Thursday, January 2, 2014

Kimberley and the Big Hole

The Big Hole with Kimberley in the background
Photo: Jonathan Everitt
In 1866 the first significant diamond was found in what is now the Northern Cape Province of South Africa.  It was followed a few years later by the discovery of the Star of South Africa, and in 1869 an enormous diamond – over 80 carats – was picked up on the slope of a hill on the farm Vooruitzigt (forward looking) belonging to the de Beers brothers.  It set off a huge diamond rush, almost a stampede, as people used whatever means they could to get to the area and stake claims.  The ramshackled settlement became known as “New Rush” and moree than 800 claims were registered in a month.  (Goodness knows what the “Old Rush” was since the New Rush preceded the discovery of gold in the Transvaal by 15 years.)
The hill where the first diamond on Vooruitzigt was found turned out to be a huge kimberlite – the name subsequently given to the type of rock which hosts almost all large diamond deposits.  It is an extrusion from deep in the earth which, millions of years ago, forced its way up to the surface.  The one at Kimberley delivered one of the riches loads of diamonds ever found.

In 1873, Lord Kimberley, Secretary of State for the Colonies, graciously agreed to change the name of New Rush to Kimberley.  (He had mentioned with disdain that he would not deal with anything called New Rush, nor could he spell or pronounce Vooruitzigt.  The supporters of the new town shrewdly picked on a name he could both spell and pronounce.)  By the time it received its new name Kimberley was the second largest town in South Africa (after Cape Town).

As in so many precious metal and gem rushes, the people who made the big money were neither the miners nor the owners of the land.  The de Beers brothers sold their land and their interests in the mines, while disheartened miners sold their claims to the highest bidders, as one company after another was started to mine the stock markets as much as the diamonds.  Cecil Rhodes started out selling water pumps to the miners, turned a nice profit, and used the money to buy up claims.  With a little help from his friends – the Rothschilds! – and partnering with Barney Barnato, in 1888 his De Beers Consolidated Mines became the sole owner of all the diamond works in South Africa.

The hill was gone and had been replaced by a hole, a huge excavation covering many acres.  The wealthy became wealthier, while the poor gambled and mostly lost.  This scene of overcrowding and disease is starkly portrayed in Jennifer McVeigh’s novel The Fever Tree.  (Warning: it’s a historical romance not a mystery.)  There seemed no end to the diamonds; the deeper you went the more you found.  A chasm was opening in the heart of Kimberley.

De Beers marketing refrain is ‘diamonds are forever’.  But diamond mines not quite.  By 1914 the miners had gone down to 240 meters over a surface area of 40 acres, but the job had become ridiculously dangerous.  The sides of the pit collapsed and getting in and out of the mine became almost impossible.  Eventually De Beers closed the pit.  Rockslides reduced the depth to 175 meters and over the years it flooded forming a sunken lake.  But the diamonds were still there hiding below.  Kimberlites rise from miles within the earth carrying diamonds all the way.  So next they went underground after the treasure.

The discovery of another huge diamond deposit at Cullinan in the Transvaal in 1902 was the beginning of the end of Kimberley’s vice-grip on the diamond market.  Eventually Ernest Oppenheimer wrested control of De Beers and even became mayor of Kimberley.  But the tide had turned. Even the School of Mines that had started in Kimberley in 1896 spread its wings, moved to Johannesburg, and eventually became the University of the Witwatersrand.

Over the years three tons of diamonds came from the mine until eventually, in 2005, it closed.  It was uneconomic to go deeper and the diamond market was verging on glut with the huge deposits in Botswana and Canada being developed.  Only the Big Hole was left to become a tourist attraction.  Kimberley remained in the twentieth century, the capital of the Northern Province but no longer of economic significance.
Last month there was a poignant footnote. A dog called Gigi somehow got through the railing around the Big Hole and fell 150 meters (equivalent to a fifty story building) into the lake at the bottom of the pit.  Amazingly, she survived the fall and was spotted swimming in the polluted lake.  The bravery of the creature and its unlikely survival, touched hearts and a rescue attempt was mounted. People wept and prayed for the dog.  After eight days without food, the dog was brought back up, apparently uninjured.  The sharp rocks and unstable edge of the Hole made the rescue as dangerous for the humans as the dog, and Gigi’s rescuer decided to keep her.  Then a pastor came forward announcing that the dog belonged to him, and that her name was Gigi.  A three way battle ensued between the pastor, Gigi’s rescuer, and the SPCA.  Eventually the pastor gave in when threatened with a $4,000 bill for the rescue.  It’s a story that says more about people than it does about dogs.

Kimberley remains the headquarters of De Beers Consolidated Mines, but that is merely the South African subsidiary of the international diamond conglomerate whose focus is now elsewhere.  Kimberley’s main claim to fame is now the Big Hole in the ground.  That wouldn’t be the choice epitaph of too many towns!  The tide that brought Kimberley to prominence in the late nineteenth century has gone out.  

Diamonds weren’t forever after all.

Michael on Thursday wishing you all a very happy 2014!


  1. At least you refrained from saying, "Diamond mining has gone to the dog(s)."

  2. Michael, I visited the Cullinan mine in 2004 during my first visit to South Africa. We took the tour. While there, my husband bought me a pair of small diamonds which are now a pair of earrings. Every time I wear them, they bring me back to that trip and exactly how and when I fell in love with Africa. Diamonds may not be forever, but my memories will last as long as I do.

  3. I got the story of dimonds, please say something about people who were crushed in the big hole, their compensation, and the guarded grave yard near de beer's office. I am deeply concerned my great grant father died there

  4. Wanna hear more abt people who died mining diamont cos my great grant father worked n died in the bighole buried in De Beers graveyard. Don't u have records saved? Do u even Care about those who sacrificed their lives for it wealth? I am deeply concerned cos we are haunted by their spirit as we seem to be neglecting what was supposed to be their remmuniration too 0760109749 Eastern Transvaal

    1. It is one of the tragedies of South Africa (and most of the rest of Africa) that the written histories totally neglected the local people who made the wealth possible. To many of the whites, blacks were not really people. Just things to do the hard work.

  5. My dad gave me a pair of diamond earrings and said "diamond's are forever" and hes not gonna be around forever 😔 miss u dad.r.i.p.