South Africa has had its share of colorful characters, many of whom have been associated with the mining industry. Usually the person whose name first comes to mind is Cecil Rhodes, one of the founders of diamond giant De Beers. I plan to write about him later in the year because he was one of the most influential people in Southern Africa.
Today I want to say a few words about the other man who founded De Beers – Barney Barnato. One of the unusual things about him is that he still enjoys a good reputation even though he has been dead for over a hundred years. This is in contrast to Rhodes, whose reputation is mixed at best.
Barnato was born in London with the name Barnet Isaacs in one of three years. He claimed he had the same birthday as Rhodes – 5 July 1853. Most biographies put the date a year earlier, but Wikipedia claims that his birth certificate says 21 February 1851. His family was poor – his father a seller of second-hand clothing, and he left school – the Jews’ Free School – very young to help support the family.
He and his brother Harry became entertainers, Harry doing magic tricks and Barnet acrobatics. It was as a result of their shows that Barnet became known as Barney Barnato. Records relate that Harry always took the bow at the end of their act. Eventually the theatre manager shouted, “and Barney too”. The brothers liked the sound of that and became Harry and Barney Barnato – the Italian entertainers.
Their father also taught them how to box, and Barney fancied himself as a good boxer and fought a number of times, probably for money. But he was very short – I’ve found one reference that puts him at 5’ 3” (about 1,6 metres) - and did not do very well.
When diamonds were discovered in South Africa in 1866, Harry and his cousin David Harris went off to make their fortunes. Neither were successful as amateur diamond traders. But David won a large bet in a gambling establishment and returned to England with a reasonable amount of money – enough to tempt Barney to go to Kimberley too. When he arrived, having walked for a month from Cape Town, he had very little money. But he had a very outgoing personality and was a superb salesman. And he was hard working. He and Harry started putting on theatrical shows again to make a little money, while Barney got to know the diamond business and, more importantly, the diamond people.
He joined forces with a Louis Cohen, starting a small company. They wold tour the diggings in and around the Big Hole, buying and selling stones. Barney always sealed a deal with both parties taking a swig from a brandy bottle he carried around. About this time, the flow of diamonds from the yellow sand started to dry up. But Barney had listened to a geologist, Dr. Atherstone, who told him how diamonds were formed and pushed to the surface in pipes. Barney basically bet all the company’s money on buying up some claims and started to dig the blue soil (Kimberlite) below the yellow. At first few diamonds were found, then they flowed freely. By the end of the year they had sold £100 000 worth – a fortune at the time.
Of course, success brought notoriety – and people accused Barney of dealing in stolen stones. He always denied this, and no charges were ever laid.
This success brought him into conflict with Rhodes, who wanted the money from diamonds to finance his sweeping political ambitions in Southern Africa. After a battle lasting several months, in which the shares of Barney’s company soared as a result of take-over attempts, Rhodes outmaneuvered Barney, forcing him to sell his share of the company in return for positions in De Beers – the company that resulted from the various mergers. Barney took home a cool £4,000 000. Some historians believe that Rhodes eventually clinched the deal by offering Barney membership in the prestigious Kimberley Club, something that Barney had wanted as proof of his acceptance in the community. He also became a member of the Cape parliament.
A while later Barney was tempted by the gold that had been found in the Johannesburg area in 1886, and started the Johannesburg Consolidated Investment company (JCI), which also became very successful and profitable.
The gold rush caused great tensions between the miners, called uitlanders or foreigners, and the Boers in whose country the mines had been found. Soon the uitlanders outnumbered the locals, and President Kruger and his parliament changed the voting laws to make it difficult for the foreigners to get the vote. Obviously they were scared of being ousted. Rhodes saw this as an opportunity and encouraged a raid into the Transvaal by a small force led by a Dr. Jameson. It was a total fiasco, and some of the some of the supporters of the raid in Johannesburg were tried for treason and sentenced to death. Barney threatened President Kruger that he would pull all his businesses out of Johannesburg unless these death sentences were commuted. Eventually Kruger capitulated and the men were spared. At the time JCI employed 20,000 Whites and 100,000 Blacks on the mines.
In 1897 Barney and his family sailed for England. Somewhere near Madeira he was lost overboard and drowned. Officially he committed suicide, but there is circumstantial evidence that he may have been murdered. Travelling with him was a Solly Joel who was walking with him at the time of his fall overboard. He was related in some way to Barney. None months later Barney’s nephew Woolf Joel was murdered and Joel inherited the bulk of Barney’s estate.
Throughout his life, Barney never forgot his roots and provided funds for various Jewish institutions in London, including his old school. Today there is a school and a suburb named after him in Johannesburg – Barnato Park.
The mystery surrounding Barney’s death remains just that. At least old Barney was true to the theatrical maxim by which he lived:
"Always wind up with a good curtain, and bring it down before the public gets tired - or has had time to find you out."
Barney Barnato is buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Willesden, London.
Stan – Thursday
PS. Am going to listen to Car tonight at Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis.