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Diamonds are crystallized carbon compounds that are formed under extreme pressure and high temperatures deep in the earth's crust. Diamond-bearing stones are excavated by drilling holes on the side of pipes (vertical columns of rock) formed by volcanic activity in the earth crust. Africa is the richest source of diamonds, accounting for nearly half of the world's production. The major deposits are in South Africa and Botswana, with substantial deposits in the Congo Republic (Zaire), Angola, Namibia, Ghana, Central African Republic, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe.

About 269,000 carats of diamonds were produced in South Africa in the 1870s, rising to approximately 505 million carats in 1906. By the early twenty-first century, South Africa was producing eight to ten million carats per year. Botswana is the world's leading producer of gem-quality diamonds, with over 30.4 million carats produced in 2003. In the Congo, diamond production jumped from 988,000 carats in 1961 to 4.6 million carats in 2003.


In 1867 a pretty pebble found near the Orange River in South Africa was confirmed as a 21-carat diamond. Placer diamonds (stream-deposited) were found between the Vaal and Orange Rivers later in the year. Two years later an 83-carat diamond was found. The discovery of diamonds in Kimberley in 1871 showed that South Africa and other parts of Africa would be the source of an enormous quantity of high-quality diamonds. Four pipes of primary diamonds (those in which the diamonds remain inside the original host rock) were discovered at the town of Kimberley.

South Africa emerged as a major source of gem-quality diamonds and the world's leading producer in the mid-twentieth century. The diamond industry became a chief source of export earnings and the key to the economic transformation of South Africa. But the discovery of diamonds also exacerbated the colonization of the region, increased the rate of African disposition of land, and led to the political domination of black South Africans.

The British government, attracted by the prospect of mineral wealth, quickly annexed the diamond fields, repudiating the claims of the Voortrekker republics to the area. These claims, along with contestations for economic and political control of diamonds and later gold in South Africa, defined the contours of southern African colonial history. The discovery of diamonds also had a larger global implication when it led to a "diamond rush" that attracted thousands of fortune hunters from Europe, the United States, and Australia. The first rush for diamonds was followed by a gold rush to South Africa a few years later. The town of Kimberly was filled with settlers, but it was surpassed by Johannesburg when gold mining started in earnest in 1887.


The development of the South African diamond industry was the work of Cecil Rhodes (1853–1902), who arrived in South Africa from England in 1870 at the age of seventeen, and founded the De Beers mining company in Kimberley in 1888. As a large number of prospectors staked out claims to various fields, two key players—Cecil Rhodes and Barney Barnato (1852–1896)—became the most successful.

Barnato arrived in South Africa from England in 1873 at the age of twenty. In 1876 he bought four claims in the Kimberley mines. He made a huge profit and later formed the Barnato Diamond Mining Company, which he merged with the Kimberley Central Mining Company in 1883. Rhodes fought intensely against competing mining interests, and by the end of 1889 he had bought off other diamond claims and was in control of the South African diamond industry in Kimberley.

After expansion of his holdings, Rhodes went on to form De Beers Consolidated Mines, which established an effective monopoly over the diamond industry in 1889. In competition, Rhodes sold one of his companies to Barnato's Kimberley Central, but Rhodes retained interests that gave him a 20 percent share in Barnato's company. Rhodes and Barnato battled viciously for the remaining stock. In 1889 Barnato sold out to Rhodes for £5,338,650. In 1896 Barnato disappeared at sea while on passage back to England, a presumed suicide. The diamond monopoly created by De Beers helped to regulate the quantity of diamonds produced in order to maintain high profits.

The discovery of new deposits near Pretoria and in South-West Africa (Namibia) in 1908 broke the De Beer monopoly. By 1909, German-controlled South-West Africa was producing about 500,000 carats of small but high-quality diamonds, and yields increased rapidly in five years. South Africa gained control of Namibia after World War I and sold the diamond deposits to Consolidated Diamond Mines, founded in 1919 by German immigrant Ernest Oppenheimer (1880–1957), who became the leader in the field. In 1929 Oppenheimer became president of the De Beers group and united both companies in a cartel. The activities of De Beers would extend to Botswana, soon to be an important producer with the discovery of three kimberlite (groups of diamond bearing rocks) deposits between 1967 and 1973.

Two important factors—legislation and technology—cemented the control of the diamond industry by the cartel. The efforts of mine owners to make a profit and eliminate pilfering in the early days led to attempts to undercut the bargaining strength of African workers. In 1872 British colonial officials were persuaded to introduce pass laws, which required that all "servants" be in possession of passes that stated whether the holder was legally entitled to work in the city, whether or not they had completed their contractual obligations, and whether they could leave the city. These laws, written in "color-blind" language but enforced against blacks only, limited the mobility of migrant workers, restricted their flexibility in seeking alternative employment, and limited their ability to bargain for higher wages.

