in the Diamond Fields
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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."
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."
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
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.
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."
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.
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
were the wires that Olive Schreiner romantically described in her
novel The Story of an African Farm as a "weird, sheeny,
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.
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.
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.
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.
Porgès, 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."