IN writing the history of any important movement in the world’s affairs, it is difficult to find the beginning of it. A turn of the lever will set a machine in motion if there is sufficient steam back of it. Similarly, the momentous results which sometimes follow a trivial action, would not happen but for preparatory conditions. The discovery of the African diamond fields, which has not only founded the fortunes of thousands throughout the world, but has also become a potent factor in the creation of a new empire, is usually ascribed to the chance finding of a diamond among a Boer child’s play-things, and as the circumstance that first gets into print, or being in print, happens to be most widely quoted, becomes history, this will probably be accepted as an historical fact.
As the story goes, the little son of a Boer woman living near Hopetown on the Orange river, was in the habit 0f gathering the pretty stones lying in the fields thereabouts, to play with. One of them attracted his mother’s eye and she spoke of it one day to a neighbor, Van Niekirk by name, when he stopped in passing, to gossip. As he seemed interested, she looked for it among the child’s treasures, but it was gone. She found it, however, in the grounds outside, where he had thrown, or left it in his play. Van Niekirk offered to buy it.
Laughing at the idea of taking money for a stone, she refused to sell, but gave it to him. He showed it later to a friend named O’Reilly and the latter, when he went soon after to Grahamstown, took it with him and submitted it to a mineralogist there, Dr. Guibon Atherstone, who at once pronounced it to be a diamond. The crystal is variously reported to have weighed twenty-one and three-sixteenths, and twenty-three and three-sixteenths carats. After being exhibited at the Paris Exhibition, it was sold to Sir Phillip Wodehouse, governor of Cape Colony, for five hundred pounds. The story may be true, or partially true, or like novels and history, be founded on fact, though it was told among the diggers on the Vaal river a few years later, that the stone bought by the governor was picked up at Klipdrift by a Koranna. There is some confirmation of the latter version in the fact that the first diggers gathered on the Vaal about Pniel and Klipdrift. This stone, wherever found, may have been the first diamond recognized in South Africa, though earlier discoveries have been claimed by travelers through that country, one of them certainly from the United States, who said that he picked up a stone in the neighborhood of the Orange river in 1859, which was afterwards pronounced to be a diamond by several persons competent to pass judgment. It is probable that diamonds had been found there at various times without attracting much attention, or awakening sufficient interest to induce anyone to search for them through the barren wilds of that sparsely settled country. When Opportunity stares one in the face she is seldom recognized. The outcrop of a ledge of ore which afterwards became a famous mine in these States, served for years as a doorstep for a native, until a passing stranger saw the possibility and got out the fortune which lay under it.
Van Niekirk’s offer to buy the stone is also suggestive. A Boer does not often offer money for a thing unless it is worth money. His consultation with his friend, and the sending of it to an expert, indicates that he had heard of diamonds in that section.
Whenever the first stone was found and by whomsoever, the notoriety gained by that exhibited at the Paris Exhibition, turned the faces of adventurers toward the interior of South Africa and they began to drift that way.
This was in 1867. There was at that time a Moravian Mission at a place called Pniel on the southern banks of the Vaal river. On the opposite side was a settlement known as Klipdrift which has since become Barkly West. It was about these two places, but chiefly at Pniel, that the first diggers gathered. Most of them were from Cape Colony. A knowledge of things was disseminated more rapidly there, and the people were quicker to respond to an enterprise which took one from home, than the Boers.
Imagine the country. Far from civilization. A great plateau of warty kopjes among barren mountains; the wide stretches of stone and gravel, hidden in spots by a sparse vegetation of brush and grass. Here and there, many miles apart, Boer farm houses, or kraals of the natives. Wandering wide, sheep and cattle on occasional acres; the springbok and other wild game browsing unmindful over unmolested square miles. A borderland between a new Boer settlement and the roaming place of the mongrel Hottentot Griquas. For centuries, Kaffirs and Hottentots had wandered through it. The Boers had trekked it, the English following; both passing over land so poor and plenty that neither cared to take it from the natives who migrated there. Yet in the no-mans land which both left unconsidered when they drew their border lines, Nature had concealed treasures probably older than man and greater than he had yet conceived possible.
