Rhodes, Slavery And Diamonds

The discovery of diamonds on the border of the Orange Free State opened up the interior to prospectors from abroad, many of them British. The Boers had no alternative, they had neither the skills nor resources to control the new market, and before long were outnumbered by the rapid influx of immigrants, or uitlanders, which means foreigner in Dutch.

Some of the first diamonds were found on Colesburg Kopje, a small hill on Vooruitzight, a farm owned by the De Beers brothers, in 1871. As John Reader in his biography of Africa reports: ‘Less than one year after the first claims were pegged on the Kimberley diggings, 50,000 people were living in tents and make-do shelters in the diamond fields’. In other words, the surface area of the Kimberlite pipes which flushed diamonds up from the Earth’s core billions of years earlier turned into Glastonbury Festival overnight. The only major difference was that the prospectors were looking for fine diamonds in a prehistoric pipe, the hippies for good weed and a draw on any old pipe.

An eye witness account from a digger in 1871 remembers the dry diggings like this: ‘The four great mines were roughly circular in shape, and claim holders erected their dwellings as close to the mines as possible, and traders, storekeepers and publicans put up their dwellings in any vacant spot ….. thus each camp was composed of a central group of workings surrounded by a ring of shacks, shanties, huts and shelters constructed of any material that would keep off the rain or the scorching heat of the sun.’

The owners of the farms where diamonds were discovered did their best to organise the rush of prospectors, and everything that arrived on their heels to sustain them, including a young Cecil Rhodes, who sold ice to miners in the hot African sun. But further regulation was required, and that job ended up on the desk of London based Lord Kimberley, Secretary of State for the Colonies at the time. This caused a delay, since he didn’t like any of the names he was given, and demanded: ‘decent and intelligible names. His Lordship declined to be in any way connected with such a vulgarism as New Rush, and as for the Dutch name Vooruitzicht …… he could neither spell nor pronounce it.’ That impasse was resolved by a colonial secretary who, according to a correspondent, ‘proved himself a worthy diplomat. He made quite sure Lord Kimberley would be able to both spell and pronounce the name of the main electoral division by, as he says ‘calling it after his Lordship.” By 1880, Kimberley had been incorporated into the Cape Colony, and the organisational infrastructure was in place for the big players to consolidate their positions in the new diamond mining market and grow.

By then Cecil Rhodes, the bête noir of British imperialism and colonialism, had ditched ice sales and was working his way through the acquisition and merger gears. Throughout the 1880’s he was busy buying up claims, and in 1888 joined forces with Barney Barnato, the other major player, to form De Beers. Rhodes was to become Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, enjoying a very different level of backing from the British Government and private sector than his predecessors. One overriding concern was the legal status of the prospectors in neighbouring areas under Boer control, especially once wealthy financiers like Alfred Beit, another De Beers life governor and founder, arrived on the scene, keen to help Rhodes expand De Beers ownership of mineral rights throughout the wider region. The Boers, especially the farmers who had purchased land from Africans, did so under their own laws, which gave the owner property and mineral rights, even when the area wasn’t under Boer Republic control. In British law, mineral rights were retained by the State, and open to public exploitation subject to relevant laws. The areas where diamonds had been found were on Boer owned farms in land where the Griqua, the Tswana, the Kora and Tlhaping tribes claimed traditional rights.

And there was another problem. With slavery abolished, how would the African labour market cope, once the initial multi-national rush began to subside? As Reader reveals at every turn in his sweeping analysis of the forces at play on the African continent from the earliest colonial times, the challenge on the frontiers had always been finding labour, and the underdeveloped African labour market, from the beginning, lent itself to exploitation by slavery. Once the domestic workforce was given a push by trade and colonisation in that direction, like so many things, it took on a life and momentum all of its own, right down to the shabby treatment of workers in Africa today, some 500 years later, by fellow black Africans, when there are less excuses, and plenty of alternatives.

It’s difficult to understand why tribal Africans didn’t better mobilise or organise their labour to develop along the lines of most other civilisations, before European trade and colonisation so rudely interrupted their lack of progress. What is certain, given the vulnerable situation they found themselves in, was that they needed slavery, a massive drain on an already scarce resource, like a hole in the head. But when the traders arrived, offering the worst trade possible, the young, the strong and the healthy in return for whatever was acceptable – gold, silver, cowries, horses, weapons, trinkets, or, if harvests were bad, just food – they found willing agents in every tribe and community, happy to enrich themselves at the expense of their neighbours. From a strictly economic and developmental point of view, slavery exacerbated existing labour shortages, and made matters worse for all but the most unscrupulous.

