Although it’s a provincial capital and the historic centre of production of one of the world’s most valuable materials, KIMBERLEY itself is neither large nor glamorous. During the diamond rush, it was the fastest-growing city in the southern hemisphere and Cecil Rhodes held in his grip not only the fabulously wealthy diamond industry, but the heart and mind of the British Empire; yet status and sophistication have been draining from Kimberley ever since. Even the all-controlling De Beers Group (sometimes called the “grandfather” of Kimberley for the number of people it has directly and indirectly employed) closed its Kimberley mines in 2005 as part of a process to streamline the company, and the city lives in the chilly shadow of the day when the diamonds dry up altogether.
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However, Kimberley’s legacy gives it an historic flavour few other cities in South Africa can match. It’s worth spending a few hours seeking out some of the many old buildings, not forgetting to peer into the depths of the Big Hole just west of the centre, the remarkable, hand-dug chasm that takes up almost as much land area as the city’s central business district (CBD).
The fact that the Big Hole is underground doesn’t make orientation immediately easy; a useful landmark is the stern-looking skyscraper, Harry Oppenheimer House (often referred to as HOH), near the tourist office. Many of Kimberley’s other main sights lie on or near Du Toitspan Road, which slices diagonally across the city centre and becomes one of the main arteries out of town to the southeast. The central business district (CBD) sits at Du Toitspan Road’s northern end, to the south of Lennox Road.
The Big Hole: Kimberley Mine Museum
Although the 500-metre-wide Big Hole, just west of the city centre, is neither the only nor even the biggest hole in Kimberley, it remains the city’s principal attraction. In 1871, with diamonds known to be in the area (see A short history of the Diamond Fields), a group of workers known as the Red Cap Party were scratching around at the base of Colesberg koppie, a small hill on the De Beers brothers’ farm. The story goes that they sent one of their cooks to the top of the hill as a punishment for being drunk, telling him not to return until he’d found a diamond. The unnamed servant duly came back with a peace offering, and within two years there were over fifty thousand people in the area frantically turning Colesberg koppie inside out. In its heyday, tens of thousands of miners swarmed over the mine to work their ten-square-metre claim, and a network of ropes and pipes crisscrossed the surface; each day saw lives lost and fortunes either discovered or squandered. Once the mining could go no further from the surface, a shaft was dug to allow further excavations beneath it to a depth of over 800m. Incredibly, the hole was dug to a depth of 240m entirely by pick and shovel, and remains one of the largest manmade excavations in the world. By 1914, when De Beers closed the mine, some 22.6 million tonnes of earth had been removed, yielding over 13.6 million carats (2722kg) of diamonds.
The only official way to see the Big Hole is from inside the Kimberley Mine Museum, which you can reach either on foot or via a delightfully rickety, open-sided tram that runs from the City Hall. The museum gives a comprehensive insight into Kimberley’s main claim to fame. The Big Hole itself is viewed from a suspended platform, from which you can peer down into nothingness. An informative film puts it all into context, as do other displays, from a re-creation of a nineteenth-century mineshaft to a vault full of real diamonds.
A short history of the Diamond Fields
The area now known as the Diamond Fields was once unpromising farmland, marked by occasional koppies inhabited by pioneer farmers and the Griquas, an independent people of mixed race. In 1866 this changed forever, when a 15-year-old boy noticed a shiny white pebble on the banks of the Orange River near Hopetown, about 120km southwest of Kimberley. Just as word of that discovery was spreading, another Hopetown resident, Schalk van Niekerk, acquired from a Griqua shepherd a massive 83.5-carat diamond. These two stones became known, respectively, as "Eureka" and "The Star of South Africa"; the latter was described at the time – with some justification – by the British Colonial Secretary as the "rock on which the future success of South Africa will be built". Certainly in the short term, the discoveries provoked wild optimism: thousands of prospectors made the gruelling trek across the Karoo to sift through the alluvial deposits along the banks of the Orange and Vaal rivers, and by 1873 there were an estimated fifty thousand people living in the area.
Although plenty of diamonds were found in the rivers, prospectors also began scratching around in the dry land between them, encouraged by tales of diamonds found in farmhouse bricks made from local earth. Two of the most promising "dry diggings" were on a farm owned by two brothers, Johannes Nicolas and Diederick Arnoldus de Beer. In 1871 the brothers sold the farm, which they had bought a few years previously for £50, to prospectors for the sum of £6300. The two sites subsequently became the Kimberley Mine, or Big Hole, and the De Beers Mine, situated on either side of the centre of Kimberley. The Big Hole was the focus of the most frenetic mining activity of the early years, and the shantytown that grew up around it, New Rush, was the origin of the present city.