After the Dutch founded the Orange Free State, it became necessary to make a landmark which should be a respected dividing line between them in their new settlement, and the English with their coast line to the south and a habit of extension into the indefinite in all directions. By the treaty of Alivai, signed in 1869, England pledged herself not to interfere with the territory north of the Orange river. But big wheels turn on small pivots. That African diamond had already started forces working which would not only modify the treaty of Alivai but impregnate Africa with the seed of Empire.
There is no evidence that the few persons living in that territory made any systematic search for the precious stones. It had not yet occurred to them that there were enough to make it worth while. Undoubtedly the eyes of some roved when they went about, and Van Niekirk and others doubtless were alert for more stones like that other, which the children or natives might possess, but it is evident that those who knew of the diamonds did not spread their knowledge, for at that time there were diamonds sticking in the walls of some of the Boer farm buildings not many miles from the Vaal, unrecognized. Neither were there many diggers from outside.
But in 1869 came a confirmation of the existence of diamonds in that locality, which created excitement. A diamond weighing over eighty carats was picked up by a native. It has since been named the ” Star of South Africa.” As soon as this find was noised abroad, ad-venturers flocked to the Vaal. The New York Herald in September, 1870, published an extract from the Grahamstown (Cape of Good Hope) Journal, of August 12th which said, ” Every town and district in the Colony has sent its contingent to the army of workers at the Vaal fields. In May there were about one hundred men at the diggings. Before the end of June there were seven hundred, at the close of July there were over one thousand, and at present it is estimated that there are at the Klipdrift, Pniel, Hebron and Kuskamana Fields no less than two thousand men.” As soon as the news was published in London and New York, men began to flock from England and this continent to the magic of ” diamonds.” Naturally much the larger number were from the colony’s mother country. By April of 1871 there were about five thousand diggers scattered along the Vaal, Modder, and Orange rivers.
In these early days of the diggings, the men who gathered there were an orderly class of people. The difficulties and hardships to be encountered in reaching the fields, deterred the idle and worthless; the cost of the journey was a barrier to the impoverished, and there was not yet sufficient success to tempt the criminal and vicious. The country was outside the bounds of established law and government. Beyond the Cape Colony’s jurisdiction, and supposedly within the undefined western territory of the Orange Free State, it lay really in the land of the Griqua chief Waterboer, over whom the British Government exercised some kind of protectorate. Until the arrival of the diggers, the entire country round about for many miles, was practically uninhabited. The miners therefore were a law unto themselves. When a number gathered at any particular locality, their usual method of procedure was to appoint from their number a committee of three or five, who under certain by-laws, rules, and regulations agreed upon, were empowered to grant licenses to diggers, preserve order, and punish offenses. These men received a small fee for the performance of their duties, and their authority was generally respected and sustained. Punishments were quite primitive; there were no jails. Natives were whipped for stealing. White men were put over the river, and occasionally got several duckings on the way. The license varied in the different localities, ranging from 2S. 6d. to ten shillings per month. The claims were thirty feet by thirty feet, a measurement which was maintained in all the fields later, when they had grown very considerably in importance. To prevent an idle speculation in claims the owner was obliged to work his claim continuously. If he failed to pick it at least once in three days, another might jump it and acquire ownership.
When the Free State government found that the business of digging for diamonds was assuming a degree of importance, it sent on magistrates and officers to impose and collect taxes on the miners and shopkeepers, but these refused to pay them until the question of jurisdiction was decided. The Cape Colony was appealed to, and Sir Henry Barkly, the governor, in the early part of March, 1871, visited the diggings and the President of the Free State, to endeavor to arrange matters between the miners, the Free State, and the natives who claimed that the territory was not in the Free State limits.
At Cawoods Hope, a settlement on the river, twelve miles from Pniel as the crow flies, the Free State had gathered a commando to enforce their demands. The diggers at once organized themselves into a military body and prepared to make a vigorous resistance. The Boer commando, however, kept within the territory they occupied. The contending parties finally agreed to submit the matter to a commission, and the English flag was hoisted at Kimberley, November 7, 1871. The commando of one thousand men was kept in the field until the arrival of the Cape Colony police, when upon demand of the governor, backed by his threat that he would not proceed with the arbitration otherwise, the president of the Free State dispersed them. Great Britain finally paid the Orange Free State 190,000 in 1877, in settlement of whatever rights that government may have had in the premises.