De Beers and other large prospectors made a considerable effort to exclude smaller prospectors, including Africans. A special court was set up in 1880 to try cases of illicit dealings in diamonds, which was limited to licensed buyers and imposed penalties for the possession of uncut stones without a license. The Diamond Trade Act of 1872 was aimed at diamond stealing and smuggling, but it also set two dangerous social precedents. First, anyone found with an uncut diamond was required to explain how it came into his or her possession—that is, guilt was assumed, while innocence had to be proved. This is a European concept not usually found in English or American law. Second, the Diamond Trade Act allowed companies to set up "searching-houses" in a system of routine surveillance, searching, and stripping by company police. This curtailment of private rights and personal liberty became a fact of South African society.

The condition of the mines was an important factor in the consolidation of operations in a few hands. In 1872 the pipes were giant open quarries worked by 2,500 miners and 10,000 hired laborers. The technical equipment required for deep mining of diamonds excluded many companies and individuals from competition and forced many to sell off their concessions. The high cost of equipment also excluded prospective prospectors. For example, by 1875 the Kimberley mines were 58 meters (190 feet) deep, and miners were hauling material out of the hole on aerial ropeways that covered the pit like spiderwebs. Soon the hauling was driven by machinery on the edge of the pit, and in 1875 the first steam engine was installed. The cost of clearing away debris increased as the mines deepened, and slowly steam engines became necessary rather than optional. The rock became harder with depth, and by the end of the 1870s, the costs of mining had became too great for one-man operations. The number of claim owners in the Kimberley pit dropped dramatically as people bought out their neighbors, and by 1880 new investment was pouring in. Rhodes and seven partners owned a block of ninety claims in the De Beers Mining Company Ltd., named for its landholdings on the old De Beers ranch.


Rhodes played an immeasurable role in the colonization of southern Africa. His ambition was to extend the British imperial possession from Cape to Cairo. When Rhodes became prime minister of the Cape Colony, he dedicated his energy to the colonization of Rhodesia on behalf of the British. Rhodes, who had succeeded in monopolizing the diamond industry, sought to carve out a personal empire in present-day Zimbabwe, the original site of the fifteenth-century gold industry of Great Zimbabwe. There he ruled the Ndebele and the Shona people through his British South Africa Company.

Thus, southern Africa's history is intertwined with the mineral revolution. From this period, the region became a magnet for European investment, prospectors, and other immigrants from America and Australia. The European rush for minerals in the late nineteenth century helped shape the colonization of most of southern Africa.

The mines were a means of political, social, and economic control. The Kimberly mines attracted Africans in the early 1870s. Some sought to obtain diamond claims, but most sought jobs in the mines. An average of fifty thousand men migrated annually to the mines for a period of two to three months. Most returned home with cash and guns purchased in Kimberley. African access to guns in particular redefined African-European relations and prolonged the series of wars with restive African groups that sought to check white expansion into the interior of southern Africa.

Mining companies traditionally kept expenses to a minimum through low wages, strict control of African labor, and manipulation of the political system. Rhodes was a successful politician, and he helped draft laws that protected the mining companies. Taxation on mining profits was kept low. Segregated, controlled, fenced-off compounds housed Africans for the length of their work contracts with the company. The segregation policies that began in the mine compounds were the harbingers of the official apartheid policy that was consolidated in 1948 when the National Party won national elections.

From the late nineteenth century, Africans did not accept mining regulations and political control uncritically. African-initiated churches and African-centered political organization that emerged from the nineteenth century became the main organs of protest in a white-dominated colonial setting. The link between property ownership and suffrage guaranteed Cape blacks some level of participation in the electoral politics of the 1870s and the 1880s. The formation of the Native Educational Association in the eastern Cape in 1879 promoted "the improvement and elevation of the native races." The Imbumba Yama Nyama (literally, "hard, solid sinew"), formed in Port Elizabeth in 1882, fought for African rights. Black newspapers such as Imvo Zabantsundu (Native Opinion), founded by John Tengo Jabavu (1859–1921) in 1884, became a platform for expressing dissatisfaction with the injustice and inequality that blacks experienced in relation to whites in a rapidly industrializing society dominated by diamond and gold mining.

The role of diamonds in structuring African political conflicts and formations has extended beyond the colonial period. But some of the contemporary conflicts, as in Angola, have their origin in the colonial setting. In more recent times, the control of diamonds has been instrumental in fueling civil wars and crises in Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Congo, and Angola. The so-called conflict diamonds and international trade in illegal diamonds prompted the United Nations General Assembly to adopt a resolution in 2000 on the role of diamonds in fuelling conflict in Africa. The objective is to break the link between armed conflict and the illicit transaction of rough diamonds, especially in Sierra Leone and Angola, where conflict diamonds are used to fund rebel groups.

see also Empire, British; Germany's African Colonies; Rhodes, Cecil.


American Museum of Natural History. "The Nature of Diamonds." Available at

Campbell, Greg. Blood Diamonds: Tracing the Deadly Path of the World's Most Precious Stones. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2004.

Duncan, Innes. Anglo: Anglo American and the Rise of Modern South Africa. Johannesburg, South Africa: Raven Press, 1984.

Godehard, Lenzen. The History of Diamond Production and the Diamond Trade. Translated by F. Bradley. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1970.

Newbury, Colin. The Diamond Ring: Business, Politics, and Precious Stones in South Africa, 1867–1946. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.