lift buckets up from the claims. On reaching the platforms, the buckets were emptied via chutes into bags that were carted away to floors, sieves and sorting tables. By 1874, there were 1,000 windlasses on the stagings. The cable system provided visitors with an awe-inspiring sight.
So thickly together were these lines set that the whole face of the vast pit seemed to be covered by a monstrous cobweb, shining in the moonlight as if every filament was a silver strand . . .
Hide buckets were flying like shuttles in a loom up and down the vast warp of wires, twanging like dissonant harp-strings, with a deafening din of rattling wheels and falling ground . . .
But no sooner had the cable system been devised than more severe problems occurred. As the digging went deeper, the outside walls of the mine, consisting predominantly of black shale or ‘reef ’ extending downwards for 300 feet or more, began to disintegrate. Summer storms regularly set off avalanches. Usually there was sufficient warning that an avalanche was coming. Great cracks appeared on top of the reef which diggers carefully measured to estimate when it was due to fall. The collapse of reef was a spectacular sight, as Lionel Phillips, a Londoner, described:
Along the towering face at various points little bits of rock broke away, increasing rapidly in number and quantity during the next hour or so. The gaps between the solid ground and the doomed section increased visibly as one watched, and the gigantic body rolled over, crashed, and like an enormous tidal wave swept everything away in its path.
Occasionally, huge chunks of reef came away without warning. A claim-holder recalled:
One morning, riding up to our west-end ground, I saw all our standing wires were slack. I raced up to the point of vantage, conscious of the probable cause. Hundreds of tons of ground had given way. The situation below was appalling. Most of our men had jumped down into the claims next to ours - sixty feet below . . . It took hours to get the dead and injured to the surface.
Apart from the loss of life caused by avalanches, the disruption to mining lasted for months while the debris was cleared away. In the first five years of production at Kimberley, one load of reef was extracted to every seven loads of blue ground.
Flooding added to the diggers’ woes. In January 1874 torrential rains made mining in many parts impossible; six months later, some forty per cent of Kimberley mine was still under water. In the hope of clearing the water, the Kimberley mining board issued pumping contracts.
This was an area of business that attracted Cecil Rhodes and his partner Charles Rudd.
Rhodes’ first sojourn at Oxford was brief. In October 1873 he was admitted as a student of Oriel College. In November he caught a severe chill while rowing on the Isis. The college doctor was sufficiently concerned to seek an opinion from Dr Morell Mackenzie, a London chest and throat specialist, who found ‘his heart and lungs’ affected and advised Rhodes to return to the hot, dry climate of Kimberley forthwith. In his casebook, Mackenzie wrote: ‘Not six months to live.’ Rhodes was also depressed at the time by the death of his mother to whom he had been deeply attached. In December he set sail for Cape Town.
In Kimberley, Rhodes and Rudd, though lacking any pumping equipment of their own, put in a bid to win the pumping contract at Kimberley mine. They failed there, so turned their attention to the smaller Dutoitspan mine where Rudd had business links with the chairman of the mining board. Amid accusations in the local press of jobbery, Rhodes and Rudd won the pumping contract worth £500 a month. The problem was that they still had no pumping equipment of their own and the board expected pumping to start at once.
The story of what happened next became one of the many legends about Rhodes cited as evidence of his early commercial genius. Hearing that a farmer in Victoria West possessed a pumping engine suitable for his needs, Rhodes hired a Boer transport driver to take him to the farm eight days’ ride away. The farmer, however, proved reluctant to part with his engine, wanting it for irrigation. But Rhodes persisted, camping for days on the farmer’s doorstep, cajoling him, charming his wife, gradually raising his offer and eventually getting him to agree to sell the engine for £1,000. ‘Every man,’ Rhodes claimed to have learned, ‘has his price.’ He returned to Kimberley in triumph, his reputation intact. ‘We’re a force, Rudd; a force to reckon with!’ he is said to have told his partner.
What confounds the story is that the farmer had previously advertised the engine for sale for £1,000 in Kimberley. All Rhodes had to do was collect it. Nevertheless, Rhodes managed the Dutoitspan pumping contract successfully, making a substantial profit from it, which provided him with sufficient working capital for further mining ventures.
It was while Rhodes was busy manning the pumps in Dutoitspan in 1875 that dissident diggers rose in rebellion against Sir Richard Southey’s administration in Kimberley.