There had been another attempt to impose a tax upon the miners. This was for twenty-five per cent. of the value of the finds, and was made by the missionaries among the native tribes. This demand was also resisted and could not be enforced. In 1871, therefore, the territory west, from east of Platberg on the Vaal, to Ramah on the Orange river, passed under the jurisdiction and government of the Cape Colony.
By 1870 the Inland Transport Company ran an express wagon from Cape Town to Klipdrift once a week, carrying passengers for twelve pounds sterling each. The journey consumed from seven to ten days. The wagon and horses were carried by rail to Wellington. From there on, the journey was made by wagon, drawn sometimes by eight horses, two abreast, at others by ten mules, through Karoo Poort, an opening between two mountains leading to the Karoo Plains, a desolate stretch of forty miles enclosed on all sides by lofty mountains, and on over the Karoo to Beaufort West, Victoria West, Hopetown, across the Orange river and on to Pniel.
Although Port Elizabeth was nearer, the fields were much more difficult of access from there, as the only public means of conveyance was by ox-wagon, taking from thirty to sixty days to accomplish the journey.
The search for diamonds was carried on in primitive fashion. The newcomer might preempt a new claim by taking out a license, or jump an old one if the former owner had failed to pick it in three days according to rule, or he could buy one from the owner. At that time claims were sometimes sold for as much as one hundred pounds, but not often. The implements necessary were pick, shovel, rocker, or a couple of half barrels, and, if away from water, an ox or mule, and a cart. The latter could be hired by the day if the digger did not own them. Some provided these things at the coast towns and brought them along, but they could be obtained cheaper at the diggings. In the early days, before the finding of the ” Star of South Africa,” the departures were about as frequent as the arrivals. The funds of many of the diggers were exhausted before they found anything, consequently there were enough implements being sold at auction all the time to supply the new-comers. The rocker was a crude affair. A box about two and a half feet high, open at the top and one end, was put on rockers like a cradle. In this were set at intervals, two or three screens made of wire or perforated zinc; coarse, medium and fine; the coarse one on top. A piece of wood nailed perpendicularly to the closed end of the box served as a handle so that the digger could stand in front and rock it. The earth and gravel was shoveled into the top screen and one digger rocked while another poured in water. When the screens were full of stones, caught as the water washed the dirt through, they were taken out and the stones emptied onto a sorting table, where the digger with a piece of zinc several inches long and straight on one edge, scraped off the worthless stones, saving those of value. Generally the table was scraped clean. Some-times a new man would joyfully save some glittering pieces of rock crystal, to learn later from a more experienced neighbor that he had not yet caught the precious diamond. But men soon learned to know at sight the spot of light in the gravelly heap, which betrayed the gem, and the refuse would be scraped away with a rapidity that impressed a new man as improvident and reckless carelessness.
Some diggers used two tubs for washing. A barrel cut in twain served the purpose. The two halves were filled with water. A square sieve was filled with gravel and shaken in the first tub until the dirt and fine gravel was washed out. The stones were then rinsed in the second tub and emptied on the sorting table.
Claims on the river were easier to work because of the nearness of the water. If away from the river, the gravel had to be carted there, though some carried it in buckets or sacks. Either way, the work was hard, and many men who went there with visions of diamonds in every bucketful, tired of it, and left the fields without diamonds or money.
All about the river banks were gravelly shallows between kopjes twenty-five, fifty, and sometimes a hundred feet high, and scattered over all, big stones and bowlders, looking as if at some time the whole section had been under water. The dirt and gravel was picked and shoveled into heaps ready for washing, and sometimes a big stone was found while this was being done.
Notwithstanding the disappointments of many, diamonds were found constantly. Some were fortunate. One might pick and scoop the gravel for weeks and find none, or at best a few small ones. Another working near him might strike a pocketful of them. Occasion-ally the camp would be electrified by the find of one large enough to make a snug fortune for the lucky finder. Sometimes false reports of big finds were set in motion to prepare the way for the sale of a worthless claim for a price.
