Life in the Diamond Fields

Julius Wernher's early letters were almost like a diary, though he avoided details of business transactions. They were written in German, but some years after his death his widow had most of them faithfully translated into English. He also left a few sheets of paper headed 'Notes on the Diamond Fields', quaintly expressed at times, written in English and in the third person, but typically concise and careful not to lift veils from the ambiguities behind the strange and to this day secretive world of international diamond trading.

He wrote to his parents in deliberately simple terms, explaining that a claim measured thirty or thirty-one feet square but might be divided into eight, twelve or even more pieces, all owned by separate owners. The results were a question of luck. One claim might yield 10,000 in a month, another nothing at all. Thus a digger needed to have plenty of spare capital, or else he had to join up with other prospectors to form a consortium, sharing the risks. Work at the mines began at sunrise, and earth from the "immense" chasms would be hauled up in leather buckets. The digging in this moon landscape was usually done by blacks, the sorting by whites. He wrote of the cacophony of noise-shouts, clanging metal, rolling carts, the crack of whips, the rattle of the siftings, creaking horse whims, braying mules, the chanting sing-song of black workers. At night there was no peace; the hideous howling of dogs was followed by the crowing of a thousand roosters.

With the onset of the rains the walls of the claims became dangerous, and every week there were fatal accidents through landslides. Hail would thunder on the corrugated-iron roofs. He slept with a revolver under his pillow, and after dark carried a long stick because of numerous drunkards always 'in ambush'. No doubt anticipating alarm at home, he quickly added that in any case he usually stayed in of an evening, as he shared a mess with a Frenchman who had an expert cook. Game, such as partridges and buck, improved the menus. As for water, it was rarer than brandy, and had to be carted from the Vaal River. Thus any people were discouraged from washing : not so pleasant. And you had to be on your guard with every single person, especially in business. There was such a lot of "malodorous rabble" from the gold mines of Australia and California.

He then described the original discovery of diamonds at New Rush the previous August. There really had been a "rush", a kind of crazy panic - a pathetic exhibition of greed, even desperation. Everything at Du Toits Pan had been abandoned, tents, camp, equipment, clothes. People ran, galloped on horses, raced along in carts and carriages, in order to grab a claim, even a half or quarter of a claim, before it was too late. His friend Captain Rolleston had said that it had been like a disordered army in full flight.

In April Julius was writing that the South African mines were proving themselves far richer than anyone had imagined. But this had also meant a tremendous drop in the price of diamonds all over the world, and fortunes were already being lost. The cost of claims was "skyrocketing", too. Would-be prospectors were still turning up daily, hoping to earn heaps of money quickly, but were all too soon disappointed in that ruthless world. Luckily, however, he and Mège had bought their stock carefully and in not excessive quantities.

He complained about the haphazard postal system. Every evening dozens of registered letters containing diamonds, often of the highest value, were being dispatched. They would be left lying about in the post office, on tables, chairs or the floor. After sorting them the postmaster would go for his meal, leaving the packets "to look after themselves". "It is small wonder that the last European post was stolen!" Volunteers were searching all the bars and blocking exits to the camps. On another occasion, during the rainy season, a whole sack of letters had been swept away in a river.

Now Julius, thanks to his loan, was arranging to import not only German beer but sparkling wine from his Wernher cousins' estate at Nierstein. He might dislike drunkenness, but there was a profit to be had from alcohol. In spite, he wrote, of the lack of general business, new shops were appearing every day, and there was even a Lutheran church in New Rush, though 'alive with fleas'. Indeed the white population of the diamond fields remained more or less constant, the numerous arrivals making up for the constant departures.

Trading was still so slack in June that he admitted that he might be sitting at his desk without a client for a whole hour. It being midwinter, the nights were "ice cold" and he had to have a sheepskin on his bed. Recently people had been found frozen to death, having gone to bed drunk.

Meanwhile he had had a charming letter from Mr Porgès, advancing him a whole year's salary, "a very fine proof of trust". His parents were curious to have more information about the black workers. He replied that apart from the Hottentots and Bushmen, who were the aborigines, and the Griquas themselves, who had mixed blood, the working blacks were from the east, from Zululand, Natal or Mozambique, and also from districts to the north of the Transvaal Republic.

