At first glance, the centenary of the Lusitania disaster, in which 1 195 of 1 959 passengers drowned when the cruiseliner was torpedoed by a German U-boat 11 miles off the Irish coast on May 7, 1915, would appear to have nothing to do with the history of South Africa’s mining industry. However, the hostile, unwarranted attack on the civilian-carrying vessel had a tremendous impact on the trajectory of the career and life of a man who would become South Africa’s most powerful mining magnate, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer.
By the time the Great War erupted in Europe in August 1914, German-born Oppenheimer had already been living in South Africa for 12 years. He had arrived in Kimberley in 1902, shortly after the signing of the Peace of Vereeniging, as a representative of diamond firm and Diamond Syndicate member Dunkelsbuhler. As the firm’s representative, Oppenheimer was in charge of sorting the percentage of stones given to the company by De Beers in accordance with the syndicate agreement and dispatching diamond parcels to Dunkelsbuhler’s London clearing house. However, the syndicate’s operations were run to a formula, which left Oppenheimer with little more to deal with other than administrative responsibilities.
Within a few years of his arrival, however, Oppenheimer found an outlet for that spare time by entering the realm of town council politics. The catalyst for such a decision was the 1907/8 economic recession. Such was the severity of the recession and the consequent drastic fall in the price of diamonds that De Beers was forced to close two mines and retrench hundreds of miners, which inevitably led to widespread poverty and hardship among Kimberley’s residents. Both Oppenheimer and his wife, May, were so moved by the residents’ distress that they became heavily involved in relief work by organising soup kitchens for the unemployed. It is said it was that experience of a Kimberley slump that influenced Oppenheimer to enter public life. And so, in 1908, Oppenheimer stood for election and, like so many magnates before him, became a Kimberley town councillor.
Oppenheimer’s most notable achievement as a town councillor was the amalgamation of the municipalities of Beaconsfield, which served the community around the Dutoitspan and Bultfontein mines, and Kimberley. It was because of his leadership in such a delicate matter that he was subsequently elected the first mayor of the new Kimberley municipality in 1912 for a three-year term of office.
It was towards the end of his second year as mayor that hostilities erupted in Europe. Despite being of German birth (but, it should be mentioned, he had taken up British citizenship while working in London in the closing years of the nineteenth century), Oppenheimer remained quite popular among Kimberley’s residents, at least for the first few months of the war. That all changed with the sinking of the Lusitania.
Inevitably, the attack on the civilian passenger liner caused considerable outrage and sparked waves of anti-German riots in cities throughout the US and the British Empire. (In fact, it was the outrage felt by Americans, justified on the basis that most of those killed in the disaster were fellow citizens, that helped create a climate of public opinion that would later allow the US to join the war effort.) South Africa, an allied country heavily involved in the war, was not immune from such outrage and, following the publication of news of the disaster, anti-German mobs went on the rampage in Johannesburg, Durban and Kimberley.
As soon as news of the Lusitania reached him, Oppenheimer anticipated trouble for himself and, thus, deemed it wise to resign his positions as mayor and city councillor. In a hastily convened meeting with his deputy mayor, Thomas Pratley, Oppenheimer explained that, based on the sheer horror of the tragedy, it would be perfectly understandable if feeling against anyone or anything remotely connected with Germany intensified and, all things considered, he should resign with immediate effect.
However, the gesture was not enough to quell the rage of Kimberley’s fervently patriotic residents. Riots erupted on the evening of May 8, when groups of hooligan agitators, riled up on drink and patriotic fervour, began smashing windows, looting and destroying the property of German-owned businesses in and around Market Square. The police stood by helpless, afraid for the most part to draw their batons.
When news of the rioting, coupled with the threat that his house would be burned to the ground, reached Oppenheimer, he evacuated his residence in Lodge road and took refuge with his family in a nearby house. However, the anticipated attack did not materialise as a cordon of police headed off the mob and drove them back to the centre of town. Rioting continued until the early hours when exhaustion, rather than force, finally dispersed the mob.
However, Oppenheimer, realising the eerie stillness hanging over Kimberley was a mere façade and that the rage was far from quelled, packed his family off to the safety of Cape Town, while he settled some pressing affairs. Unfortunately, while driving through the centre of town, he was spotted by a crowd of thugs who began to pelt his car with stones. The windscreen was smashed and Oppenheimer suffered a severe cut on his forehead. He managed to stagger from the car, but being pursued by the mob, he dashed into the nearest building, which, as fate would have it, happened to be a convent belonging to the Holy Family. The mob dared not violate such a sanctuary, which meant Oppenheimer was safe for the time being. The nuns dressed his wound and helped him return home safely, earning his lasting gratitude. The following day, he left to join his family in Cape Town and soon thereafter the family left for London.
The sudden outburst of hatred was as sickening as it was inexplicable and Oppenheimer would brood over it for years to come. However, had such an incident not occurred, one wonders if the events that led to the formation of Anglo American Corporation two years later would have materialised in quite the same way, if at all.