Setting the record straight on discovery of diamonds

24th February 2017 By: Jade Davenport - Creamer Media Correspondent

South Africa’s mining history is tainted with a multitude of misconceptions, fallacies and misnomers. One of the most glaring is the notion that the Eureka Diamond, the ‘first’ precious stone to be discovered in South Africa, was found during the course of 1867.

Indeed, this fallacy has become so ingrained into South Africa’s popular and mining narratives that almost every historical account declares 1867 as not only the year during which diamonds were discovered on the banks of the Orange river, but also the birth year of the country’s mining industry.

Unfortunately, such an idea has, and will, no doubt, continue to encourage South Africans to mark 2017 as the 150th anniversary of not only the discovery of diamonds but also the beginning of the highly transformative minerals revolution. Thus, it is necessary to, once and for all, set the record straight and shed some light on the real timeline of mining and diamond discovery in South Africa.

Firstly, the notion that this year marks the 150th anniversary of mining in South Africa is entirely inaccurate. While it may be true that it was the discovery of diamonds that kick-started the minerals revolution, diamonds were not the first precious commodity to be found, nor were they the first to be mined by colonial settlers. In fact, by the time diamonds were discovered, copper was already being mined on a commercial scale in the Northern Cape and had been for more than a decade. The copper mining industry of Namaqualand had been established in 1852 and, by 1866, four mines – O’okiep, Speckatel, Nababeep and Concordia – were well into production. While relatively small by today’s standards, the four mines produced a copper output of a not insignificant 4 232 t valued at £88 732 in 1866. So, rather than celebrating ‘Mining at 150’, 2017 marks the 165th anniversary of the industry in South Africa.

However, the more pertinent question now is: When was the first diamond actually discovered? There is no dispute that the first stone to be acknowledged as a diamond was the 21.25 ct yellow- brown Eureka diamond, now on permanent display at the Big Hole Museum, in Kimberley. What is hazy is the timeline from the moment it was first picked up to it being identified as a diamond. (The problem, as is the case with most of the country’s early mining history, is that the men at the heart of the mineral rushes were so caught up in the excitement of the discovery and frenzy of digging their way to fortune that the more mundane task of actually recording the details, particularly exact dates, for posterity was hardly a consideration.) Fortunately, there is one solid piece of dated evidence from which we can reconstruct a timeline and deduce when the stone was found.

The person who identified and classified the Eureka as a diamond was the naturalist Dr William Guybon Atherstone, who is considered one of the pioneers of South African geology and natural history. It is thanks to Atherstone’s penchant for accuracy that the details of the discovery were properly recorded. In an article published in the 1868 edition of The Geological Magazine, Atherstone elaborated that he received the stone in an ordinary postage parcel on March 12, 1867. Accompanying the stone was a letter from Lorenzo Boyes, Clerk of the Peace for the Colesberg district, stating: “My Dear Sir, I enclose a stone which has been handed to me by John O’Reilly as having been picked up on a farm in the Hope Town district, and, as he thinks it is of some value, I send the same to you to examine, which you must please return to me.”

It has also been recorded that the stone passed through four different hands and travelled some distance across the Karoo before arriving at Atherstone’s residence in Grahamstown in mid-March. That chain of possession is well documented and has been discussed in this column previously, but suffice to say that the stone was first picked up by a young boy by the name of Erasmus Jacobs on his father’s farm, near the little village of Hopetown. It was then passed on to Schalk van Niekerk, a fellow Boer farmer who happened to spot the shiny stone while visiting the Erasmuses. After a couple of weeks, he then passed it on to his friend, O’Reilly, a merchant trader, who took a particular interest in the stone. Believing it to be a diamond, O’Reilly wanted to have the stone verified so passed it on to Boyes, who insisted that he knew just the right person to assess it.

Although it is not stated when the stone exchanged hands, given the slow pace of life and travel in the middle of the Karoo in the mid-1860s, not to mention the snail pace of postage between distant centres, that chain of events had to have taken place over a couple of months at least. Thus, the very latest possible date the Erasmus child could have picked the diamond up would have been November or December 1866, although I suspect it was even a few months earlier. It is, therefore, important to make a distinction between the finding of the stone, which occurred in 1866, and its identification as a diamond in 1867.

It is also important to remember that the finding of the Eureka diamond did not, in itself, ignite the diamond rush. The majority of South Africans, and even some expert geologists, believed the diamond to be a freak of nature and refused to consider that the hinterland could be diamondiferous. It took the discovery of a good number of other diamonds, including the famous 83.5 ct Star of South Africa, which was found in 1869, to finally convince people of the country’s diamond wealth. Thus, while the first diamond may have been found in 1866, the true diamond rush only started after the discovery of the Star of South Africa, also known as “the rock upon which the future success of South Africa will be built”, some three years later.