Kimberley in those days was a heady, rugged place to live, with little authority or structure, but with prizes rich enough to attract bold men with big ideas. Of these, two very different, if equally ambitious, men rose to prominence in the new settlement. Barney Barnato, a flamboyant Cockney, established his power base at the Kimberley Mine, while Cecil Rhodes, a parson’s son who had come out to join his brother in South Africa to improve his health, gradually took control of the De Beers Mine. The power struggle between the two men was intense, culminating in the formation in 1888 of the De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited, an agreement involving the transfer from Rhodes to Barnato of over £5 million, an astronomical sum in those days. This consolidation laid the foundation for De Beers’ monopoly of the diamond industry in South Africa.
Cecil John Rhodes
When Cecil Rhodes first arrived in the Kimberley Diamond Fields he was a sickly 18-year-old, sent out to join his brother for the sake of his health. Soon making money buying up claims, he returned to Britain to attend Oxford University, where his illnesses returned and he was given six months to live. He came back out to South Africa, where he was able to improve both his health and his business standing, allowing him to return to Oxford and graduate in 1881. By that point he had already founded the De Beers Mining Company and been elected an MP in the Cape Parliament.
Within a decade, Rhodes controlled ninety percent of the world’s diamond production and was champing at the bit to expand his mining interests north into Africa, with the British Empire in tow. With much cajoling, bullying, brinkmanship and obfuscation in his dealings with imperial governments and African chiefs alike, Rhodes brought the regions north of the Limpopo under the control of his British South African Company (BSAC). This territory – now Zimbabwe and Zambia – became known as Rhodesia in 1895, the same year as a Rhodes-backed invasion of the Transvaal Republic, the Jameson Raid, failed humiliatingly. Rhodes was forced to resign as prime minister of the Cape Colony, a post he had assumed in 1890 at the age of 37, while the Boers and the British slid towards war. He spent the first part of the war in besieged Kimberley, trying to organize the defences and bickering publicly with the British commander. A year after the end of the war, Rhodes died at Muizenberg near Cape Town, aged only 49 and unmarried; he was buried in the Matopos Hills near Bulawayo in Zimbabwe.
A couple of interesting places lie on or near the R31, which runs northwest out of Kimberley in the direction of Kuruman: there is some fascinating San rock art at Wildebeest Kuil, while the area around Barkly West was where some of the first diamond camps sprang up in the 1860s. South of Kimberley along the N12, the mostly unremarkable landscape around Magersfontein was the setting for one of the most dramatic campaigns of the Anglo-Boer War.
The Kimberley campaign
At the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War, the Boer forces identified diamond-rich Kimberley as an important strategic base and quickly besieged the city, trapping its residents, including Cecil Rhodes, inside. In response, the British deployed an army under Lord Methuen to relieve the city. The size of the army and lack of knowledge of the terrain compelled them to advance from the coast along the line of the railway so that a supply of troops, water, food and equipment could be ensured.
Methuen first encountered Boer forces at Belmont; this was followed by further battles at Graspan and the Modder River, from which the Boers made a tactical withdrawal to Magersfontein, a range of hills 30km south of Kimberley. Here the Boer generals, under the leadership of General Cronjé and the tactical direction of Koos de la Rey, decided to dig a line of trenches along the bottom of the koppie rather than defend the top of the ridge of hills, as was their usual tactic.
In the early hours of December 11, 1899, the British advanced on Magersfontein, fully expecting the enemy to be lined along the ridge. The British were led by the Highland Regiment, fresh from campaigns in North Africa and India, and considered the elite of the British army. Just before dawn, as they fanned out into attack formation, four thousand Boers in the trenches just a few hundred metres away opened fire. The use of trenches was, at that point, a rare tactic in modern warfare, and the element of surprise caused devastation in the ranks. Those not killed or wounded in the first volleys were pinned down by snipers for the rest of the day, unable to move in the coverless veld and suffering appallingly under the hot sun. The next day the British withdrew to the Modder River, and the relief of Kimberley was delayed for two months. The defeat was one in a series of three the British suffered within what became known as "Black Week", news of which sent shock waves through the British public who had been expecting their forces to overrun the "crude farmers" before Christmas.