South Africa’s early diamond rush

7th May 2010 By: Jade Davenport - Creamer Media Correspondent

The year 1869 marked a significant turning point in the history of South Africa – it was during that year that the 83½-ct Star of South Africa diamond, the rock upon which the economic success of South Africa was built, was discovered close to the banks of the Vaal river.

The news of the sale of the Star of South Africa, which fetched £30 000, and the discovery of more diamonds dispelled all doubts about the region’s potential mineral wealth and brought in a wave of local Boer farmers as well as British, American, Australian, German and Russian diggers and diamond dealers.

They called it a ‘rush’, but the word was scarcely appropriate, for no prospector had ever had such a slow and arduous journey as those who first made their way to the banks of the Vaal river.

From the Cape docks to the diamondfields is the better part of 1 000 km and the landscape of the South African interior makes for hard travelling, especially on foot or by horse.

At the initial stage of the rush, a slow trickle of prospectors descended on the banks of the Vaal and, by the end of 1869, several hundred people were encamped along the banks of the river.

The success of the first systematic diamond exploration by a party of Californians, Australians and a Brazilian miner at Klipdrift (present-day Barkly West), on the north bank of the Vaal, early in 1870, encouraged still more adventurers to invest time and savings while the strike lasted.

By the end of 1870, there were 10 000 diggers stretched along 80 miles of the Vaal and a whole line of settlements grew up along the tree-lined bank of the river.

It is easy to romanticise the early days of the South African diamond rush, but life for the early prospectors was anything but pleasant or easy-going.

Some men lived in covered wagons, some in bright white canvas tents, some in huts built of reeds, and some slept on the open veld, where they could. It was said that, of the 6 000 first arrivals, only 20 had a mattress.

Drink could always be had at a price but food was always a problem, the diet consisting chiefly of game meat. Inevitably, the early diggers suffered from an exceptionally poor diet, as they had little access to good vegetables.

There were no sanitary arrangements at all to speak about and, in an age when the great killers like typhoid and cholera had not been controlled, that was a grievous omission. At frequent intervals, fever swept through the camp, killing hundreds of men.

Despite the hardship and incredibly poor living conditions, the diggers worked the alluvial claims with enthusiasm.

The river diggers established small, individual claims along the banks of the river and adopted a simple mining technology that had only limited labour requirements.

In general, they excavated their 20-ft2 claims with pick and shovel to a depth of about 5 ft, at which point the ground gave way to what was considered nondiamond-bearing soil.

The gravel was loaded into wheelbarrows or carts and deposited away from the side of the river.

At the depositing sites, they washed the material through a series of meshed screens until only a diamondiferous residue remained to be laid out on a table and sorted by hand.

The heavy work of digging and washing was done by the diggers or, whenever they could obtain them, black employees; the sorting of the residue was done by the diggers themselves or, in the case of many of the Boers, by their wives and children, the only people they felt they could trust.

Diamonds showed up brilliantly and were seldom missed on the sorting table; the larger gems, a digger reported, were often found in the sieve or even during digging.

By the end of 1870, the main features of the initial phase of diamond digging were readily apparent.

Production was carried out on a small scale, generally in units consisting of a digger with, perhaps, one partner and no more than three or four labourers.

The technology used was very simple, consisting of little more than a pick and a shovel and a series of sieves, and marketing relations were usually personal and limited.

Few of these early diggers made much money; most of the stones found were very small and worth less than £1.

Not surprisingly, the area along the banks of the Vaal, which was frantically rushed by diamond prospectors, was disputed territory.

The river diggings and the surrounding farms were located on land that had been contested by Griquas, Transvaalers and Free State burghers since the 1850s.

An examination of the issues of land ownership and sovereignty over the early alluvial diamondfields is essential to the understanding of the later development of the diamond-mining industry and, indeed, the political development of South Africa, in general.

This geopolitical context, as well as the legislative foundations of the diamond-mining industry, will be expanded upon in the next instalment of this column.