Diamond Rush in South Africa, 1870s

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 13-14:

As diamond fever spread throughout southern Africa and beyond, the rush to the diamond fields of Griqualand turned into a frantic escapade that one Cape Town newspaper likened to ‘a dangerous madness’. In their thousands, shopkeepers, tradesmen, clerks and farmers, excited by the prospect of sudden riches, set out in ox-wagons and mule carts heading for the desolate patch of sun-baked scrubland in Griqualand where diamonds had been discovered. Some travelled on foot, walking from as far away as Cape Town, a journey of 700 miles across the great thirstland of the Karoo.

They were joined by a horde of foreign adventurers: seasoned diggers from the Australian goldfields; fortyniners from California; cockney traders from the backstreets of London; Irish dissidents; German speculators; army officers on furlough; ship’s deserters; bogus aristocrats, rogue lawyers, and quack doctors. ‘Each post-cart and bullock-wagon brought its load of sordid, impecunious humanity,’ one diamond dealer remarked in his memoirs.

The stories told of fabulous wealth were real enough. In the early days, diggers using picks and shovels found diamonds lying close to the surface. A day’s work for those in luck could provide them with as many as ten or twenty diamonds. Some made their fortunes before breakfast. A penniless Englishman uncovered a 175-carat stone valued at £33,000. Each big discovery reignited the enthusiasm of others for the hunt. Many having ‘made their pile’ decided to return home, celebrating their departure with gunfire and spreading word to the outside world of the bonanza they had won.

But the mining settlements of Griqualand soon came to be renowned as much for despair, disease and death as for the fortunes made there.

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Filed under Australia, Britain, economics, Germany, migration, Netherlands, South Africa

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