From Chapter 69:
Next to Mr. Rhodes, to me the most interesting convulsion of nature in South Africa was the diamond-crater. The Rand gold fields are a stupendous marvel, and they make all other gold fields small, but I was not a stranger to gold-mining; the veldt was a noble thing to see, but it was only another and lovelier variety of our Great Plains; the natives were very far from being uninteresting, but they were not new; and as for the towns, I could find my way without a guide through the most of them because I had learned the streets, under other names, in towns just like them in other lands; but the diamond mine was a wholly fresh thing, a splendid and absorbing novelty. Very few people in the world have seen the diamond in its home. It has but three or four homes in the world, whereas gold has a million. It is worth while to journey around the globe to see anything which can truthfully be called a novelty, and the diamond mine is the greatest and most select and restricted novelty which the globe has in stock.
The Kimberley diamond deposits were discovered about 1869, I think. When everything is taken into consideration, the wonder is that they were not discovered five thousand years ago and made familiar to the African world for the rest of time. For this reason the first diamonds were found on the surface of the ground. They were smooth and limpid, and in the sunlight they vomited fire. They were the very things which an African savage of any era would value above every other thing in the world excepting a glass bead. For two or three centuries we have been buying his lands, his cattle, his neighbor, and any other thing he had for sale, for glass beads and so it is strange that he was indifferent to the diamonds—for he must have picked them up many and many a time. It would not occur to him to try to sell them to whites, of course, since the whites already had plenty of glass beads, and more fashionably shaped, too, than these; but one would think that the poorer sort of black, who could not afford real glass, would have been humbly content to decorate himself with the imitation, and that presently the white trader would notice the things, and dimly suspect, and carry some of them home, and find out what they were, and at once empty a multitude of fortune-hunters into Africa. There are many strange things in human history; one of the strangest is that the sparkling diamonds laid there so long without exciting any one's interest.
The revelation came at last by accident. In a Boer's hut out in the wide solitude of the plains, a traveling stranger noticed a child playing with a bright object, and was told it was a piece of glass which had been found in the veldt. The stranger bought it for a trifle and carried it away; and being without honor, made another stranger believe it was a diamond, and so got $125 out of him for it, and was as pleased with himself as if he had done a righteous thing. In Paris the wronged stranger sold it to a pawnshop for $10,000, who sold it to a countess for $90,000, who sold it to a brewer for $800,000, who traded it to a king for a dukedom and a pedigree, and the king "put it up the spout."—I know these particulars to be correct.
The news flew around, and the South African diamond-boom began. The original traveler—the dishonest one—now remembered that he had once seen a Boer teamster chocking his wagon-wheel on a steep grade with a diamond as large as a football, and he laid aside his occupations and started out to hunt for it, but not with the intention of cheating anybody out of $125 with it, for he had reformed.
We now come to matters more didactic. Diamonds are not imbedded in rock ledges fifty miles long, like the Johannesburg gold, but are distributed through the rubbish of a filled-up well, so to speak. The well is rich, its walls are sharply defined; outside of the walls are no diamonds. The well is a crater, and a large one. Before it had been meddled with, its surface was even with the level plain, and there was no sign to suggest that it was there. The pasturage covering the surface of the Kimberley crater was sufficient for the support of a cow, and the pasturage underneath was sufficient for the support of a kingdom; but the cow did not know it, and lost her chance.
The Kimberley crater is roomy enough to admit the Roman Coliseum; the bottom of the crater has not been reached, and no one can tell how far down in the bowels of the earth it goes. Originally, it was a perpendicular hole packed solidly full of blue rock or cement, and scattered through that blue mass, like raisins in a pudding, were the diamonds. As deep down in the earth as the blue stuff extends, so deep will the diamonds be found.
There are three or four other celebrated craters near by—a circle three miles in diameter would enclose them all. They are owned by the De Beers Company, a consolidation of diamond properties arranged by Mr. Rhodes twelve or fourteen years ago. The De Beers owns other craters; they are under the grass, but the De Beers knows where they are, and will open them some day, if the market should require it.
Originally, the diamond deposits were the property of the Orange Free State; but a judicious "rectification" of the boundary line shifted them over into the British territory of Cape Colony. A high official of the Free State told me that the sum of $400,000 was handed to his commonwealth as a compromise, or indemnity, or something of the sort, and that he thought his commonwealth did wisely to take the money and keep out of a dispute, since the power was all on the one side and the weakness all on the other. The De Beers Company dig out $400,000 worth of diamonds per week, now. The Cape got the territory, but no profit; for Mr. Rhodes and the Rothschilds and the other De Beers people own the mines, and they pay no taxes.