The whole journey here is done on foot, and takes, according to distance, six weeks to two months. On the way they starve, and often do not eat anything for two or three days; then they eat a little maize, and continue the journey. Usually they come in whole troops of forty to eighty, and are greeted by their comrades on arrival with loud cries, singing and dancing. The first month they are usually ill, and some die. Their feet are wounded and swollen, and as soon as they have found service they are nourished. In the beginning they usually over-fill their stomachs, which have been used to emptiness, so that even the Kaffir or Negro cannot stand it. The usual wage is ten 14 shillings per week with board, an extraordinarily high price, but this is going to be reduced soon to six or eight shillings. They are usually very strong, and can work like no white man, but are dreadfully lazy and waste a lot of time. A kick is supposed to bring them to reason, and on the whole they are generous and naive. They are very grateful for the smallest gift, but often start thieving and steal a lot of diamonds. If this is found out, they are punished vigorously, but usually the fury of the diggers is so great that the authorities try to hang them at once. By now the conditions of the law are slightly more ordered, though in the beginning there were several kinds of lynch justice. It is forbidden for the whites to buy from the Kaffirs, as the diamonds would probably have been stolen; and if it is, found out that a white man has bought from a Kaffir his house is burnt down, and he can only save himself by flight. Luckily now there are numerous policeman, and such excesses have not happened for a long time. Before they were of daily occurrence. The Kaffirs save every penny. When they have enough money they buy a rifle and gunpowder, woollen blankets, tin buckets, iron pots and so on, and go home heavily laden. With these treasures they buy a woman and marry.

The blacks were rather given to drink, the whites not setting a good example, because while the average Englishman in England might drink one glass of brandy, if he could afford it, in Africa he swallowed down quantities with water, trying to quench his thirst. Barkeepers were forbidden by law to sell spirits to a black without the written permission of his master. Often there were some quite fierce and alarming tribal battles.

Those blacks who had come from the Cape spoke good English and became servants, copying their masters in clothes and manners. Julius in his old blue coat looked 'far less noble' than his servant.

The other day I came home from a ride and called to him to take my horse. He was lying in the stable on straw, and replied to my call, "John is drunk, sir" - then he ordered one of his friends to do what was necessary, and even had the presence of mind to give orders about feeding the animals. Next day he had a sore head, and we hoped that it would have taught him a lesson once and for all, but unfortunately since then he is often tipsy.

Julius wrote a long letter home on 15 June, before setting out on a tour to the Vaal River. The great news of the day, he said, was that the post thief had been arrested in Cape Town. He was an Englishman, and about 2,300 diamonds had been found on him, all mixed up together and hidden in his rifle barrel and powder horn. The fellow had arrived at Cape Town in February, lodged in the Royal Hotel, where he had stolen 100 from the man with whom he shared a room, and had then disappeared to the diamond fields. Afterwards he had had the cheek to return to the Royal. "His luggage was already on board a ship, but Nemesis stood before the door. The ship was a day late in leaving, and Tuesday evening quite by chance the man from whom he had stolen the money returned to Cape Town and went to the same hotel…"

"In my last letter", Julius went on, "I wrote a little chapter about the Kaffirs. I shall continue today. Although these people are quite unsophisticated as yet, they are human beings and capable of instruction, and man always remains the most interesting part of Creation." Their small pleasures charmed him. "When talking or singing excitedly they move their hands vivaciously. The singing is more a soft humming, always the same melody but not unbeautiful. There are many dialects, but mostly they speak a language with accent, and it seems to be rich in vowels and has many curious tongue sounds, like clicks." Those who worked in the claims were addressed as "Boy", whatever their ages. They generally possessed only one woollen blanket or sheepskin against the cold, and when digging wore a small rag as a loin cloth. Any piece of clothing would be a deep "Isabella" colour, possibly a ragged coat or military uniform. "Our John is a fop comme il faut. He has at least six hats and two smoking caps, coats and trousers, paper collars, and fourteen ties, high boots etc. In short there are not many like him. All the Kaffirs are dreadfully (it frightened of the police, who do not behave very delicately towards them. The usual punishment is twenty-five strokes." He wrote of the Berlin missionary station where women were taught needlework and the men agriculture. He seemed particularly to like the Basutos, who "could not be equalled in the making of baskets and mats, but they were not so handsome as the "strapping" Zulus and warlike Matabeles."

A German Club or Mess had just been started, though other nationalities could be admitted. Of the twenty-one members, he said, he was the only Christian. "The intention of the Club is the promotion of card playing and dominos. Of course I am only going to play whist, and I do not intend to go there more than twice a week." At least there would be a stove in the Club, particularly welcome in winter, and German newspapers would be available. Julius's beer and wine would be on sale. As it happened, he said, because of living with Mège, he was speaking more French than German.

At the end of this long letter there was a terse little postscript: "I am afraid I cannot worry about catching butterflies for Uncle Wilhelm. If he wants fleas I am ready to send him a thousand from my bed."

By the end of July 1872 he was finding himself much busier. This was partly because he and Mège now had their own kitchen and Julius had to supervise the buying of supplies and the cooking. Vegetables, except potatoes, were always scarce. Butter was "disgusting". There was tinned fruit from California, but horribly expensive. The Frenchman with whom they had shared a mess had not only taken to drink but had stolen money, so that arrangement was over. Even Mège had learnt to sweep out his own office, saddle his own horse and feed it. "Yes, when the Kaffirs forget to empty his night pot he empties it himself, which especially pleases me. Excuse these details but they give a picture of our life."