As far as the slaves themselves were concerned, in tribes where superstition and arbitrary human sacrifice were out of control, an independent audit by impartial jurors might discover an uncomfortable truth: Whatever the well publicised iniquities and deprivations of international slavery, the less reported domestic version was unpredictably worse. In a tragic either or choice, ending up on a slave ship bound for an unknown foreign destination, while terrifying and often deadly, offered survivors and their descendants better prospects than the African alternative, especially where America was concerned. In one of life’s least discussed unintended consequences, the only thing worse than international slavery for the future of African slaves was the British Abolition of Slavery Act of 1834, which increased domestic slavery, and reduced chances of escape to America. Perhaps the current crop of relatively rich, privileged, angry African American activists reworking their history to suit current claims should blame British colonisers for that!

Broadly speaking, it was as if the African startup, which supplied the wider world with humanity over 100,000 years ago by way of a small founder group of perhaps no more than 50 homo sapiens emigrants, exhausted its energy in the effort, and never got going itself. When startup progeny returned many millenia later, they came as predatory liberators brandishing a stick and a carrot. A relatively sleepy Africa was shaken awake by an alarm clock called colonisation, or recolonisation, by returning natives much changed. The startup of startups had somehow slipped into evolutionary sidings, and just got overtaken by ruthless descendants driven by different forces operating at much greater speeds, like some runaway locomotive. You snooze, you lose!

A tragedy on the face of it, some 500 years of pain and suffering with no end in sight, unless examined as a necessary evolutionary breakout gamble by our Africa ancestors in a much bigger game, over a much longer time frame. That unconscious evolutionary activity would involve original stock returning to help Africa solve problems it couldn’t solve on its own, where short term pain leads to long term gain, over say the next 100,000 years. Judged on wider outcomes over longer time frames set in their correct context, colonists were disrupters, exploiters and liberators. Despite their efforts, it’s hard to deny painful progress has been stalled. It’s a great opportunity for privileged African Americans to reinvigorate progress, to invest some of their American wealth and ingenuity in new ways that they think will achieve better results. If in another 500 years Africa and her rulers afford African whites the same civil rights and opportunities that America and her constitution offers American blacks, they will have something to crow about.

In the New Rush for diamonds, working conditions were unregulated and dangerous, but from the labourers point of view, more profitable. With thousands of small claimholders, many of them African, all clamouring for labour, a worker could get well paid and do as he pleased. An actively mined 10 m2 claim at Kimberley would require a workforce of 15, and that might be 80% of a claimholder’s cost base. In 1872, there were up to 20,000 black Africans on the mines, and they could earn £2 a month. An owner complained that one experienced Irish navvy could move a claim as fast as a gang of Africans. On the frontline chasing the prospector’s dream, it was more about work ethic, output and production than race. In the first stages, there were diverse nationalities amongst the prospectors: ‘There were hundreds of diggers, in every kind of garb ….. There were faces of every conceivable cast and colour of the human race ….. the Kaffir, the Englishman, the Hottentot, and the Dutchman the Fingo and the German, the Yankee and the Swede, the Frenchman and the Turk, the Norwegian and the natives, the Russian and the Greek – in fact a smattering of people from every nation on earth – digging, sifting and sorting from morning til night, day after day, month after month, until they have obtained what they consider sufficient.’ With untrammelled market forces at play, conditions must have been equally hellish for everyone, and equally rewarding, if your luck was in. And those were the easy pickings.

Once the extraction process became mechanised, then industrialised and regulated, control passed to the wealthy owners, who loaded the dice in their favour. That could include improved labour conditions, and better pay. But there were always many factors at play, it could mean improved labour conditions and worse pay, especially if extra security removed the finders keepers bonus that small claimholders couldn’t control – the theft of diamonds. When De Beers got into full swing, anyone caught stealing got severely punished. Life as a jobbing labourer lost any early freedom to duck into and out of claimholder contracts, and pocket the odd diamond.

Ch 2 – ‘The Art Of Darkness’

‘When Hunter Becomes The Hunted’


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