The Diamond Mines of South Africa I – Gardner Williams



NEARLY two hundred years had passed since the memorable expedition of van der Stel made known to geographers the Groote River, which, a hundred years later, was christened the Orange. Before Great Britain took the Cape, the daring van Reenen had penetrated to Modder Fontein, unconsciously skirting the rim of a marvellous diamond field. Since the beginning of the century scores of roving hunters had chased their game over a network of devious tracks, traversing every nook of the land between the Orange and the Vaal, and often camping for days upon their banks. Then the trekking pioneer graziers and farmers plodded on after the hunters, sprinkling their huts and kraals over the face of the Orange Free State, but naturally squatting first on the arable lands and grazing ground nearest the water-courses.

So, in the course of years, in the passage of the Great Trek, thousands of men, women, and children had passed across the Orange and Vaal, and up and down their winding valleys, and hundreds, at least, had trodden the river shore sands of the region in which the most precious of gems were lying. On the Orange River, some thirty miles above its junction with the Vaal, there was the hamlet of Hopetown, one of the most thriving of the little settlements, and a number of farms dotted the angle between the rivers.

Along the line of the Vaal, for some distance above its entry into the Orange, there were some ill-defined reservations occupied by a few weak native tribes, — Koranas and Griquas, — for whose instruction there were mission stations at Pniel and Hebron. 1 For centuries unnumbered the aboriginal tribes had been ignorantly trampling under foot gems of countless price, and for years Dutch and English hunters, pioneers, farmers, shepherds, and missionaries trekked as heedlessly over the African diamond beds.

After the revelation of this fact, there arose, it is true, an imposing tale of an old mission map of the Orange River region, drawn as far back as the middle of the eighteenth century, across whose worn and soiled face was scrawled: “Here be diamonds.”‘ 2 Even if this report were true, there was no evidence determining the date of the scrawl, which might more credibly be a crude new record than a vague old one.

In any event, it does not appear that there was even a floating rumor of the probable existence of a South African diamond field at the time of the actual discovery of the first identified gem. There is nothing surprising in this oversight. When a spectator beholds a great semicircle of artfully cut gems sparkling on the heads, necks, and hands of fair women massed in superb array, and resplendent in the brilliant lights of an opera house, or when one views the moving throng glittering with jewels in grand court assemblies, it is hard for him to realize how inconspicuous a tiny isolated crystal may be in the richest of earth beds. No spot in a diamond field has the faintest
resemblance to a jeweller’s show tray.

Here is no display of gems blazing like a Mogul’s throne, or a Queen’s tiara, or the studded cloak of a Russian noble. Only in the marvellous valley of Sindbad are diamonds strewn on the ground in such profusion that they are likely to stick in the toes of a barefooted
traveller, and can be gathered by flinging carcasses of sheep from surrounding precipices to tempt eagles to serve as diamond winners.

It needs no strain of faith to credit the old Persian tale of the discontented AH Hafed, roaming far and wide from his charming home on the banks of the Indus in search of diamonds, and, finally, beggared and starving, casting himself into the river which flowed by his house, while the diamonds of Golconda were lying in his own garden sands. It is probable that the diamonds of India were trodden under foot for thousands of years before the first precious stone of the Deccan was stuck in an idol’s eye or a rajah’s turban.

It is known that the Brazilian diamond fields were washed for many years by gold placer diggers without any revelation of diamonds to the world, although these precious stones were often picked up and so familiarly handled that they were used by the black slaves in the fields as counters in card games.

If this be true of the most famous and prolific of all diamond fields before the opening of the South African placers and mines, any delay in the revelation of the field in the heart of South Africa may be easily understood. For it was not only necessary to have eyes bright and keen enough to mark one of the few tiny precious crystals which were lying on the face of vast stretches of pebbles, boulders, and sand, but the observer must prize such a crystal enough to stoop to pick it up if it lay plainly before his eyes. To the naked native a rough diamond had no more attraction than any other pretty pebble.

