The discovery of diamonds in South Africa in 1869 transformed a poor colony into a dazzlingly rich one, revived the simmering antagonism between Britain and the Boers. To the 15 year-old boy Erasmus Jacobs, the glittering stone that caught his eye as he strolled along the bank of the Orange River one day in 1866 was no more than a ‘mooi klip’ - a pretty pebble.
Erasmus pocketed the pebble and when he got back to de Kalk, his father’s farm near Hope Town in the north of Cape Colony, he gave the bauble to his little sister to add to the collection she used, to play a child's game. A few weeks later the Jacobs children were playing with the stones when Schalk van Niekerk, a local divisional councillor, came by. The bright pebble caught his eye and, perhaps suspecting it might be a diamond, he asked if he might keep it. Shortly afterwards he showed it to a passing pedlar, John O’Reilly, who also guessed it might be a diamond because he could scratch his name on glass with it. He offered van Niekerk a few pounds for it, and dispatched it by ordinary mail to the government mineralogist, Dr. Guybon Atherstone, at Grahamstown. Dr. Atherstone promptly replied “it has blunted even jeweller’s files here”. Indeed it was a diamond of 21.5 carats . The diamond was sent to Cape Town, where Sir Philip Woodhouse, the Governor of Cape Colony, bought it for £500, and arranged for it to be displayed at the Paris Exhibition of 1867 - a tantalizing foretaste of the riches that would transform South Africa from a poor neglected colony into one of the richest prizes in the British Empire.
Previously Cape Colony together with the other British colony of Natal, and the two Boer republics of Orange Free State and Transvaal, had been the homes of only a handful of British and Boer farmers who eked out an existence. The Cape had a deficit of approaching £1 million and precious little industry that might help reduce it.
The discover y of diamonds just at that moment suddenly changed the colony from a liability to a brilliant asset. The essential incentive to modernize transport and communications, thus opening up the whole of southern Africa for development, had been found.
Surprisingly this first, South African diamond aroused little excitement. A London firm did dispatch a geologist to the Orange River, but he reported that there was no sign of diamond-producing gravel and concluded, curiously, that the diamond must have arrived at the Orange River in the crop of an ostrich.. The ostrich theory was soon shot down; in 1869, the now alerted Shalk van Niekerk, came upon another diamond that had been found by a shepherd boy of the Griqua tribe, a people of mixed native and Boer ancestry on a farm near the Orange River.
The World Wakes-Up to the Potentials in South Africa
The new find was a superb white diamond of 85 carats, which was eventually sold to the Earl of Dudley for £25,000. In Cape Town, the Colonial Secretary, Sir Richard Southey, proudly laid it on the table before the Cape Parliament, declaring, “Gentlemen, this is the rock on which the future of South Africa will be built”. The diamond was appropriately named “Star of South Africa”.
Suddenly the whole of Cape Colony was talking about diamonds for others were swiftly found, not only along the Orange River, but in even greater profusion by the Vaal River a little further to the north. The new discoveries were just within the borders of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, which had been created an independent state after the Great Trek of 1834. Within weeks everyone seemed headed for the fields, with highly romantic notions of what they would find
The rugged mining communities of a few hundred tents and corrugated iron huts were scorching dust bowls in summer and nasty frosty morasses of mud in winter. Food was high priced and diggers who were smitten with malaria had to nurse each other as best they could.
Buildings at Ground level =====>
One evening in July 1871 a young prospector named Fleetwood Rawsthorne packed his drunken native cook off to a moonlit hillock and ordered him to dig until he was sober. The man did more than clear his fuddled brain. He uncovered a diamond deposit that was to eclipse all others in South Africa: eventually it turned into the “Big Hole” at the Kimberley Mine. Matching greed with technical ingenuity, diggers poured into the area and began to tear up the crumbly earth in a frenzied search for diamonds. Enterprising merchants rushed wagon loads of timber to Kimberley Mine to meet the diggers demands for wood, needed for the construction of pulley platforms and for props to support the sides of the diggings.
Soon a good claim could fetch anything up to £4000, but only the first arrivals were the first to scoop up easy fortunes just below the surface. Most diggers had to spade and pickaxe their way deep into the ground and hoist the soil up to native labourers who wheel barrowed it to the edge of the mine
A Honeycombed Crater
Towards the end of 1871 the Kimberley miners had dug down so far that they reached the end of the diamond-bearing yellow earth. They struck bedrock. Many thinking the boom was over, abandoned their claims, but a few sophisticated diggers reasoned that the diamond-bearing soil was volcanic and of deep subterranean origin. Resolutely they dug on and found to their delight not only was the rock soft but that it weathered into the crumbly yellow earth they had already encountered. Moreover this lower level was liberally strewn with rough diamonds. Immediately there was a new rush to the old diggings. As claims plunged deeper the mine took on the appearance of a giant adobe settlement under the web of steel cables
When operations began at the Big Hole, the diggers reached their claims simply by walking across rough ground. Then with pick and shovel they began to work. As the level of their diggings went lower and lower, it became necessary to construct inclined roadways over which the soil was carried in barrows.
