Cape Town - Diamonds

History of Diamonds
Cape Town - South Africa

Diamond necklace

Diamond necklace manufactured in Cape Town

Way back in 1867 an event which was described as an accident happened and would change the course of history in South Africa. The accident was the discovery of the first diamond on South African soil.

Jacob's a Dutch farmer who lived on the northern outskirts of the Cape Colony had a friend named van Niekerk visit him one day. While with the family, van Niekerk noticed that one of Jacob's children was playing with a stone that was brighter and heavier than other stones. Thinking that the stone might be valuable he offered to buy it from Jacob's son the 15-year-old Erasmus Jacobs, but Jacob's wife would not sell the insignificant stone, instead she gave it to van Niekerk as a gift. Van Niekerk passed it onto a man named O Reilly who thought that the stone might be a diamond.

To get confirmation he took the stone to Cape Town but no one could say for sure if it was one or not. O'Reilly was not one to give up easily so he left Cape Town for Colesberg in the northern Cape Province where he showed the stone to a number of people non of whom were prepared to call the stone a diamond. Eventually after being the laughing stock of his acquaintances he decided to send the stone to a Dr. Atherstone, of Grahamstown, who was known to be a geologist and a man of science. After examining the stone he declared it to be a diamond weighing 21 carats.

The Governor of the Cape at that time, Sir P. Wodehouse, offered to purchase the diamond and it was sold to him for £ 500. Van Niekerk hearing that the stone he had got from Jacobs was a diamond immediately set about finding more.

Then in 1869 he heard that a black man had a large diamond so he went looking for him and when he found him purchased the stone, giving the man all his sheep and horses in payment. Once van Niekerk had the diamond he visited local diamond merchants and traded the 83 carat stone for £11,200.. This diamond became known as the “Star of Africa.”

The discovery of diamonds in the Cape Colony slowly filtered out to the rest of the world but it was not until 1870 that anybody actually believed that a new diamond field had been discovered. Up till this time the main diamond producing countries were India and Brazil.

The first diamonds discovered in South Africa were found along the banks of the Orange River. Shortly afterwards people started finding diamonds away from the rivers firstly at the Du Toit's Pan and then at Bultfontein.

In September 1872, the territory of Griqualand West became a British Colony, and when diamonds were discovered at the Colesberg Koppie the “New Rush” began. Soon there was an influx of people to the area and the Kimberley mine was started. Prospectors received a 31-foot-square claim where they could dig for diamonds. Soon the area being mined was twelve acres in extent with diamond claims covering nine acres.

Diamond earing Diamond ring

Diamond jewellery manufactured in Cape Town

In this area there were three to four thousand people working as they dug down into the earth. Being an open pit mine it was remarkable to look down into the mine and see all the people working in it and not being controlled by a dirctor of operations. The Colesberg Koppie soon disappeared and became a large bowl 230 feet deep and, nearly circular with a diameter of about 300 yards. The mine soon became the centre of the growing town of Kimberley.

The discovery of diamonds in Kimberley caught the attention of Cecil John Rhodes and his brother who moved to the diamond fields hoping to make their fortune. Rhodes who was an astute businessman soon found his niche in buying up claims of struggling miners who could no longer afford to keep their mines and in so doing made himself a fortune. He had a rival in Barney Barnato and as things became tougher for Rhodes he insisted that he and Barnato should merge their interests to better control the Kimberley mine.

In 1888 Barnato agreed and the de Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd were born. Rhodes now had the diamond industry at his mercy and by 1889 had broken the back of competing companies and was in firm control of diamond mining in South Africa. Unfortunately for Rhodes the discovery of diamonds in Namibia and in Pretoria broke his hold over the diamond industry.

His chief rival Ernest Oppenheimer a german immigrant founded the company Consolidated Diamond Mines in 1919 and soon became the leader in the diamond mining industry. In 1929 Oppenheimer became president of the de Beers group and merged the two companies in a cartel Rhodes having died in 1902.

Today the diamond industry in South Africa is still controlled by the Anglo American Company and the Oppenheimers still play a major role in the diamond industry exporting diamonds to all parts of the world. For those who are interested in the old diamond mine, the “Kimberley Big Hole” as it is known today has become a tourist attraction. One can peer over the edge and marvel at how three thousand men managed to dig such a large hole by hand. Although uncut diamonds and the diamond fields are strictly controlled the sale of cut diamonds is allowed.

Diamond merchants and jewellers can be found in all the large cities of South Africa and visitors have a large selection of diamonds to choose from.

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