The plethora of literature relating to South Africa’s mining history is dominated by countless biographies of the country’s great mining magnates.
Indeed, the lives of the magnates are some of the most fascinating aspects of South African mining historiography.
Perhaps, the most interesting of all are the biographies of the early diamond magnates, the men who pioneered the formation of a large-scale, highly profitable diamond-mining industry and, more importantly, shaped the very foundations of mining capitalism.
Among the first of these pioneering mining capitalists to achieve fortune and fame, albeit of a somewhat notorious nature, was Sir Joseph Benjamin Robinson.
He stands out as the only South African-born magnate to establish his career and initial fortune on diamond- mining in the 1870s and early 1880s, all other magnates being of European origin.
Robinson was born on a farm near Cradock, in the Eastern Cape, in 1840 and was the fifteenth son of Robert and Martha Robinson, two of the original 1820 settlers.
When the Star of South Africa was discovered in 1867 JBR, as he was familiarly known, was a trader in his late twenties living in Bethulie, in the Orange Free State.
Like many other young South African men, Robinson was touched by the diamond fever and was one of the very first to rush to the new river diggings.
He established his diggings on the banks of the Vaal adjacent to what would become the mining camp of Hebron.
It was not long before Robinson began to find diamonds in significant quantities. Within the first six weeks, Robinson, with the assistance of a group of labourers brought from Bethulie, had found about 30 diamonds, worth £10,000.
Following the discovery of the immensely rich Kimberley mine, some twenty miles south of the river diggings, in July 1871, Robinson moved the centre of his operations to New Rush, the mining camp established on the edge of the new mine.
Interestingly, Robinson set himself up as a diamond buyer “prepared to give the highest prices”, rather than a digger in the new Kimberley mine.
From the very beginning, Robinson was a well-known figure in the mining camps that commanded respect and admiration, as well as fear and loathing.
Tall, with piercing blue eyes, he was renowned for his sour, tight-lipped expression and his habit of wearing a white pith helmet.
One contemporary of Robinson would remember him as a “robust, well-built man, alert, pugnacious, full of energy, with florid features, strong jaw and keen blue eyes, which pierced you like a diamond drill”
Another contemporary had a far less flattering opinion. The journalist and diamond buyer Louis Cohen would later recall: “Robinson was never a popular man with anybody in Kimberley; he had no personality, no magnetism, but resembled a mortal who had a tombstone on his soul. “As for charity, nobody ever connected his name with that, for he belonged to those kinds of folks who are ready enough to act the Samaritan if it costs them nothing.”
Despite this seeming unpopularity, Robinson experienced much success as a diamond buyer and was soon ranked as one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Kimberley, the only man to own a brink house and a private horse and carriage in the early 1870s.
While pursuing a career as a diamond buyer, Robinson also had strong political ambitions and was eventually appointed mayor of Kimberley in 1880 and was elected to the Cape Colonial Parliament as a representative of the mining town in 1881.
In 1876, he established him-self as one of the leading mining magnates by buying extensively into the richest areas of the Kimberley mine. He acquired interests in several mining ventures, but his principal vehicle was the Standard Diamond Mining Company, which gained control of substantial parts of the Kimberley mine in the late 1870s and was to become one of the leading diamond companies in Kimberley.
However, Robinson’s career as a diamond magnate would be short lived.
Continuous rock and reef falls in the Kimberley mine severely hampered his mining operations and, by the middle of the 1880s, he was near to financial disaster, although to outward appear-ances he was still one of the richest and most powerful magnates in Kimberley.
In order to pay his debts to the banks, he sold off shares in his diamond com-panies to other powerful magnates, men like Barney Barnato and Cecil John Rhodes, who would go on to completely monopolise the diamond-mining industry.
At the same time that Robinson was forced to sell out of the diamond mines, the Witwatersrand goldfield was discovered in 1886.
Owing to his lack of business and political commitments in Kimberley (having resigned his seat in Parliament in 1886), Robinson was left free to investigate the gold discovery rumour, much to the chagrin of magnates locked into the diamond mines.
While Robinson inevitably lost out in the race to consolidate and monopolise the diamond-mining industry, he was one of the first magnates to establish gold-mining operations on the Rand and it would be on that goldfield, that the Buccaneer would make his fortune.
•For further reading on the life of Joseph Robinson see: Leo Weinthal, Men, Mines and Millions and Jeremy Lawrence, Buccaneer: A Biography of Sir Joseph Benjamin Robinson