Turn of the Tide

By 1873 the "respectable female element" had increased in the diamond fields, as more wives arrived, accompanied sometimes by daughters. Julius appreciated their civilizing effect, and on New Year's Eve even consented to go to a ball, where his Nierstein champagne "flowed like rivers". Still, however, preferring to stay at home in the evenings, he wrote to his parents for a supply of books; not novels, but biographies, travel books and histories of art. He particularly wanted a work on Michelangelo, Mommsen's History of Rome and Macaulay's Essays. He also needed cookery books.

Friends from that period afterwards described him as a born diplomat, calm personified, thoughtful, slow and determined, never in a hurry, never suffering from 'nerves', strong in mind and body, keeping to himself. A fellow diamond dealer was to write :

He was known to be a very just man, upright and strictly honourable in all his dealings, incapable of doing anything, shady. In a time when fortunes were easily made, by all sorts of means, and temptations to be crooked very great, it was rare to come across a character like Wernher's. A curious feature about him was that whilst he was slow to act in business affairs, when otherwise occupied he raced. He never rode to the mines, or about the camp, except at a good hard gallop, and in the ballroom he flew across like a heavy dragoon in a charge.

Since Julius complained that the women he had to dance with were too small or fat, and since he was usually described as burly or massive, we may assume his performance on the floor must have been quite a spectacle.

Among his competitors in business were the smaller peripatetic dealers, or kopje wallopers, shady operators and scamps many of them, and some rising to enormous wealth, such as the incomparable Barnett Isaacs, from the East End of London, better known as Barney Barnato. Rivalries lay ahead with Barnato, a long way in the future, but even he would have acknowledged that Julius Wernher was that rare combination, a man of unlimited ambition who was also a man of principle. Other potentially colourful but less controversial dealers of the period such as David Harris, Francis Oats and Sigismund Neumann were to become friends or colleagues.

It was said that Julius was "not luxurious but liked his comforts", and that he used to "indulge in a great deal of sarcasm, which although humorous was at times very stinging". He especially liked to "chaff" about the Boers and loved to tease his Dutch friend Martin van Beek, who later lived with him, about speaking the local dialect, the Taal, For all that, there is not much intentional humour in his letters, which often seem to have a self-congratulatory tone -though this would have been deliberate, in order to reassure his parents, worrying about his future in a time of financial crisis in Europe.

On occasions he felt obliged to apologize to his mother for sending her his Jewish friends from the diamond fields, and would emphasize their special qualities. He himself appeared to have completely lost whatever anti-semitic feelings he might once have had. As for the blacks, they still "greatly intrigued" him, though there were some "serious problems". In October 1874 he was writing once more about "this strong though lazy people", and continued: "As slavery exists no longer one cannot force them, and there is little to be done with money either. It will take a lifetime before these savage forces can be properly channeled. People are thinking seriously of importing Malays and Indians, of whom there are any amount in town." But the greatest 'problem, of all was IDB (Illicit Diamond Buying), mainly by the kopje wallopers and to a large extent blamed on pilfering by blacks.

Some claims in mines were owned by blacks, and this was resented by white diggers. Julius did not necessarily share such a prejudice but was convinced that the days of small owners were doomed, as the increasing depth of the mines and the frequent caving in of the reef made the working of their holdings unprofitable. Many of the deeper claims were under water in winter, and little combination existed between the various owners. In any case numbers of claims were mortgaged and coming on the market.

You had to be "very very careful", he said, about lending money. There were some reckless speculators around. "It is dreadful how much swindling there is here, particularly in dens for billiards or roulette run by Americans and Irish." Fortunately, he added, there were still decent people about, and "matters are not anything like as bad as they were and still are in the Californian Gold Fields."

Here he was speaking from the heart. Some years later he revealed that he had had a bitter experience in 1873. "An acquaintance from the war, a German, betrayed me to the tune of 400, the savings of my first year. I had lent him the money so that he could establish himself, but he absconded.

