The announcement of the discovery of 1 111 ct and 813 ct diamonds, the second- and sixth-largest gem-quality diamonds ever discovered, made headlines the world over two weeks ago. While the news has been generally greeted with awe and excitement, the discovery has also provided a platform for debate on issues ranging from mine labour to the profits of diamond mining companies and, of course, the benefits local citizens accrue from such significant finds.
One particular strand of the discussion that piqued my interest was the comparisons drawn between Lucara Diamond Corporation’s find and the 3 106 ct Cullinan diamond, especially from the perspective of the fate of these stones. If one is to read commentary on social media platforms, there is a strong sense, at least among a radical few, that the Cullinan diamond was “stolen by the UK colonisers” and that the diamond has in no way benefited the “indigenous people of South Africa”. From such discussions, it is clear that there is no firm understanding of how and why the stone ended up in the possession of the British Royal Family. Moreover, few people are aware that the fate of the Cullinan diamond caused considerable controversy in the old Transvaal Republic at the time of its gifting.
The discovery of the Cullinan diamond in late January 1905 caused an absolute sensation the world over, which was hardly surprising, given that it was more than three times the size of the world’s then largest diamond, the 995 ct Excelsior diamond. Such was the sensation that, just a week after its discovery, thousands of eager people were queuing for long hours each day to see the diamond, which had been put on public display in the Standard Bank in Johannesburg.
Of course, within a few days of the announcement, speculation was rampant with respect to what should be done with the gem. One particular article published in The Transvaal Leader on February 2, 1905, summed up the general sentiment: “Inhabitants of the Transvaal have a feeling of pride in the stone, of which the whole world has heard with astonishment. With that pride is mingled a feeling of regret. For the stone is so great and of such perfect quality as to be in its present form almost without value. There are few men in the world rich enough to buy it, there are still fewer who would care to lock up a large capital in a stone too large for personal adornment, and so precious as to make its ownership a matter of anxiety and even danger.”
Premier Mining Company was, itself, unsure of what to do with the stone. Undoubtedly, the company wanted to sell it to the highest bidder as soon as possible, but, being valued at a conservative estimate of £400 000, the company realised that Europe would be a far more prospective market than South Africa. Thus, a few months after its discovery, the company, first having taken out insurance to the value of £500 000, wrapped the diamond in an ordinary package and casually posted it from the Johannesburg Post Office to its London branch, where prospective buyers could view it on demand. (No doubt, the prospect of posting the 1 111 ct diamond anywhere in the world from Johannesburg’s post office today would be enough to induce heart failure among Lucara’s management.)
However, it appeared that Premier’s asking price proved too high, for the uncut stone piqued little buyer interest and remained locked up in a safe for the next two years.
Having been removed from the public eye for two years, the Transvalers seemingly forgot all about the diamond, which was, to all intents and purposes, still the pride of the republic. That was until mid-August 1907, when the Prime Minister of the Transvaal, General Louis Botha, made the surprise announcement that his government intended to present the diamond to King Edward VII as an “expression of the feeling of loyalty and appreciation, which the people of the Transvaal entertain towards His Majesty”.
The announce-ment sent shock-waves across the world, causing many to question both the motiva-tion behind, and the timing of, the gift. At that time, the Transvaal was suffering the effects of a severe economic recession, which had been precipitated by a collapse of share prices on the New York Stock Exchange, with many citizens suffering unemployment and hardship. Moreover, the gift marked no great occasion in the king’s life nor of his reign but was merely intended as his sixty-sixth birthday present.
However, Botha, having seemingly “burst out into an efflorescence of grateful loyalty”, took no heed of public opinion and, on Monday, August 20, 1907, led a debate and subsequent vote on the purchase and gifting of the great stone. Oddly enough, it was Botha’s Boer-dominated party that voted in favour of the proposal, with the final vote tallying 42 against 19. The opposition, led by English-born randlord Sir George Farrar, pleaded that government delay this gift for a time when the proposal would have the unanimous support of the country.
The outcome of the vote led The Transvaal Leader to comment: “The whole business has been a lamentable blunder instead of a magnificent success, for the simple reason that government has rudely insisted upon the exercise of its acknowledged power to force the matter through the House in its own time . . . There is no man in this country who does not feel the inappropriateness of the gift at this particular juncture.”
Speculation was rife as to the motivation behind the gift, with many likening it to a simple bribe to secure a £5-million loan from the British government and pave the way for the eventual unification of the South African territories.
Regardless of the intense opposition, Botha, who had led the Boers in the war against the British just a few years earlier, bought the Cullinan diamond for the bargain basement price of £150 000 (which was really just £60 000 after the deduction of royalties) and presented the rough diamond to the king in an act of loyal fervour in November 1907.
Given the controversial fate of the Cullinan diamond, one can only wonder what lies in store for this latest geological wonder.