There were millions of other white crystals and many colored pebbles on the river shores which were equally precious or worthless in his eyes. The roving hunters were looking sharply for game bounding over the veld, and only glanced at a pebble-strewn bank to mark the possible track of their prey. The stolid Boer pioneers would hardly bend their backs to pick up the prettiest stone that ever lay on the bank of an African river, even if it were as big as the great yellow diamond so jealously guarded by the Portuguese crown.

It might be thought that some visitor to the fields would be more expert in judging its character than natives, hunters, and farmers; but there were few trained mineralogists in South Africa, and it is doubtful if there was one who had ever examined a diamond field personally or compared one field with another.

Even with this special experience an expert student of general mineral formations might survey this particular field closely without suspecting the existence of diamonds. This was demonstrated in the visit of the colonial geologist Wyley to the Orange Free State in 1856, when he investigated the alleged discovery of gold in thin veins of quartz lining the joints and crevices of the trappean rocks at Smithfield.

In the course of his exploration he went to Fauresmith, where diamonds were afterward picked from the town commonage, and stood on the verge of the farm Jagersfontein, later the seat of a prolific diamond mine, yet it does not appear that he had even a surmise of the existence of diamonds in the field of his investigation. It is but fair to him to observe, however, that the section which he visited had no such close resemblance to any known typical field as that which led Humboldt and Rose to the revelation of the diamonds of the Ural from the similarity of the ground formations to those of the Brazilian diamond districts.

As a matter of fact nobody who entered the Vaal river region conceived it to be a possible diamond field or thought of searching for any precious stones. Probably, too, there was not a person in the Orange Free State, and few in the Cape Colony, who was able to distinguish a rough diamond if he found one by chance, or would be likely to prize such a crystal. For the discovery of diamonds under such conditions it was practically necessary that a number of prospectors should enter it who would search the gravel beds often and eagerly for the prettiest pebbles. Were any such collectors at work in the field?

One of the trekking Boers, Daniel Jacobs, had made his home on the banks of the Orange River near the little settlement of Hopetown. He was one of the sprinkling of little farmers who was stolidly content with a bare and precarious living on the uncertain pasture lands of the veld. Here his children grew up about him with little more care than the goats that browsed on the kopjes.

A poor farmer’s home was a squalid hovel. It was roughly partitioned to form a bedroom and kitchen, lighted by two small windows smudged with grime. Dirty calico tacked on the rafters made its ceiling. Its bare earthen floor was smeared weekly with a polishing paste of cowdung and water. Father, mother, and children slept together on a rude frame overlaced with rawhide strips. The only other furniture in this stifling bedroom was a chest of drawers and a small cracked mirror.

There was no washbowl or water pitcher, but in the morning one after another of the family wiped their faces and swabbed their hands on the same moistened cloth. Then they drew up chairs with rawhide seats to a rough wooden table and ate corn meal porridge, and sometimes a hunk of tough mutton boiled with rice, and soaked their coarse unbolted wheat flour bread in a gritty, black coffee syrup. (1)

When the sheep and goats were turned out of the kraal to graze on the patches of grass and the stunted thorns of the veld, the children ran away after them and roamed over the pasture land all day long like the flocks. There was no daily round of work for them. The black servants were the shepherds of the flocks, and did the slovenly housework, under the indolent eye of the Boer and his vrouw, for the poorest farmer would not work with his own hands except at a pinch.

His boys and girls had never seen a doll or a toy of any kind, but the instinct of childhood will find playthings on the face of the most barren karroo, and the Jacobs children were luckily close to the edge of a river which was strewn with uncommonly beautiful pebbles, mixed with coarser gravel.

Here were garnets with their rich carmine flush, the fainter rose of the carnelian, the bronze of jasper, the thick cream of chalcedony, heaps of agates of motley hues, and many shining  rock crystals.  From this party-colored bed the children picked whatever caught their eye and fancy, and filled their pockets with their chosen pebbles. So a poor farmer’s child found playthings scattered on a river bank which a little prince might covet, and the boy might have skimmed the face of the river with one little white stone that was worth more than his father’s farm.

