Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Unexpected Uncovering of the Diamond Discoveries

             The Boers (Dutch for farmers) moved out of the Cape Colony of Southern Africa and into the Orange Free State, Transvaal and Natal, to escape British colonial rule. One of these Boers, Daniel Jacobs, made his home on the banks of the Orange River, near to the small settlement of Hopetown, where he made a precarious living on the pasturelands of the veldt. His home was not much more than a hovel, roughly divided into two rooms, with sacking for a roof and a packed earth floor that was smeared once a week with a polishing mixture of dung and water. 

Boers trekking

Parents and children slept together on a rough frame overlaced with rawhide strips, there was a chest of drawers, a crude table and chairs, a mirror and very little else in the way of furniture. Their food was corn meal porridge, supplemented occasionally with a lump of boiled mutton and rice, coarse wheaten bread and black, bitter coffee. When the sheep and goats were turned out of the kraal to browse on the scant scrub and thorns of the veldt, they were shepherded by African servants, as the Boer and his vrouw were loathe to trouble themselves with manual labour if there were other people around to do it for them. 

Some Africans taking a break

Their children ran as wild as their livestock, ranging over the rocks and sand, and in lieu of playthings, they hunted for shiny pebbles along the banks of the river, each of them building their own collection of smooth agates, rosy-red carnelians, bronze jaspers and creamy chalcedonies, carmine garnets and sparkling rock-crystals. 

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The farmer’s wife was especially taken with a particularly bright white pebble, and she told a neighbour, Schalk van Niekerk, about the stone. He asked to see it, but one of the children had thrown it out into the dust of the yard, and van Niekerk had to hunt in the dirt before it came to light. He was also taken with the gleam of the thing and offered to buy it, but the vrouw wouldn’t hear of it and gave it to her neighbour, who put it into his pocket and carried it off home. 

John O'Reilly

He thought it might have a little value and passed it on to a travelling salesman, John O’Reilly, who showed it to several people in Hopetown and in Colesberg, a settlement further along the Orange River, but all who saw it were not impressed and no one would part with as much as a penny for the stone, which might, at best, be a topaz. The Civil Commissioner of Colesberg, Mr Lorenzo Boyes, discovered that the stone would scratch glass and declared it to be a diamond, but his idea was laughed aside by Dr Kirsh, the town apothecary, who bet Boyes a new hat that the pebble was nothing more than a topaz. Boyes accepted the bet, put the stone into an unsealed envelope and posted it off the colony’s principal mineralogist, Dr W Guybon Atherstone, at Grahamstown. 

Dr W Guybon Atherstone

When the post-boy delivered the letter, the stone fell out of the envelope and rolled away, Atherstone picked it up, read the letter and examined the pebble. Then he took up his pen and wrote this reply to 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 £5oo. 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?” 
From there, the stone passed into the possession of the Governor of the Cape, who paid the estimated value put forward by Atherstone, and which was confirmed by M Henriette, the French consul. The stone was then sent to the Paris Exhibition, where there was a little interest in it, although it did not cause a sensation, as odd, isolated discoveries of diamonds were nothing new. 

Lorenzo Boyes

In the meantime, Lorenzo Boyes departed for Hopetown and van Niekerk’s farm, and spent a fortnight sorting piles of pebbles but no further diamonds were found, although a good many Boers popped rock-crystals into their pockets, in the vain hope that they might just be lucky and have found another of the blink klippe (bright stones). Ten months later, another diamond was found, thirty miles from Hopetown, at the confluence of the Vaal and Orange Rivers, and Boyes was off again, but again failed to find a companion stone. 

Map of South Africa

During 1868, a few more small stones were found, and then, in March 1869, a Griqua shepherdboy found a magnificent white diamond, weighing 83.5 carats, for which van Niekerk gave him five hundred sheep, ten oxen and a horse. The thrifty Boer returned to Hopetown and sold the stone on to the Lilienfield Brothers for £11,200, who sent it to England, where it was eventually sold to the Countess of Dudley for £25,000. 

Star of South Africa

The rough diamond was reduced to 46.5 carats when it was cut into a oval three-sided brilliant shape, and it was mounted with 95 smaller brilliant-cut diamonds into a head ornament; known as the Dudley Diamond, it is now better known as the Star of South Africa. It was sold again, in 1974, for just over three quarters of a million pounds (the equivalent of £1.75 million in today’s money). 

Thus began the systematic search for diamonds in South Africa, along the Vaal River, as parties of organised prospectors sifted through the alluvial gravels.

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