The roadways soon became so steep that the task of bringing up the blue earth turned into a back-breaking job.
In time the ramps that linked the claims to the lip of the crater began to collapse with such frequency that another method had to be devised. It was then that the great web of steel cables was spun from the edge of the crater down to the claims. Along these strands, bucket-loads of earth were winched to a bank of platforms on the craters edge. A visitor to the mine in 1872 saw “thousands of half-naked men, dwarfed to pygmy size scratching the face of the pit with their puny picks like burrowing gnomes.
One of history’s weirdest migrations reached its climax in the winter of 1897-8. Gold had been discovered in the frozen wilderness of Canada’s far North-West.
There, to become rich, men had to suffer appallingly. In the rush to the goldfields clustered around the Klondike River, 100,000 “tenderfeet” from all over the world set out with ideas of an after-lunch stroll and found themselves scaling glaciers in sub-zero temperatures. Twenty-two thousand suffered the agony of the Chillkoot Pass on the Canadian-American border (see below). To carry his supplies to the top, each man had to make the climb 30 to 40 times. This took three months - and then he had 600 miles still to go. Less than half the Klondikers ever arrived. Of those who did, half again were so demoralized that they took one look at Dawson, the gold-fields only town, turned round and started straight back home. By summer 1899 it was all over.
From that wild moment in July 1897, when two rusty steamers docked at Seattle and San Francisco with three tons of gold aboard, Klondike madness spread like an epidemic. Tram-drivers, clerks, lawyers, barbers, doctors and policemen threw up their jobs and spent their savings on tickets to the gold-fields. “Klondike or Bust” was their motto and, for most of them “Bust” it was.
By mid-winter, thousands were stranded al over north-west Canada and Alaska.
They lay shivering in Suckerville half way up the Yukon River or cutting off gangrenous toes with hacksaws on the Edmonton Trail. Many were already destitute, especially in the lawless Alaskan port of Skagaway. There Soapy Smith and his charged 5 dollars for telegrams “sent” along non-existent wires and squeezed the last dimes out of beaten men who had turned back from Dead Horse Trail, the grave of nearly 3,000 pack horses. So exhausting was this pass that, people swore, one demented animal committed suicide by jumping off a cliff.
The men mining at Klondike that winter of 1897-8 were old-timers, many of them veterans of the California Gold Rush of 1849. They had been filtering into the Yukon Valley since the 1880‘s and were quite a different breed form the ‘tenderfeet’ still struggling up the Chillkoot Pass. They were used to the hardship of a miners life.
At work outside they stooped double in their smoky mine-shafts like moles. Through the winter they burned their way into the frozen ground, lighting wood fires at night, digging out the thawed earth next morning, lighting new fires deeper down till they had burrowed to the “paystreak” where the gold lay between layers of gravel.
In the spring thaw, they built sluice-boxes, channeled streams through them and shoveled in the ‘paydirt’. The gravel was washed away, but the heavier gold was caught on cross-bars and matting in the bottom, gleaming alluringly.
In the perpetual twilight of the of a sub-arctic winter, smoke rose vertically into the anaesthetizing air , forming a grey shroud over their dingy, smelly little huts. Though rich in gold, these men were cut off from civilization and supplies and lived like animals in semi-hibernation, crouching by the stoves where they cooked a monotonous diet of bacon beans and tea
When the ice thawed in May 1898, Dawson was still a half-starved camp. But now the Yukon River was flowing again, a human torrent of Klondikers poured in, their home-made boats laden with supplies. One man had brought live chickens over the Chillkoot Pass and a crowd of miners gathered to watch the first egg of the year laid. It sold for $5. By August Dawson had become a city of 18,000 inhabitants, four-fifths Americans.
Swaggering Bawdy Dawson City
It was a city with a Wild-West swagger, with bawdy dance-hall turns and wild gambling. But there were no gunfights, for the Canadian Mounties kept order with admirable firmness. While it lasted it was a glorious carnival, but by the summer of 1899, with the last weary Klondikers still arriving, it was nearly over. Gold had been discovered in Alaska, a new rush had begun and the music stopped in the ghostly dance-halls of Dawson!
Most diggers had little notion of what a rough diamond really looked like, even less, how to find one. They set up tents haphazardly and started groping round in the sand and gravel. First sifting through the gravel with simple sieves mounted on wooden rockers, they then spread the remaining pebbles on a bench and sorted through them with a scraper. For every tale of frustration, there was one of good luck. One young man was said to have found a diamond on the earth floor of a church when he knelt to pray. An English ‘gentleman’ having worked a claim for 6 months and found nothing, went home disgusted, giving away his claim. The man who got it, found on the same day a fine diamond of 29.5 carats before he had gone another 6 inches deeper than his predecessor.
The Kimberley Mine began to surrender its riches almost immediately. A Dutchman named Smuts who bought his claim for only £50 gathered £20,000 of diamonds in two months. Some men were even luckier. A few yards from the site of the original discovery a digger found a fine 175-carat diamond which he sold for £33,000.
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