Fortunately for the future of South Africa, he did not play ducks and drakes with this particular stone, which he found one day in the early spring of 1867, but carried it home in his pocket and dropped it with a handful of other pebbles on the farmhouse floor. A heap of these party-colored stones was so common a sight in the yard or on the floor of a farmhouse on the banks of the Orange and Vaal, that none of the plodding Boers gave it a second glance.

But when the children tossed the stones about, the little white pebble was so sparkling in the sunlight that it caught the eye of the farmer’s wife. She did not care enough for it to pick it up, but spoke of it as a curious stone to a neighbor, Schalk van Niekerk. Van Niekerk asked to see it, but it was not in the heap. One of the children had rolled it away in the yard. After some little search it was found in the dust, for nobody on the farm would stoop for such a trifle.

When van Niekerk wiped off the dust, the little stone glittered so prettily that he offered to buy it. The good vrouw laughed at the idea of selling a pebble. ” You can keep the stone, if you want it,” she said. So van Niekerk put it in his pocket and carried it home. He had only a vague notion that it might have some value, and put it in the hands of a travelling trader, John O’Reilly, who undertook to find out what kind of a stone the little crystal was, and whether it could be sold.

He showed the stone to several Jews in Hopetown and in Colesberg, a settlement farther up the Orange River Valley. No one of these would give a penny for it. ” It is a pretty stone enough,” they said, ” probably a topaz, but nobody would pay anything for it.” Perhaps O’Reilly would have thrown the pebble away, if it had not come under the eye of the acting Civil Commissioner at Colesberg, Mr. Lorenzo Boyes. Mr. Boyes found on trial that the stone would scratch glass.

” I believe it to be a diamond,” he observed gravely.  O’Reilly was greatly cheered up. “You are the only man I have seen,” he said, ” who says it is worth anything. Whatever it is worth you shall have a share in it.” ” Nonsense,” broke in Dr. Kirsh, a private apothecary of the town, who was present, ” I’ll bet Boyes a new hat it is only a topaz.”

” I’ll take the bet,” replied Mr. Boyes, and at his suggestion the stone was sent for determination to the foremost mineralogist of the colony, Dr. W. Guybon Atherstone, residing at Grahamstown. It was so lightly valued that it was put in an unsealed envelope and carried to Grahamstown in the regular post-cart.

When the post-boy handed the letter to Dr. Atherstone, the little river stone fell out and rolled away. The doctor picked it up and read the letter of transmission. Then he examined the pebble expertly and wrote to Mr. Boyes: ” I congratulate you on the stone you have sent to me. It is a veritable diamond, weighs twenty-one and a quarter carats, and is worth £500. It has spoiled all the jewellers’ files in Grahamstown, and where that came from there must be lots more. Can I send it to Mr. Southey, Colonial Secretary ? ”

This report was a revelation which transformed the despised Karrooland as the grimy Cinderella was transfigured by the wand of her fairy godmother. The determination was so positive and the expertness of the examiner so well conceded that Sir Philip Wodehouse, the Governor at the Cape, bought the rough diamond at once, at the value fixed by Dr. Atherstone and confirmed by the judgment of M. Henriette, the French consul in Cape Town.

The stone was sent immediately to the Paris Exhibition, where it was viewed with much interest, but its discovery, at first, did not cause any great sensation. The occasional finding of a diamond in a bed of pebbles had been reported before from various parts of the globe, and there was no assurance in this discovery of any considerable diamond deposits.

Meanwhile Mr. Boyes hastened to Hopetown and to van Niekerk’s farm, to search along the river shore where the first diamond was found. He prodded the phlegmatic farmers and their black servants, raked over many bushels of pebbles for two weeks, but no second diamond  repaid his labor. Still the news of the finding of the first stone made the farmers near the river look more sharply at every heap of pebbles in the hope of finding one of the precious ” blink klippe ” (bright stones), as the Boers named the diamond, and many bits of shining rock crystal were carefully pocketed, in the persuasion that the glittering stones were diamonds.