So the diggers worked and spread themselves over the country, some keeping close to the rivers, some led off by an unexpected find away from the shores, for diamonds were found at a distance of several miles from the river, left there as the diggers supposed, by waters that had since receded, or by rivers that had changed their channels. The work was hard and for the most part unprofitable; the fare coarse, and the climate somewhat trying. In the summer the thermometer would go to 115° in the shade. In winter there was freezing weather. Shelter was of the rough-est. The houses were built of packing boxes and pieces of tin. The pioneers carried with them small tents or ” bug-walks ” as they called them. Getting there, especially by the ox-wagon route, was the most tiresome part. Barnato said of his journey to Kimberley, that he paid a big price for the privilege of walking beside a wagon by day and sleeping under it at night. But work at the diggings was more dangerous. The hard work, poor shelter, almost entire lack of good drinking water, for the African rivers are all muddy, and there was no water at that time at the dry diggings, and the abundance of troublesome insects, made a combination t0 which many succumbed.
Meantime diggers were straggling among the kopjes to the South toward the Modder river. About half way between the Vaal and the Modder rivers, one of them discovered a number of small diamonds among a lot of stones the children of a farmer played with. This was in December, 187o, on the Vooruizigt farm. Diamonds had also been found among a lot of pebbles picked up on the Bultfontein farm. Immediately, the diggers began to swarm throughout that neighborhood, prospecting in every direction. They found a number of diamonds sticking in the walls of Farmer Van Wyk’s dwelling, which he had plastered with mud from a neighboring pond of his farm Du Toit’s Pan. This led to the discovery of the mine so named, which was the first of the four celebrated mines known later as the De Beers Consolidated Mines. The excitement grew, and the influx of men seeking for diamonds aroused the attention of the scattered Boer farmers, who found many of these people a dangerous nuisance. Diamonds were in the thoughts of every one. Even the Boer farmers grew observant. New discoveries would be followed by a ” rush ” of floating diggers. Disputes arose about claims and boundaries, which the men, upon whose lands the diggers swarmed, were unable to adjust or regulate. So troublesome were the newcomers, that the owners were glad to dispose of their land to escape the difficulties. English capital already had representatives upon the field. The Du Toit’s Pan was sold to an English Company for £2,600. The Bultfontein, south and a little west of the Du Toit’s Pan, was next discovered. Then the prospecting which had been going on since December, 1870, on the Vooruitzigt farm, resulted in the location of the Old De Beers mine, so named because the farm was owned by a Boer of that name. On July 21, 1871, the old De Beers New Rush on Colesburgh Kopje near by, discovered the last of the great quartette, and these New Rush Diggings as they were called, became the Kimberley mine, and as it proved, the richest mine of the four.
By this time it had come to the understanding of the miners, that these finds back from the rivers, were not occasional scatterings of a few diamonds in an alluvial deposit, but that there were large areas of diamond-bearing earth quite independent of the rivers, and out of the reach of the water-courses.
As the gravel was picked and sieved without the aid of water, they were called ” dry diggings.” In these places, the miners would handpick the earth they had shoveled, and sieve the balance dry in a square sieve with four handles requiring two men for the operation. The miners also learned that diamonds were always found in a certain kind of yellow earth that lay upon, or very near the surface, and which penetrated the earth to some distance, consequently wherever they found that yellow ground, mining claims were staked and worked over for the diamonds it always contained.