For all that, it is clear that Mège and Julius took advantage of buying up claims at bargain prices. Throughout his business life Julius stuck to the maxim that one should buy when prices are at their lowest.

He wrote again about the importance of purity in diamonds. Mège, for instance, had paid 1,600 for a 38-carat stone that Julius by a lucky chance had found at Waldeck's Plant. They had thought it would cut to 16 carats, but one dealer in London reckoned that it would only make 12 1/2, which would have meant a loss. As it happened, it cut to 18, so there was a "pleasing profit". On the other hand a friend had bought a stone for 900, and when it was cut the highest offer was only 256. "Our enemy remains the London market which last year broke the neck of many a fellow."

He admitted that he was longing for the day when Mège would return to Europe. Not that they ever had the slightest quarrel. Mège was well educated and had good manners, but he was a "heartless egoist", rather too keen on the ladies. Julius obviously on occasion had to stifle irritations, especially in the heat of February. He had been annoyed by Mège's selfish attitude during some torrential rains when the roof of their bathroom fell in. Apart from this, he was in suspense about his own future, being aware that a great deal of private correspondence on the matter was going on with Porgès.

He need not have worried. Both Mège and Porgès thought so highly of him that he was given a year's contract as manager with 25 per cent participation in the profits, all expenses paid. He was allowed to do business on his own account, and thus for awhile became manager for two other unconnected firms. Looking ahead to the "joy of independence", he bought and furnished a small house at Old De Beers, corrugated iron of course, "charming and very comfortable, even with the luxury of a chest of drawers and a wooden verandah".

Old De Beers had now become the fashionable area in the diamond fields, especially for the British. Ladies in gigs could be seen calling on one another, or cantering about, "exquisitely dressed".

His best friend then was his neighbour August Rothschild the auctioneer, known to all as the Baron, a "noted card", the "Beau Brummel of Griqualand West" because of his shiny pomaded locks. Julius described him as a "generous fellow if a bit affected and uncultured". This Rothschild had made "pots of money" and would soon be visiting his family in Munich, bringing with him a present of ostrich feathers for the Wernhers.

Julius had to announce that he had been afflicted with severe hemorrhoids, and put this down to the sedentary life in the hot weather, stuck in his corrugated-iron shack behind a pair of scales. It was not possible to go for walks, the countryside being dull and sandy. "Ninety out of a hundred people here are plagued with hemorrhoids." Needless to say, his mother reacted at once with the greatest alarm.

The slump in the diamond fields became worse after Mège's departure.

One cannot see the end of it owing to this idiotic rivalry. For the last six months diamonds have been more expensive here than in London, but although there have been colossal losses people go on speculating madly. New buyers keep on arriving so this condition can last longer than it might otherwise have done. In order not to fall into this same trap one needs the patience of an angel, besides a great deal of caution. People who once earned thousands of pounds are now not worth ten.

Julius had consequently decided to suspend shipments for a while to London.

Gold had meanwhile been discovered in the eastern Transvaal. Julius was sceptical about prospects there, but several diggers left to try their luck in this fresh El Dorado. The news of the find spread quickly round the world, and prospectors were landing 'almost daily' at the nearest port, Delagoa Bay (later Lourenço Marques), in the Portuguese territory of Mozambique, to find themselves faced with the long and dangerous journey across the "thankless veld". "Many have perished from exhaustion or disease, or have been killed by animals."

By the end of 1874 Julius found his circle of acquaintances narrowing with so many being lured away to the gold fields. Apart from Rothschild he saw most of Anton Dunkelsbühler, popularly known as Dunkels (which name he adopted), perhaps his chief competitor among the dealers and agent for Mosenthal of Cape Town, and another dealer, Levy, whose wife was a highly strung lady, fond of practical jokes. This could have been the same Levy who was a gun and general merchant, in trouble with some old hands for selling guns to "niggers" -an offensive word which had recently been borrowed from America and was sometimes adopted by Julius.

