The year 1866 marked a phenomenal turning point in the history of South Africa, for it was during that year that the first diamond, the famous 21¼-ct Eureka diamond, was discovered in the vicinity of the Orange river.
At the time of the discovery, South Africa was an economic backwater with severely limited economic growth prospects.
The economy of the region was essentially agricultural, with sheep and sugar farming representing the two strongest sectors of the economy.
Moreover, South Africa was not a country; it was a number of miscellaneous territories, a ramshackle collection of polities, a congeries of peoples, united by little more than poverty.
It was a land without millions and certainly without millionaires and, in 1866, no one dreamed of making a future or fortunes in that faraway and empty land.
However, the dreary fate of the country and of its people was changed in 1866 with the discovery of a 21¼-ct diamond close to the banks of the Orange river.
According to historical records, the Eureka diamond was discovered by a young boy, Erasmus Stephanus Jacobs, on his father’s farm, De Kalk, located north-east of Hopetown, on the fringe of the Cape Colony.
The stone remained “undiscovered” for some time and was used as a mere plaything for the children on the farm.
No one in the farmer’s home took it to be anything more than an attractive rock, and it was not until a neighbour- ing farmer, Schalk van Niekerk, who had a smattering of geological knowledge, noticed the stone while visiting the Jacobs’ farmhouse.
Whilst Van Niekerk did not imagine it could be a diamond, he thought it interesting enough to offer to buy the Eureka from the children. However, Mevrou Jacobs refused to accept any payment and simply gave the stone to her neighbour.
A few months later, Van Niekerk passed the stone on to his friend John Robert O’Reilly who determined that it had to be a diamond.
In an attempt to verify his hunch, O’Reilly sent the stone to Dr William Guybon Atherstone, in Grahamstown, the nearest geologist in a two-hundredmile radius.
Atherstone tested the stone and declared it, in no uncertain terms, to be a diamond weighing 21¼ ct and hazarded a price of £500.
The stone was then sold to Sir Philip Wodehouse, governor of the Cape Colony, for £500, with O’Reilly and Van Niekerk sharing the proceeds.
While an agreement had been made that Van Niekerk would give some of his share to the Jacobs family, it seems, sadly enough, they never received a penny for their great discovery.
Sir Phillip felt that Queen Victoria should be given the opportunity of inspecting the diamond first-hand so the Eureka was sent on a long journey to Windsor.
At the same time, a replica of the diamond was sent to be exhibited at the Cape Colony’s stand at the 1867 Paris Exhibition.
The diamond attracted considerable attention, but only as a freak.
It occurred to no one that the discovery of the beautiful blue-white gem heralded the emergence of more, let alone the eruption of shoals of diamonds, which were going to make a cluster of millionaires, a pack of bankrupts and a colossal industry!
That same year, Sir Robert Murchison, of the Museum of Practical Geology, in London, said that he would stake his reputation that not so much as a matrix of diamonds existed in South Africa.
The next year Professor James Gregory, of London Univer-sity, visited areas where diamonds were said to be found, but “saw no indication that would suggest the finding of diamonds or diamond-bearing deposits in any of these localities”. “The geological character of that part of the country renders it impossible . . . that any diamonds could have been discovered there.”
Indeed, for a couple of years, South Africans were unsure whether their land held a treasure trove. In fact, many did not believe that there were untold riches beneath the dusty plains of South Africa’s interior.
But local farmers around Hopetown and along the Orange river kept a sharp lookout for diamonds nonetheless.
A few insignificant stones were picked up to the north, along the Vaal river, and groups of farmers rushed down to its banks to grovel through them for any bright stones. A few had sold their land to finance prospecting, but only a handful of stones emerged.
Money was short, prospects were low, and, after a year, interest in diamonds waned.
It would only be in 1869, after the discovery of the famous 83½-ct Star of South Africa, that the diamond rush would be ignited and the fortunes of the country and its people irrevocably transformed.
History of the Eureka Diamond
In 1870, Sir Philip returned to England, and there the Eureka was to remain for almost 100 years.
It was cut down to 10¾ ct and, over the course of almost a century, changed hands a number of times.
In 1946, the Times reported that £5 700 had been paid at a Christie’s public auction for a diamond bangle of 20 large stones with the Eureka as its centre piece.
It remained in a private collection until, in 1967, exactly 100 years after its discovery, De Beers bought the Eureka, gifting it to the people of South Africa.
The Eureka was placed on permanent loan by the South African government at the Big Hole Museum, in Kimberley.