The number of these claims grew, and the number of those who worked them increased, and to them were added a motley collection of natives, until there was a horde of men of every kind and class, engaged in an occupation which stimulated greed, encouraged theft, and attracted rascality from all quarters. Soon, even the unruly found, that not only some kind of law, but a governmental power able to enforce it was necessary. But what government? The mines were in a no-man’s land. They were near the undoubted territory of the Orange Free State, but the English were on the spot, and English capital was being invested rapidly in the development of the mines, therefore England became interested. Under these circumstances the appropriation of the territory on the appeal of the miners and the Griqua chief, was but a natural evolution of conditions. It should be remembered also that at the time, neither miners nor capitalists had any idea of the vast reservoirs of diamondiferous earth which lay under what they all supposed were shallow alluvial deposits. Diamond-mining then, was not regarded as a permanent industry which would keep an army busy for many years, unearthing treasures buried so deep that the art and science of the old countries would be stimulated to furnish the necessary equipment. It was a feverish scramble to get quickly fortunes lying around loose, soon to be gathered up by the fortunate. It was the looting of a chest discovered by chance in an out-of-the-way room in a long-forgotten castle.
Whatever justice or injustice there was in the action of the British Government, the Cape Colony police brought order out of chaos, and under the hand of a strong government, the industry was rapidly developed to tremendous proportions.
As in the wet diggings, the claims at Du Toit’s Pan and Bultfontein were thirty by thirty English feet in extent. At the De Beers and Kimberley they were thirty by thirty feet Dutch measurement, which equaled about thirty-one by thirty-one English feet. To afford entrance and exit to the inner claims, the authorities, profiting by experience on the three other mines, required that a strip of earth running north and south, fifteen feet wide, be left between every second row, on the Kimberley, to be used as a roadway, thereby taking 7 1/2 feet from each claim. The dividing lines, being in earth which might carry anywhere a stone worth a for-tune, were a source of trouble. The claim owner sat at a stake in the roadway which marked the corner of his claim. Ropes and a pulley were attached to this by which the. earth was hauled up from the digging. As the workings went down, these roadways became dangerous walls and finally had to be taken down. A system of haulage from all parts of the mine by wire ropes and buckets to the reef was then adopted at all the mines, and they became pandemoniums of creaking cables and swaying buckets. This haulage system was in the hands of a mining board, who assessed the miners for the cost. In the early stages of the open workings the ” stuff ” was hand picked and sieved dry, but with depth, as the rock became harder, it was found necessary to pulverize and wash it, so that water and facilities for washing had to be provided. An 18-foot main was built to bring water from the Vaal river, and springs in the neighborhood were utilized. These conditions rapidly increased the cost of mining, and tended to eliminate the original digger. Mining was evolved out of digging, and the independent digger, doing much if not all of his own work, was replaced by the small mine owner who superintended the work of hired labor.
To fully understand the situation one must bear in mind always that these mines were squares of the earth lying in a crater enclosed by the reef, as the natural strata of rocks were termed. This reef walled the crater in all around. In the reef were no diamonds, but there were diamonds all through the earth which it en-closed, any pailful of which might contain one of great value, and the squares into which these enclosures were divided, were being dug out to various depths by different owners, so forming a vast hole in the ground, the bottom of which was a mass of deeper holes, hills, and terraces.
In 1876, Kimberley, now a city of thirty-five thou-sand souls, equipped with all the appliances of civilization, consisted of a few tin huts and Kaffir kraals. It had passed from the honest digger stage into a mining camp. Gambling places, saloons, and the usual dens of a mining camp abounded. In the motley crowd of white men and black men, were representatives of all conditions and races. Theft and illicit trading in diamonds was common. Rumor has since told of fortunes founded on the purchase of diamonds from thieving natives for small prices, by rascally whites who encouraged them to rob their employers. These blacks used every aperture of the body to conceal their spoils. It was a common practice to swallow them, until powerful drugs made that method of concealing them unpopular. White men often obtained from native women, for little or nothing, gems which they in turn had procured from the blacks working in the mines. It was a time of sordid avarice and unrecognized crime. Conditions assisted the criminals. The Orange Free State border was but a short distance off. There was no extradition law. The buyer of stolen diamonds had but to carry them across that line and the Cape Colony authorities were powerless.