Some claims had by now been bought up by Mège on behalf of the firm. Julius, always in a great white sombrero, was also making regular visits to the Vaal River sites, partly because of a new, though minor, rush at Waldeck's Plant, where once a huge stone had been found. He also visited Hebron and its neighbour Klipdrift, after only two years a substantial and pleasant town. The diamonds he bought were small but of perfect quality. Julius thought the countryside pleasantly picturesque, at any rate a relief from the noise and stink of New Rush. Then there was the benefit of having a morning bath in a reasonable hotel without having to pay for the water.

For nearly two months there had been no rain. The dust storms around New Rush and Du Toits Pan, or Dutoitspan as it was generally called by now, were so dense, that the sky became dark and reddish and it was "literally impossible" to keep one's eyes open.

Suddenly there seemed to be a disastrous setback to the business. Once more the post had been stolen; and with it all the beautiful Vaal River diamonds that Julius had collected with such pains. He "felt like weeping". This time the sack containing the registered letters had disappeared from the back of the mail cart, and the driver had not noticed until he had gone sixty miles. "If Negroes make the slightest mistake," Julius wrote, "they are punished cruelly, but fellows such as this go free. Anyway, after a month the thief was caught, and the diamonds recovered."

Now, in response to his father's request for a description of the actual mines, Julius launched into several pages, in his neat small script. Patiently he gave details of the system of sieving the gravel from the river diggings, and reiterated how the majority of prospectors were now concentrated on the dry diggings. In the latter the surface was of a yellowish colour, but below the earth was hard and blue, and this was where the diamonds were found. [This "blue ground", or kimberlite, was the matrix of the diamond deposits, and occurred in cylindrical "pipes".] Removing the earth was the great problem -in effect it was only possible if there were roads or paths between each claim. These roads, seven feet wide, were like ridges in a vast honey-comb which was covered with a web of hauling ropes and running gear. Enormous hills of debris made the excavations seem even deeper.

When claims began to reach ninety feet in depth the roads became ever smaller, and there were constant landslides and collapses of the reef [ containing walls] worse than before. Daily men, carts and horses hurtled into the depths, and were dashed to pieces. Carts were then forbidden to use the roads, and all the earth from the middle of the area had to be brought out in sacks, which made the cost very much higher. The claims near the border now use the so-called tramways, scaffoldings from which wire ropes of up to a hundred feet are sent into the depths, often stretching over other claims. With these wires the earth is brought up in buckets, and it really is an extraordinary sight to see those buckets hovering in the air, with nearly naked Negroes on the high scaffolding, turning wheels, some singing, others screaming directions, while others are busy with wheelbarrows, or toil, like tiny black crows in the depths far below.

(These were the wires that Olive Schreiner romantically described in her novel The Story of an African Farm as a "weird, sheeny, mistlike veil".)

At the river it had been a question of digging out gravel. In the "dry" ground, at New Rush for instance, you first had to excavate up to sixty feet of yellowish soil or sand. Here you would hope to find many diamonds, and these were easy to pick up. After that came the hard bluish substance which many people at first thought was the end of the diamonds. But after digging into it, the quantity turned out to be even greater, the darker the ground the better.

Many prospectors sift with sieves which only stop stones over one carat, so that all the smaller stones are wasted. In this way you can at least get much more work done, and gain in time. It is curious how different in quality diamonds are from closely situated diggings. At Bultfontein the stones are of little weight but beautifully white. At Dutoitspan you have the 'fattest' diamonds, more or less yellow, though there are also some smaller stones of good colour. These two are now known as the 'poor man's diggings'. At New Rush and De Beers you usually find fragments, many of enormous weight, some of fifty to sixty carats. The prices are regulated by colour, size, form, purity and structure, and there are as many prices as shades. Some stones are sold at five shillings per carat and others at 40 to 100. Every stone has to be judged individually, and in order to be a real expert you need years of practice. Although I have examined thousands of stones and bought hundreds, I am still a miserable beginner, and admit that up to now I have had more courage and good fortune than knowledge.

The more expert you were, he said, the more particular you became. Good light for assessing stones was essential. Indeed many faults were not visible to the naked eye. Julius admitted that he had made mistakes, but Mège had been extraordinarily generous in such matters, taking the view that errors were inevitable where only two per cent of the diamonds were of the finest quality.

Julius had had another warm letter from Porgès, making it clear that he would be in charge when Mège left in 1873 and that he would be permitted to purchase further groups of claims.
, Julius told his father, had "earned terrifically" and might even consider retiring in a few years' time. This could have an effect on Julius's career, possibly turning into a dangerous situation - or else it might be a great opportunity. "However as matters go, I am looking into the future full of trust. If I remain in good health and keep my wits about me - and two strong arms - I shall never lack anything. Though of course I shall also still need my good luck."