Kimberly Diamond Mines: Discovery and Exploitation (1860-1870s)


When diamonds were discovered in Kimberly in the 1860s, it quickly became the diamond capital of the world. However, it also helped to create racial segregation instituted through British rule which established a precedent for apartheid laws of the 1960s.

Legend has it that the first diamond was discovered by the children of a Dutch farmer but their accounts could not be verified. Later in March 1869, a black boy working for a local white farmer discovered a large diamond (83 carats) and sold it to Schalk van Niekerk. He was paid 500 sheep, 10 herds of cattle and one horse. Van Niekerk then sold it to for £11,000 sterling. News of this diamond created a digging frenzy along the banks of the Vaal. In July 1870, they were about 800 prospectors digging in the area but by October, the number had risen to 5,000. Early claims were about 31 square feet and many more diamonds were found a few miles away from the river in the Bulfontein and Vooruitzigt farms.

In July 1871, another large diamond found on the Vooruitzigt created a new diamond rush and by December of that year about 7,000 prospectors, both black and white were digging up to 20 meters deep in search of the precious gem. Prospectors came from all races and nationalities including African, British, Dutch, German, Swedes, French, Turks, Norwegians, Russians, Greeks and Africans. This discovery in the Cape became known as Kimberly, named after the British Secretary of the colonies.

In 1861, 16,542 carats of diamonds were exported; 102,500 carats were exported in 1870 and 269,000 carats were exported in 1871. By 1872, about 1,080,000 carats were exported from present day South Africa.

The prospects for high profit created a new concern for property rights in that area. The diamond fields were located on the northern boundary of the British Cape Colony in a region claimed by the Griqua, the Tswana and the Kora. The British Court of Inquiry ruled that the Griqua had the most valid claim over the territory and consequently the Griqua sought protection from the British. The Griqua were a multiracial group in the Cape. The British took this as an opportunity to annex the territory and by 1871, the world’s richest diamond producing region became known as the British Colony of Griqualand West.

Diamond mines at Kimberly yielded more diamonds than any other operation before. Within a year of the first diamond claims more than 50,000 people were living in tents and make do shelters. Africans numbered about 30,000 and about 10% actually owned diamond claims, others were migrant laborers. Demand for food supplies of meat and vegetables, grain and tools such as firewood, iron ware, picks, shovels, timber, cables, clothing, guns, tobacco and alcohol increased tremendously. Between 1870 and 1874, the Sotho are believed to have made more than £1 million from trading grain and livestock at Kimberly. Interestingly gun trade among Africans was very popular. Between April 1873 and June 1874, more than 75,000 guns were sold at Kimberly. However, in 1877 the British prohibited the sale of guns to black people.

Labor Shortage and Conditions

However, labor was always in short supply. Laborers worked 14 hour days in the summer and 10 hour days in the winter and wages of between 10 and 30 shillings per week plus food. In the beginning, most laborers only agreed to short term contracts and most searched for the highest wages possible which increased demand and increased the cost of labor. Wages accounted for 86% of the average diggers working costs. At that time, black labor was the most expensive in the world. Laborers controlled the market and refused to work when conditions were deemed dangerous. This was until the Government Notice 68 of July 1872 established a depot at Kimberly at which all black  laborers would be required to register on arrival and be issued a pass entitling them to seek employment contracts not less than 3 months. Employers who hired unregistered laborers would be liable for a £10 fine and 3 months imprisonment.

After registering for a certificate, the laborers had to carry their certificate at all times or be fined £5 or imprisonment of up to 3 months or corporal punishment of up to 25 lashes. Laborers found guilty of diamond theft could receive up to 50 lashes or 12 months imprisonment with hard labor. This formed the foundation for apartheid laws almost a century labor. Even when the language was not racially specific, it was primarily used to control black African labor. However, even this law was not satisfying to diamond claim owners.

Learn more in part 2 coming soon………………….