This state of things continued until 1881, when the De Beers Company inaugurated a system to cope with it. Up to that time it was estimated that diamonds to the value of one million pounds sterling had been stolen annually. A law against illicit diamond-buying was passed which provided a penalty, on conviction, of eight to fifteen years hard labor on the breakwater at Cape Town. Rogues began to be more cautious. The clumsy ones were caught or driven out of business. Shrewd ones had to resort to extraordinary methods, and use great precaution. It is told of one, that he invited the chief of the detectives to join him in a shooting expedition. The detective carried his diamonds over the line for the man he was watching, concealed in cartridges with which his crafty host had provided him, and which he exchanged for others when the detective found they did not fit his gun. Though the I. D. B. act, as it was called (I. D. B. stands for Illicit Diamond Buying), materially reduced the illicit trading in diamonds, it did not stop it entirely. The natives, who were much more expert thieves than the whites, continued to make the attempt, and though they were often caught, frequently succeeded. White buyers were al-ways ready to take chances and buy. Men well acquainted with the fields, for a long time reckoned that fully five per cent of the diamonds found, passed out surreptitiously.
As the miners learned of the well-defined lateral limits to the yellow ground which only contained diamonds, and followed it down in the vertical dykes containing it, they began to encounter new difficulties which at the depth they were working, not only menaced their fortunes, but the lives of those working in the mines. The towering walls formed by the dividing roadways of the Kimberley were taken down and gone, but the reef of all the mines began to fall in on the adjoining claims. Men with good paying claims would wake to find that over-night, hundreds of tons of worthless rock and earth had fallen and covered them. Sometimes it covered the miners also. There were mud-rushes and underground currents of water which made havoc. The unfortunate who had insufficient capital to tide over the expense en-tailed, sometimes were obliged to sell out to men or companies waiting for such opportunities. Some did not have sufficient faith in the continuance of the diamond-bearing material. Not all made fortunes. The number of ownerships on the pipes became smaller; the necessity for united action became greater. Millions were spent in overcoming the difficulties encountered.
By this time, the volcanic origin of the pipes was generally understood, and the miners realized that larger and more expensive methods must be used, for the workings were nearly four hundred feet deep in places. Conditions were fast reaching a point where open-cut working would have to be abandoned. Before this time, a crisis had been reached in which the future of the industry and of the fortunes of those engaged in it were staked upon their judgment, for the end of the yellow ground which had been so prolific in diamonds came. There were generally about fifty or sixty feet of it, after which in some cases came a sort of transitional stratum of a rusty color, sixteen to twenty feet thick, before the ” blue,” which has been worked ever since, was reached. When the yellow ground came to an end, and the ” rusty ” earth or the first blue under it yielded few diamonds, many thought the end had come, and that the time had arrived to get out, sell out if possible, and seek new fields. Barnato used to tell of a man who had some good claims on the Kimberley, and who when he got through the yellow and saw the blue, allowed a friend to dump a lot of worthless yellow into his claims so as to cover the bottom. He then sold them for what he could get and cleared out. That man sold his claims for four hundred pounds because he thought the diamond mines were basins, into which the yellow diamond-bearing material had been somehow washed, and that the blue was bed rock. A little later he could not have bought back the claims for forty thousand pounds, for the belief of others that the diamonds came from below, and would also be found either in the blue or below it, had been established.
This idea that the blue was bed rock and that the end of the diamonds had been reached, together with the in-creasing water charges, caused many men to sell out. Some, if they could not find a purchaser, abandoned their claims lest the charges should eat up all they had previously made. The miners were forced to back their judgment of the mines with their fortunes. If, as was first thought, these mines were huge basins into which at some early period, a great mass of diamond-bearing earth was swept, and the blue ground was the bed rock, then to keep on working and pay the heavy charges being made, meant early ruin; if, on the other hand, the new theory, that the diamonds had been thrown up from the bowels of the earth, and that there were more in the blue or under it, was correct, then fortunes awaited those who held onto the mines. Some had faith and remained, acquiring all the properties they could of those who had no faith and left.
It was soon found that the blue ground was fully as rich in diamonds as the yellow, and was practically in-exhaustible. London and Paris heard of it. Tales of fabulous fortunes made in the diamond mines of Africa flew everywhere on the wings of rumor. Thousands itched for a share of the stream of wealth coming out of those ancient volcanoes. Men at the mines were not slow to recognize the opportunity. Here was a mine opening, richer than the mines they already owned; the mine of the stock market, in which the public would take the risks and the miner the lion’s share of the profits. Companies were floated, and the stock was greedily taken in the home countries. Barney Barnato floated his first company in 1881. He had saved about £3,000 and bought some claims in 1876 which paid him well. He bought others later and turned them into a company at £25,000 each. The company paid dividends of 9 per cent., quarterly. He claimed to have made £200,000 on the last six claims held by an individual in the Kimberley which he bought for £30,000 each.
