delanceypl? 7/20/11 - the diamond rush

In today's excerpt - in 1870, with the discovery of diamonds in the British colony in South Africa, young Brits swarmed south to seek their fortunes. Among them was seventeen-year-old Cecil Rhodes, forgoing a life in the clergy, traveling to join his older brother Herbert. Rhodes, who would rise to dominate the diamond mines and build one of the world's great fortunes, showed immediate promise. Though his name is remembered through his Rhodes Scholarships and the nation that was once named Rhodesia, he left behind a legacy of corruption and the seeds of apartheid:

"An astute observer of trends, Cecil, still only seventeen years old, realized that the cotton boom was drawing to a close and decided to join [his brother] Herbert on his diamond claim in Colesberg Kopje, a region later renamed Kimberley, after the British secretary of state for the colonies. He set off on the 650-kilometre trek in October with high hopes, which were soon dashed. His pony died during the journey, and Cecil struggled on foot for the entire gruelling distance, plodding from dawn to dusk for about twenty kilometres a day under the crushing weight of his supplies. He arrived in November at the squalid sprawl of the new mining community, then on its way to becoming the second-largest settlement in southern Africa. For a youth used to the middle-class amenities of England, it must have been an eye-opening experience.

"Thousands of recent arrivals dwelt in the blasting heat without running water or sanitation. One traveller described 'dust so thick that the sufferer fears to remove it lest the raising of it may aggravate the evil, and of flies so numerous that one hardly dares to slaughter them by ordinary means lest their dead bodies should be noisome.' Hot winds swirled the dust into great clouds that covered everything so 'that it would seem that the solid surface of the earth had risen diluted into the air ... In Kimberley and its surrounding nothing was pretty.'

"The inhabitants, more than half of them black Africans, toiled in appalling conditions and were housed in corrugated iron sheds or dirty canvas tents that were crammed together in makeshift rows. The workers sustained themselves on rancid meat and butter and wilted vegetables, 'it is like an immense number of ant-heaps covered with black ants, as thick as can be,' Rhodes wrote in a letter to his mother; 'the latter represented by human beings; when you understand that there are about 600 claims on the kopje [small hill], and each claim is generally split into four, and on each bit there are about six blacks and whites working, it gives a total of about ten thousand working every day on a piece of ground 180 yards by 220.' ...

"Many of the assorted hangers-on were veterans of mining booms from around the world: tradesmen, vagabonds, shady merchants, cattle dealers, thieves, whores and gamblers. Meanwhile, most of the physical labour was done by thousands of transient Bantu labourers who were earning money to buy cattle or wives or guns before returning to their homelands. Drunkenness and gambling were the chief pastimes in the rowdy community, but apparently it suited Rhodes. He settled in, assumed responsibility for one of his brother's three claims and got to work. Soon his ne'er-do-well brother was off again, back to the cotton farm, apparently uninterested in the tedium and drudgery of life at the mines, leaving the now eightcen-year-old Cecil in charge. The younger brother prospered, digging his pit ever deeper and sifting though the dirt to gain about a hundred pounds of diamonds each week.

"When Herbert returned [after a trip to sell his unsuccessful cotton farm], ... he was astounded at Cecil's progress and at his force of will. Even when he was in a violent dispute with a much older prospector whose claim encroached on his a little, Cecil showed no signs of backing down. He had learned how to hire and fire workers, grade the diamonds, haul the 'pay dirt,' fend off interlopers and deal with unscrupulous diamond brokers. 'Cecil seems to have done wonderfully well as regards the diamonds,' Herbert reported home."


Stephen R. Bown


Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600-1900


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2009 by Stephen R. Bown


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