Thursday, April 1, 2010

Barney Barnato

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.


  1. Stan - There are so many fascinating details in this story. So many men who became tycoons in that age are known by names other than their birth names. They reinvented themselves to better their prospects. This certainly applies to people in show business; would John Wayne have become the symbol of rugged masculinity if he had used his real name, Marion Robert Morrison? Barney, to his credit, was awarded the name rather than grabbing it to stay more than a few steps in front of the law.

    The number of men, 120,000, working at the mine conjures unsettling images. The conditions under which they worked must have been horrifying. Miners in the United States, especially in Appalachia in the south, lived in terrible conditions well into the 20th century. It is still one of the poorest areas of the United States. They still work in the most dangerous conditions despite laws in place to protect them.

    Barney's success is ample proof that he was a great salesman but the part that struck me the most is the month long walk he took in order to improve the quality of his life, to achieve success. This is not so different from the dangerous, and often futile trip, that immigrants make to get to the United States. Whether it is putting themselves in the hands of the "coyotes", the immigrant smugglers in Mexico, or the steel containers that bring immigrants from Asia, the dream of doing better doesn't change and the risks are just as high.

    Thank you. I learned so much.


  2. I'm a bit sceptical about the figures for the number of people employed by Barnato in Johannesburg. Certainly they were not all in one single mine. Barnato's company, Johannesburg Consolidated Investments, was a mining house, not a gold mine. In other words, it owned a number of mines, so however many people he employed, they would have been spread over quite a few mines. Even so, the figure sounds very high. I wonder if it isn't a figure for the entire industry as it was in 1897. Anyone got any sources on this?

  3. Greetings from San Francisco. My wife forwarded the link to me on this story. My name is Barney Barnato and I am the great grandson of the subject of this article.

    Stan, it's interesting that you did the extra work to find the connection of Barney's death to Solly Joel. It's always upset me, along with the rest of the family, how history had portrayed Barney as a drunk who either fell or jumped overboard. We all know he was pushed! I'm not sure if it is urban myth or not, but I was always told that one of the reasons for Barney's trip back to London was to disinherit Solly (his nephew) for his part in the botched Jaimeson raids. This would show the motive on Solly's part.

    Anyway, well done!!!

    1. Hello

      I just saw Rhodes - a 2 CD miniseries which is available om Amazon as Rhodes: Season 1 [Region 2] (2008). It is an excellent production and Barney is portrayed very flatteringly.

      Ben Lamprecht, Cape Town

  4. Have just watched BBC TV programme "Who do you think you are" featuring Esther Rantzen tracing her family history. It was fascinating and featured Barney Barato and his exploits. Esther is a well known TV personality in the UK and it appears she is the great great niece of Barney Barato.

    The programme did not point the finger at anyone though, Solly had means and opportunity, and if indeed he was going to be disinherited and he knew of this, also has the motive, 3 out of 3 for qualifying as a murder suspect. As with a lot of these things, we will never know for sure.

  5. Hello Barney,
    My name is Nancy du Tertre. I discovered, by "accident," that my great-grand uncle was Barney Barnato. My grandfather told me the "untold" story of his death. He also told me that his father, my great grandfather, used to receive raw diamonds from Barney in the mail and throw them away. He thought they were rocks!!! Would love to compare notes some time. We live in New Jersey.

  6. My family has long told the story that Barney Barnato was born somewhere in Russian Poland and was married there to his first wife. They had four children, one of whom was my ancestor. Barney subsequently disappeared and was later found in England. The story goes that he found out that his first wife was going to expose him as a bigamist, which was the reason for his suicide.

    1. I am the great grandson of Solomon Joel. Barney was born in London, but may have had a Russian Poland wife. There is no record of it. I am trying to find out, as there was a program in England with some saying that Barney had a sister named Sarah Isaacs, there is no evidence of this. So it could be his daughter. I don´t know.
      Patrick Joel Jones

  7. My great grandfather wrote a biography of Barney Barnato. His name was Michael Ray and he died in South Africa. You can find a copy of his book in the British Library.

  8. I’m researching the Harris family tree for a friend who is a direct descendant of Solomon Harris. Solomon’s daughter Leah married Isaac Isaacs in London (1837), and their 5th surviving child was Barnett Isaacs (Barney Barnato). According to the 1851 England Census (30 March 1851), Barnett (i.e. Barney) was 1 month old at the time – so he was definitely born in February 1851 in Aldgate, London.

    1. I am a 5-great-granddaughter of Solomon Harris. His daughter daughter Clara was my grandmother's grandmother.

  9. I am just reading "Spreading my WIngs" by Diana Barnato Walker, Barney's granddaughter via his son Woolf, the "Bentley Boy". Fascinating book, mostly about her flying experiences in the ATA but she covers some of the family history. She was told by her cousin Stanhope (Stan) that Solly had pushed Barney over the side. And Stan was Solly's son. She also claims that the only witness, a steward, became a good friend of Solly's, going shooting with him. There are also various stories of blackmail, unresolved, and a lawsuit against Solly for money he had fraudulently extracted from Barney's company. This was settled out of court for £1million after Diana's maternal grandfather Falk, an accountant, had uncovered the evidence. So that might have been the cause of the fight on the ship ?
    It was this that led me to find this site.

    1. I am a Falk and my family came from the Russia Poland area of Suwalk. Members of the Falk family included the Harris family that had ties to London and Manchester. My great grandfather was born 1870 and when he came through Ellis Island he said he was going to his uncle, Schie Harris. Was Falk a first name or a surname?

  10. So interesting to read all the comments. I am a senior advisor the King JJ Waterboer, current King of the Griqualand West Nation. It was his ancestor that successfully petitioned Queen Victoria for annexation to protect his people and lands from being invaded. Unfortunately Cecil John Rhodes then came along and stole it all. Today the Griqua peoples are dis-possessed of both land and dignity. I think things might have been different if Mr Barnato had stayed around.

    Please share any memories, photo's or documents that you might have inherited (just copy's of course) so that i can fill in as many blanks as possible.

    I am doing extensive research for the King at the moment because The Griqua People need to re-establish their identity and pride.

    Best regards
    Richard Stephenson