The Real Characters who Lived on the Diamond Mines
Jennifer McVeigh Picks Her Favourite Characters from the Kimberley Diamond Fields
Kimberley was an extraordinary place, swarming with fortune hunters who lived out a gritty, hand-to-mouth existence on the very edge of the civilized world; blighted by dust storms and plagues of flies, and a corruption that was as endemic to the diamond fields as the dysentery which ravaged the town’s inhabitants. It was a landscape of pioneering adventure, but also one of moral destitution. One diamond dealer described the daily arrival of newcomers to Kimberley: ‘each post-cart and bullock wagon brought its load of sordid, impecunious humanity.’ Nearly all of the stories in The Fever Tree are based on the diaries and reminiscences of those who lived on the diamond fields. There was a wealth of material to choose from, and many more characters than could ever be squeezed into the pages of just one novel. I want to take this opportunity to introduce you to a few who didn’t make it into The Fever Tree.
It was a Cape Coloured servant called Damon who first discovered diamonds on the stretch of land that would later be known as the Kimberley mine. He came to the diamond fields in 1871, working as a cook for a prospector named Fleetwood Rawstorne. Although dependable when sober, Damon was a hopeless drunk and he had an ingenious ability to get his hands on liquor, even when they were camped far out in the bush. One night, when Damon showed up drunk in Rawstorne’s tent, Rawstorne booted him out into the veldt and told him ‘not to come back until he had found a diamond’. Three days later – to Rawstorne’s amazement – Damon walked back into camp clutching a handful of rough stones. He led them to a thorn tree on a small kopje, and beneath the roots of the tree they found what was to become the richest deposit of diamonds in the world.
Barney Barnato was better known for his music-hall performances than his business skills, and his story epitomizes the rags-to-riches experiences of those who made their fortunes on the fields. He grew up in a Jewish slum in Whitechapel, with no schooling, scraping a living selling rags on the street. When a cousin made a small fortune on the diamond fields he decided to follow in his footsteps. His first morning at the Cape didn’t auger well. He met a well-to-do-looking man in his hotel, who asked him where he was headed. When Barney told him he was going to the diamond fields the man shook his head, saying, ‘too late, boy, too late, nothing left. I struck it rich, but the sands are dry now. Best take the next boat back.’ But Barney wasn’t the type to give up. He paid £5 for the privilege of loading his luggage on to an ox wagon, and walked beside it under the searing sun, the whole long way to Kimberley. He later said that the journey – which lasted almost two months – had been ‘one of the jolliest times I ever had’. In Kimberley Barney teetered on the brink of absolute poverty, only surviving by performing cabaret and magic shows, boxing, and trading in anything from feathers to vegetables. Just ten years later – against all the odds – he became one of the wealthiest men on the fields.
The lure of ready money drew prostitutes of every colour and nationality to the diamond mines. A journalist told of a woman who, just hours after arriving in Kimberley, went to a bar and offered herself up for auction. She was won by a Dutch merchant for £25 and three cases of champagne. He claimed his prize in a tent a few yards away, but his triumph was tempered when the unlucky bidders surrounded the tent and carried it away, leaving the amorous couple embarrassingly exposed.
Prostitution wasn’t the only vice. The gambling dens, or ‘hells’ as they were known, were notorious, and catered for those who had got lucky at the fields, as well as those who needed a little luck to keep them in business. A doctor in Kimberley described a visit to one such ‘hell’: a corrugated iron building in which all manner of men were crowded, ‘some clad in decent clothes, but many in shirt sleeves and rough garb, just as they had come from the mine . . . [they] had notes of large amounts in their hands, whilst bundles of them protruded from their pockets.’
The doctor saw a captain enter the saloon and sit down at one of the tables. The captain’s outwardly calm demeanour little disguised the intensity with which he played rouge et noir, and it was obvious that much relied on the outcome. But luck was not on his side, and after playing for some time he was soon down to his last £10: ‘this he flung on the “red” with a look of sheer despair, and awaited the issue with an agony of expression that was painful to witness.’ It fell on black, and the man swore and left the room, accompanied by the jeers of the other players. A moment later a shot rang out, and the saloon fell silent. The captain had shot himself in the street, and lay there in a pool of blood.
Had the captain needed the attention of a hospital, he wouldn’t have been in much luck. The first hospital in Kimberley was the Diggers Central Hospital – a marquee near the Dutoitspan Jail. In the early days it had no beds and few comforts, and when a dust storm raged over the camp the canvas would be ripped to shreds. A new hospital, built in 1872, was a definite improvement. It had two cool, clean, wattle-and-daub huts, sleeping twenty men, and a large marquee which served as a mortuary. But things were still a long way from the standards expected by some. When one of the doctors went to the hospital to examine a corpse in the mortuary, he saw: ‘merely the trunk of the poor fellow’s body left; the prowling, ravenous dogs which then roamed about, having devoured the poor man’s limbs, which they had torn in pieces from his body.’
Kimberley was rife with IDB, or illicit diamond buyers. It was common knowledge that white diamond magnates relied on, and encouraged, African laborers to steal diamonds so that they could be bought cheap and sold for a profit. Usually a laborer who stole the diamond from a claim would sell it to a trusted ‘swell’ – another African with contacts, who would then sell the diamond on to a white agent. But ‘raw natives’, ignorant of the chain of command, would sometimes try and sell diamonds direct to agents, and when this happened the agent would take advantage of his ignorance, paying him in false banknotes. Printed here is an extraordinary example of a false banknote circulating in Kimberley, issued from ‘The Bank of Leather’; a cruel jibe at the illiterate recipient.
It seems fitting to end with this picture, perfectly encapsulating as it does what so many of the men who lived and worked on the diamond fields were playing at: the peddling of a morally bankrupt British ideology, in the name of empire, but in the service of self-interest.