The African mines were now on a very safe basis for the promoters. But with a supply of diamonds inexhaustible, a market for them at a price, two-thirds of which ought to be profit, and outside capital to risk in ambitious schemes for enlargement, the stock-company form of gambling, or swindling, had so taken hold of the fields, that many of the mines could not be made to pay the home investors any returns on their investment. It was an ideal time for the growth of millionaires, and they grew. A great many companies were formed on each of the chimneys. A few of them made money by selling out to the De Beers at the time of consolidation, but many of them never paid a dividend, and some of those that did, could only squeeze one out occasionally, by unusually good management. Though some claims had yielded enormous profits to the original diggers, and still did so for the companies into which they were floated, others could not be made to pay after they had been capitalized. Meantime Barnato and his friends spread their fingers over the Kimberley; Rhodes at the De Beers spread nets over the entire Kimberley field, and they bided.
The consolidation of the claims began with the exhaustion of the yellow ground. It was accelerated by the formation of companies, whose promoters often paid big prices for claims which they could turn in at a large profit. Then came the end of the open-cut working. They were all down about four hundred feet, the Bultfontein four hundred and sixty feet in places. The reef began to cave in to such an extent that further profitable working by that method was impossible, and underground working conducted by different interests on the same pipe was impractical. It had been tried on both the De Beers and Kimberley, and was not a success. On the De Beers Mine, the De Beers Company, the Victoria, the Oriental, the Gem, and others tried it, and as Barnato stated at the first annual meeting of the De Beers Consolidated Mines Company, ” one company worked against another. If one company was on the 500 foot level and another on the 450 foot level, the opposing companies could eat into each other’s boundary walls and pillars to such a dangerous extent that the entire mine was in a condition which threatened collapse at any moment.” The same thing happened on the Kimberley mine, between the Central, the French, and the Standard. Consolidation became an absolute necessity for the salvation of the mines. It was doubted if the Dutoitspan and Bultfontein could be made to pay even then by the underground system, as their diamonds at that time were fetching only 6s. to 7s. per load, and the cost of the underground work on the Kimberley and De Beers was then 10s. per load. The policy of Rhodes, therefore, to force an amalgamation of all the mines, and thereby reduce the cost of production by united action, and by control of the diamond output of the world practically, to be able to increase at will the price of their product, under the conditions which existed, changed a threatened collapse into one of the most stupendous successes of the age.
When the amalgamation was finally consummated, the De Beers Consolidated owned the Kimberley, De Beers, Bultfontein, and three-quarters of the Dutoitspan, and of the £200,000 the company paid for leases to other companies, most of it came back, because it owned most of the stock of the properties leased. From 1889, there-fore, the De Beers Consolidated Mines Company con-trolled the diamond industry of the world. It had an in-exhaustible supply from which the management could draw whatever quantity it desired, and so placed that it could tell beforehand exactly how much they would cost, and the output was very nearly the world’s supply.
Other mines were discovered from time to time, but few of them were sufficiently important to affect the market. If a producer of size appeared, the De Beers were able by purchase of the stock of the company or other methods, to control the output. In 1891, a mine was discovered one mile east of the Dutoitspan on the farm of Mr. J. J. Wessels in the Orange Free State, which proved important. It was at first called the Premier, but later was known as the Wesselton. This mine has never yielded as large a percentage of diamonds to the load as the Kimberley and the De Beers, but the quality is exceptionally fine. It was also brought under the control of the Consolidation and with the Jagersfontein has supplied a majority of the fine white goods of size.