He had to apologize for his letters becoming so "dreadfully boring", but "my mind is like leather and full of business". "Money is nothing to me now,, he added somewhat alarmingly." "But I am not one of those who make fortunes by genius, lose them and then win them back. I only walk well-known paths." He had almost made up his mind to stay on in Africa for a few more 25 years, in the hope of eventually becoming a partner in the London end of the business.

Such news predictably evoked a wail of anguish from his mother. What about that nice German daughter-in-law she so longed for? His reply, under the circumstances, must have seemed a little odd. "You need have no fear of my respectability. I am as fresh and well as I could wish, especially in the cooler weather when the days are glorious. The work suits me down to the ground. The only disadvantage is its everlasting sameness. I live as regularly as in a girls' boarding-school."

New Rush and De Beers had turned into Kimberley, named after the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and the area around Dutoitspan and Bultfontein had been anglicized to Beaconsfield, in honour of the Prime Minister. Discontent among the diggers had been growing ever since the arrival of the new Lieutenant- Governor, Richard Southey, mainly on account of his liberal attitude towards the blacks, and his failure to have them "disciplined". The main grievances centred upon IDB, and Southey's support for small-scale producers. In order to prevent IDB, the white diggers wanted blacks and anyone of colour to be banned from owning claims or dealing in diamonds. Other grievances were connected with taxation and relations with landowners, or rather speculators. A Diggers' Protection Association was formed, originally a vigilante group but developing rapidly into full-scale rebellion. Arms were collected and parades held in the market square. As a result troops had to be summoned from Cape Town. Southey believed that German diamond merchants were the wire-pullers behind the rebellion, which became known as the Black Flag Revolt. The maximum number of claims holdings had been restricted to ten, which was frustrating indeed for those who were convinced that the mines could continue profitably only through consolidation. Nevertheless Julius -who to the end of his life tried to keep out of politics -had stayed very much in the background. In the end it seemed as though the diggers had won. He summed up the event for his parents in a bland and short description:

The ringleaders were acquitted recently by a Jury. Thereupon the Governor and his Secretary were recalled by the 26 Government. The Governor, as such, was hopeless, but admired in his private life. I knew him from his better side, and was very well acquainted with his son and often went to their house. They were always very hospitable. His post will be taken by an Administrator, as the Province is too small to afford a Governor. Taxes are quite enormous here. A white population of hardly more than five thousand souls has to supply about 70,000, and that for an Administration that does nothing, whose activity is only noticeable in the wrong way. No wonder the situation became heated.

Griqualand West was finally annexed to Cape Colony in 1881. The Black Flag Revolt has been regarded as one of the key events in the history of South African labour relations, even though "persons of colour" continued to own property in Kimberley. It marked a hardening of racial attitudes, and the abolition of the ten-claim limit was the beginning of the period when the mines would be controlled by organized capital.

About this time also, Julius proposed, because of the IDB "menace" (no longer a "problem"), that all employees should be searched when leaving mines. The theory was that no honest man would object to this. The suggestion was not taken up, but when put into practice some years later caused violent protests. Although it affected both whites and blacks, historians have pointed out that it was symptomatic of a growing attitude that all black workers were potential criminals.

The Revolt also resulted in the gradual disappearance of the shareworking system - shareworkers being diggers who received a percentage of profits from owners of claims. Southey's complaint about wire-pullers had in fact chiefly been directed against the Moderate Party, which represented the interests of the diamond merchants, and whose committee included the formidable J. B. Robinson, now a prominent diamond buyer, and Julius's friend Rothschild. The huge sums of interest demanded by moneylenders from diggers, some of whom were thereby bankrupted, had been another element behind the Revolt. Rothschild is recorded as having 5,000 invested in loans. Presumably Julius to some extent was similarly involved, as he had picked up claims for himself in the Dutoitspan and De Beers mines. At any rate 1875 had been a brilliant year for him, as he told his parents, "really too brilliant". "Not one young man out of a hundred thousand has earned what I have earned at the age of twenty-three."

