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Columnist: Digging Deep

Davenport is a freelance journalist and mining historian -


A question of sovereignty over South Africa’s earliest diamond diggings
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28th May 2010
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In 1870, some 10 000 hopeful Boer, British, American, Australian and European prospectors rushed to South Africa’s Vaal river, intent on making their fortunes from diamonds.

This rush of diggers to South Africa’s hinterland was a response to the discovery of alluvial diamonds along the banks of the Vaal and Orange rivers in 1869 and the sale of the famous 83½-ct Star of South Africa diamond.

A significant distinguishing feature of this fledgling diamond rush was that the area along the banks of the Vaal, which was frantically rushed by diamond prospectors, was disputed territory.

The river diggings and adjacent farms were located on land that had been contested by local African chiefdoms, Griquas who inhabited the present-day Northern Cape area) and Transvaal and Free State burghers since the 1850s.

Owing to the fact that no authority held definitive claim or sovereignty over the area, possession of the farms and river claims rested on a mixture of titles issued by Griqua chiefs and the government of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (Transvaal).

For these titles, there was no clear definition of the subsoil rights for owners, contending governments or the diggers who occupied the areas as a result of negotiations and assault in strength.

It is interesting to note that Joseph B Robinson, one of South Africa’s foremost mining magnates and one of the very first diamond prospectors to arrive on the banks of the Vaal river, secured his own river claim titles from local Griqua chiefs and bought farms adjacent to the river from Boers under the administration of the South African Republic.

The discovery of large numbers of diamonds along the banks of the Vaal river, as well as the revenue associated with administering the diggings, was a significant inducement for the South African Republic, the Orange Free State and the Griqua people to assert their authority over the territory.

The first of these territories that attempted to assert authority, at least over part of the burgeoning river diggings, was the South African Republic.

Towards the end of 1870, the Republic’s President, Marthinus Wessels Pretorius, issued a proclamation asserting its authority over the diamond area between the Vaal and the Harts rivers, incorporating the mining village of Klipdrift, and appointed a magistrate to administer the area.

At first, Pretorius adopted a policy of moderation and granted the diggers a measure of local authority.

Unfortunately, in an attempt to derive some financial benefit from the river diggings, Pretorius granted the firm of AJ Munich, JM Posno and HB Webb exclusive authority to search for diamonds on the north bank of the Vaal river for 21 years.

Such blatant monopoly did much to destroy the authority of the republic and resulted in a mass revolt by the thousands of diggers who had been excluded from the deal.

The riotous diggers subsequently declared the territory on the north bank of the Vaal an independent Diggers’ Republic.

Following the establishment of that Diggers’ Republic, President Stafford Parker lost no time in imposing rules and regulations to govern the alluvial diamond diggings.

The presence of the old diggers from the alluvial goldfields of California and Australia was of considerable significance in the formulation of the first regulations.

The diggers brought with them certain ideas and recollections of diggers’ law prevailing in the earlier days of gold seeking in America and Australia, and many of these practices and traditions were readily adopted by the community on the Vaal.

To these veteran diggers was owed the limit of the size of claim, the prejudice against monopoly of claims, the confiscation of nonworking claims, and the promotion of the rights of the miner above those of the rest of the community.

Thus, the fundamental clauses which governed the initial diamond-mining industry were based on established laws and practices that had governed the distant goldfields of California and Australia.

The main clauses of these rules, drawn up in 1870, stipulated that no person was to have more than one claim so that the thousands of diggers could each own a claim, that the size of the claim was to be limited to 20 ft2 and that no person was to employ more than five labourers.

Most notably, these rules included a ‘jumping’, or confiscation, clause for the nonworking of claims, a concept that had been practised on the goldfields of California. Essentially, this clause stated that no person was to be absent from his claim for more than three working days – such absence could lead to the forfeiture of the claim.

Although the Diggers’ Republic was able to retain its independence for only a few months before capitulating to Pretorius’s authority, the diggers were successful in establishing and retaining rules and regulations for the alluvial diamond-mining industry, the effects of which would continue to resonate throughout the mining industry for the next decade.

While the Transvaal won the initial battle to keep control of the river diggings, a greater struggle for sovereignty over the area that would become Griquland West, involving the Transvaal, the Orange Free State, the Cape Colony and the British government, would erupt a few months later, when South Africa’s four greatest and most famous diamond pipes were discovered some miles south of the Vaal river.

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu


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