In order to control more perfectly the selling as well as the producing end of the industry, and incidentally to add to the profits they already enjoyed as the largest stockholders in the mines, the De Beers management created out of their number principally, another body known as ” The Diamond Syndicate,” whose business it was to take over the output of the mines under contract, and market the diamonds. Having control of the diamond output of the world, the next step was to get as much for the diamonds as the world would pay, and it was decided that a company of men, in close touch and largely interested in the mines on the one hand, and equally familiar with the trade on the other, would be better able, by advising the mines what their output should be, to keep the market supplied at advancing prices without endangering the advance by a glut, than the mines could do it by continuing to sell direct at Kimberley. The plan was carried out with remarkable shrewdness and foresight. The contracts with the mines permitted such large dividends to the stockholders that the terms of the contract between the mines and the syndicate were not questioned, and the stockholders were satisfied to receive whatever information the management were willing to give them. The trade and the public were so well manipulated by the syndicate, that every raise in the price of the rough was accepted as the fiat of an irresponsible and supreme authority. Until the beginning of 1908 this syndicate governed the diamond industry of the world, not only fixing the price which buyers should pay, but the quantities they must buy in a parcel. So absolutely did they control the situation that a ” sight,” as an opportunity to look at the parcels of rough from Africa was termed, came to be regarded as a favor, and buyers almost begged for a chance to buy at the sellers’ price and terms. Single purchases must be to the amount of not less than ten thousand pounds, and the terms were simply ” cash.”
This condition will probably never exist again. There are now many diamond mines in South Africa, and though comparatively few are of sufficient importance to affect singly the decrees of the syndicate, their present output in the aggregate is sufficiently large, and it can be made much larger. Some of them do not pro-duce enough to pay the cost of working; others yield some return on the investment, though the output is too small to make them of material influence as factors in the industry, but some of the new mines are greater than any heretofore discovered, and reports indicate that more of the same character will be opened up in other fields in the near future.
As separate chapters will be devoted to the leading mines, only a review of them as contributory elements of the African fields will be made in this, to give an idea of the extent of the African fields in the past and their condition at the present time. As heretofore explained the term ” dry diggings ” includes all mines in the volcanic pipes or chimneys, though the diamondiferous earth of the dry diggings is now washed much more thoroughly and systematically than that of the wet diggings,” which term is used to designate diggings in alluvial deposits.
These vertical dykes of diamondiferous material are peculiar to Africa and have revolutionized diamond-mining. Prior to their discovery, diamond-mining was an uncertainty in Africa, as in all other countries where diamonds are found. Diamond-mining was like searching for Indian arrowheads in ploughed fields that were once the camping grounds of the Indians, but with the discovery of the diamond pipes, it became a known quantity, requiring the ablest financiering, the greatest skill in business and science, but abundantly sufficient to pay for the best, and leave an enormous margin of profit. One could reckon for a thousand feet down in the earth, how many loads of material there were in the chimney and how many carats of diamonds in the loads. The cost of mining and washing was known to the fraction of a penny, and the stones were contracted for at a fixed price long before they were dug out of the bowels of the earth. It was no longer an occasional find, but the exact quantity of a known average. It took some years, however, to find this out.
The size and outline of the various pipes differ greatly. The Premier of the Transvaal is nearly eighty acres in extent; some are quite small. The size of the Kimberley mines, when in the early days they were all staked out in claims, was reckoned by the number of claims. There were 470 in the Kimberley; 622 in the De Beers; 1,067 in the Bultfontein and 1,441 in the Dutoitspan. A rule in force in the Kimberley mines in the early days, similar to one adopted at the wet diggings, required the digger to work his claim uninterruptedly. If he failed to do so in eight days, the claim could be jumped. This was enforced for about two years. Before the process of amalgamation set in, there was a period during which the tendency was quite the reverse. Owners of claims sold parts of them, and there were many owners of halves, quarters, and down to one-sixteenth of a full claim. In 1874 there were about 1,600 owners on the Kimberley. From its discovery it had a stronger attraction for the diggers than either of the other mines.
Although the crude methods in use during the early days allowed many stones of fair size and nearly all the very small ones, to escape with the tailings, enormous profits were made out of some of the claims. Barnato claimed that he made £i,800 per week out of the claims he owned in the Kimberley in the seventies.