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Cecil Rhodes by  Ian D. Colvin


 

 

THE DIAMOND DIGGINGS

WE are told that Rhodes started for the diamond fields "in a Scotch cart drawn by a team of oxen, carrying with him a bucket and a spade, several volumes of the classics and a Greek lexicon." This is no doubt true, although by that time there was between Durban and the diggings a post-cart service which did the journey in five days, travelling day and night. All the world was going that way. The wash, remember, had been discovered not quite two years before, in January 1870, by the prospecting party to which Herbert Rhodes belonged. But from the beginning it had made a great sensation. Sailors deserted from their ships, soldiers from their [13] regiments, settlers left their farms, workmen broke their contracts, tradesmen sold their stores. The Dean of Grahamstown, writing to the Times in 1870, tells how he had lost his organist and the tenor voices of his choir, and the bricklayer who had been working at his cathedral. He had indeed lost a large part of his diocese, for the people of the town were organising themselves into little companies of from four to sixteen persons, and going up-country in ox wagons, in Cape carts, in any sort of vehicle. And diggers came from oversea, from Australia, from California, from English countryside and English Universities, from Whitechapel, from Berlin. In three great streams they flowed perpetually to the diamond fields. As early as 1870 we hear of thirty wagons arriving in one day, and a train of a hundred wagons being hourly expected from Natal. It was the beginning of a revolution that changed the face and the politics of South Africa in two years.

Never had more new wine been poured into an older bottle. Let us remember that at that time the whole interior of the country was a wilderness known only to the pastoral Boer and the big game hunter. The railway from the Cape had only got as far as Wellington, fifty miles from the coast; there was the new and well-built road up Bain's Kloof; and thence, through the Karoo, only a track of wagon wheels from farm to farm, and the skeletons of oxen by the roadside and at the drifts. The farms were thinly starred over a desolate country, each farm on the site of some rare spring or vlei, or dam, where there was water—good to brackish. The Dutch farmer was primitive, ignorant, hospitable. He lived on his sheep and cattle; his breeches were of leather, his shoes of untanned hide; his [14] vrouw made soap and candles from mutton fat; his fire was made of trampled dung from the fold. This race of farmers divided the country between them in farms of from fifteen thousand to forty thousand acres, save in those parts which were thought to be useless, or where the natives were too strong to be driven out.

The country was parched and barren, save when rain fell, and then there was a sudden and vivid blossoming of flowers. For most of the year there was nothing but the veld bush, low shrubs with succulent leaves, and round every bush several yards of hard, dry earth. On the wide horizons lay ranges of red dolorite rock, steep, scarred, and bare, the kops and kopjes of the veld.

The diamonds were found over a large tract of country hitherto thought utterly worthless, and of doubtful ownership, between the Orange and the Vaal. To the south was the Cape Colony; to the east the Orange Free State, a republic of pastoral farmers, governed patriarchally by President Brand; to the north-east the Transvaal, another republic of the same sort; to the north was the land of the Griquas, Bechuanas; to the west lay the land of the Namaquas and the Kalihari Desert. The country of the diamonds was thought by some to belong to Waterboer, a Griqua chief; by others to the Orange Free State; while the Transvaal made a still more shadowy claim to the territory. Before Rhodes arrived it had been taken over by the British Government. It was country, at the time of the discovery, thought to be worth a few shillings per thousand acres (with no buyers). A good deal of it had neither bush nor grass, and was "little frequented even by wild game."

[15] The Vaal River made a pleasant oasis in this vast desert. The Vaal River was here as broad as the Thames at Chelsea or Battersea, a pleasant stream, whose banks were umbrageous with yellow-wood, acacias, and willows. Here in the river gravel the first diamonds were found, the diggers leading a pleasant life under the acacia trees—"the number of tents and people something beyond conception," writes an early visitor. "All look well and jolly," and he describes how diggers, when they were asked, What luck? would sometimes take from ten to a score of diamonds out of their trouser pockets. It was a free and happy life, in the tent, round the camp fire, under the blue sky, knee deep in the rushing water. The diggers, "dressed in corduroy or shoddy, high-booted, bare as to arms and breast, with beard of any length, girt with a butcher's knife on a belt of leather." A writer in the Grahamstown Journal  tells how a Mr. Waldeck was seen "jumping, dancing, and shouting." The diggers stopped work and crowded round him. He had found a diamond of seventeen and a half carats. The excitement is easy to understand, for single stones were often found worth from £1500 to £2000 apiece. In a few months one company of diggers, the Natal Company, sent home £12,000 worth of diamonds. Fortunes were made at a throw, and the diggers worked from dawn to dark, some picking and shovelling the gravel, others washing it in cradles in the river, others sorting the wet gravel on rough tables. "The men scoop out the wet gravel on a table with a piece of tin or wood, take one glance, and then another scrape turns it off. This goes on at a rate which novices cannot but consider most hazardous; [16] but the diamond shines out like a star whensoever it appears."

A merry life under the blue sky, with lots of hard work and lots of money. We hear of £650 on a single game of cards, and the two billiard tables at Klip Drift did a roaring trade. There is a rough romance, as of the Wild West, in the mere names of these diggings—Pneil, Gong-Gong, and Delport's Hope; Forlorn Hope, Blue Jacket, Waldeck's Plant, and Larkin's Flat. Yet there was no shooting, and little disorder. If a digger misbehaved himself, he was brought before "President Parker," the chairman of the Diggers' Committee, and condemned to be spread-eagled, or dragged through the river if his sin was great. President Brand was popular; but his authority was laughed at. When his field comets rode in to vindicate the majesty of the law, the diggers chaffed them and stood them drinks, but paid them little or no respect. They did what was good in their own eyes. On Sunday they might listen to "the Rev. Mr. Clulee of Bloemfontein" preaching in a tent "the simple gospel of Christ from the parable of the pearl of great price." More often they gathered in Sanger's saloon in Klipdrift to play billiards and cards. Once a fortnight there was a joyous muster of diggers, who marched in line to the strains of Vos's Bloemfontein band, with the British ensign borne proudly aloft in the van.


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