Even before the lifting of the ten-claims limit he had been urging Porgès to consider purchasing a major section of the Kimberley Mine (New Rush), as a means to secure a regular supply of diamonds. In 1875 Porgès was the largest importer of Cape diamonds in London and had 30,000 invested in the business. Delighted with his protege, he first tried to make him accept a three-year contract, and then announced that he would have to come to South Africa himself.

Julius accepted the contract if he could have some leave in Europe in 1877. Kimberley hostesses were becoming impressed by this extraordinarily successful and good-looking though reserved young man, and Julius mentioned that he had accepted several invitations to balls during the cool season. At these entertainments he could sometimes be persuaded to sing German folk songs, which a Mrs Stonestreet thought "passably in tune, rather a joke".

In spite of business being "as bad as ever", Julius's personal fortunes continued to increase. Indeed he admitted to having "earned terrifically again" thanks to his growing clientele, both for the firm and privately. There were also new political problems.

The Boers very stupidly have started a war with Zulu tribes on their frontier, and at a decisive moment distinguished themselves by such cowardice that they would have become the laughing stock of the whole country, if the matter had not been too serious for jesting. Up to now the Kaffirs are victorious everywhere but are limiting themselves to the defensive. We are only suffering insofar as a lot of Kaffirs have had to go back to their chiefs, and there are not enough workers about.

This "war" was more in the nature of a series of skirmishes. The Transvaal Boers, who were also in financial difficulties, had to appeal to the British for help, and, as a result, in April 1877, duly found themselves annexed, part of the British Empire. The Zulus on the other hand were to find that disputes over possession of lands on the Transvaal border were by no means over

On 12 December 1876 Julius announced that "our visitor", Porgès, had arrived. "I cannot imagine a more agreeable event. In all questions we agree." He would be returning to Europe with Porgès in the spring. Porgès had therefore brought with him a clerk called Charles Rube, a German from Darmstadt, "a little quiet but seemingly willing and diligent".

Sir Charles Warren, who had travelled out on the same ship as Porgès, the SS Danube, was to write of the "magnificent Porgès who knows the value of money though he has plenty of it". And photographs of Porgès do show an amiable face, with a big moustache and hair parted down the middle. Elegantly dressed always, a man of taste, he had sent Julius an exceedingly expensive Christmas present, not at all suitable for the rough life in Kimberley. This was a Louis XV "mechanical" travelling cabinet. This rare piece is regarded as having inspired Julius on his return to Europe to become a collector and is still owned by his descendants.

Porgès was only in Kimberley for three months, and his visit was a sensation. Under the circumstances Julius's brief account of this period for the benefit of his parents is a nice understatement : "We have made a not inconsiderable extension to our business in buying claims, in other words buying part of amine, and I have had rather a lot to do." Porgès formed a syndicate, mainly of friends in London and Paris, including Mège, and spent no less than 90,000 on buying claims at depressed prices in the Kimberley Mine, ending with owning 10 per cent of the whole. The result was that the market value of claims in general was driven up steeply. Porgès also decided to invest in the newly invented, and expensive, steam haulage and washing machines.

So in April Julius accompanied him to London, where the syndicate claims were put into a private company with a nominal capital of 400,000, the Griqualand West Diamond Mining Company.

In August, after visits in Germany, Julius was in Paris, still full of extravagant praises for his employer: "Mr Porgès really is an exception", he wrote, "resplendent in his happiness. I drive with him in the Bois and am always being invited to dinner. At the theatre I have the best seats. In short I am entirely the Grand Seigneur, which does not really suit my simple nature and the quiet life to which I am accustomed. As you realize, my work is in London, where as nowhere else the proverb Time is Money is better illustrated." He was back in Kimberley in November, as a partner, with instructions to watch out for first-class bargains.