In our day the mines are worked upon scientific principles, under the guidance of the ablest mining-engineering talent procurable in America. There are elaborate works for reducing the blue rock and passing it through one process after another until every diamond it contains has been hunted down and secured. I watched the "concentrators" at work big tanks containing mud and water and invisible diamonds—and was told that each could stir and churn and properly treat 300 car-loads of mud per day 1,600 pounds to the car-load—and reduce it to 3 car-loads of slush. I saw the 3 carloads of slush taken to the "pulsators" and there reduced to a quarter of a load of nice clean dark-colored sand. Then I followed it to the sorting tables and saw the men deftly and swiftly spread it out and brush it about and seize the diamonds as they showed up. I assisted, and once I found a diamond half as large as an almond. It is an exciting kind of fishing, and you feel a fine thrill of pleasure every time you detect the glow of one of those limpid pebbles through the veil of dark sand. I would like to spend my Saturday holidays in that charming sport every now and then. Of course there are disappointments. Sometimes you find a diamond which is not a diamond; it is only a quartz crystal or some such worthless thing. The expert can generally distinguish it from the precious stone which it is counterfeiting; but if he is in doubt he lays it on a flatiron and hits it with a sledgehammer. If it is a diamond it holds its own; if it is anything else, it is reduced to powder. I liked that experiment very much, and did not tire of repetitions of it. It was full of enjoyable apprehensions, unmarred by any personal sense of risk. The De Beers concern treats 8,000 carloads—about 6,000 tons—of blue rock per day, and the result is three pounds of diamonds. Value, uncut, $50,000 to $70,000. After cutting, they will weigh considerably less than a pound, but will be worth four or five times as much as they were before.
All the plain around that region is spread over, a foot deep, with blue rock, placed there by the Company, and looks like a plowed field. Exposure for a length of time make the rock easier to work than it is when it comes out of the mine. If mining should cease now, the supply of rock spread over those fields would furnish the usual 8,000 car-loads per day to the separating works during three years. The fields are fenced and watched; and at night they are under the constant inspection of lofty electric searchlight. They contain fifty or sixty million dollars' worth' of diamonds, and there is an abundance of enterprising thieves around.
In the dirt of the Kimberley streets there is much hidden wealth. Some time ago the people were granted the privilege of a free wash-up. There was a general rush, the work was done with thoroughness, and a good harvest of diamonds was gathered.
The deep mining is done by natives. There are many hundreds of them. They live in quarters built around the inside of a great compound. They are a jolly and good-natured lot, and accommodating. They performed a war-dance for us, which was the wildest exhibition I have ever seen. They are not allowed outside of the compound during their term of service three months, I think it is, as a rule. They go down the shaft, stand their watch, come up again, are searched, and go to bed or to their amusements in the compound; and this routine they repeat, day in and day out.
It is thought that they do not now steal many diamonds successfully. They used to swallow them, and find other ways of concealing them, but the white man found ways of beating their various games. One man cut his leg and shoved a diamond into the wound, but even that project did not succeed. When they find a fine large diamond they are more likely to report it than to steal it, for in the former case they get a reward, and in the latter they are quite apt to merely get into trouble. Some years ago, in a mine not owned by the De Beers, a black found what has been claimed to be the largest diamond known to the world's history; and, as a reward he was released from service and given a blanket, a horse, and five hundred dollars. It made him a Vanderbilt. He could buy four wives, and have money left. Four wives are an ample support for a native. With four wives he is wholly independent, and need never do a stroke of work again.
That great diamond weighs 97l carats. Some say it is as big as a piece of alum, others say it is as large as a bite of rock candy, but the best authorities agree that it is almost exactly the size of a chunk of ice. But those details are not important; and in my opinion not trustworthy. It has a flaw in it, otherwise it would be of incredible value. As it is, it is held to be worth $2,000,000. After cutting it ought to be worth from $5,000,000 to $8,000,000, therefore persons desiring to save money should buy it now. It is owned by a syndicate, and apparently there is no satisfactory market for it. It is earning nothing; it is eating its head off. Up to this time it has made nobody rich but the native who found it.
He found it in a mine which was being worked by contract. That is to say, a company had bought the privilege of taking from the mine 5,000,000 carloads of blue-rock, for a sum down and a royalty. Their speculation had not paid; but on the very day that their privilege ran out that native found the $2,000,000-diamond and handed it over to them. Even the diamond culture is not without its romantic episodes.
The Koh-i-Noor is a large diamond, and valuable; but it cannot compete in these matters with three which—according to legend—are among the crown trinkets of Portugal and Russia. One of these is held to be worth $20,000,000; another, $25,000,000, and the third something over $28,000,000.
Those are truly wonderful diamonds, whether they exist or not; and yet they are of but little importance by comparison with the one wherewith the Boer wagoner chocked his wheel on that steep grade as heretofore referred to. In Kimberley I had some conversation with the man who saw the Boer do that—an incident which had occurred twenty-seven or twenty-eight years before I had my talk with him. He assured me that that diamond's value could have been over a billion dollars, but not under it. I believed him, because he had devoted twenty-seven years to hunting for it, and was in a position to know.
A fitting and interesting finish to an examination of the tedious and laborious and costly processes whereby the diamonds are gotten out of the deeps of the earth and freed from the base stuffs which imprison them is the visit to the De Beers offices in the town of Kimberley, where the result of each day's mining is brought every day, and, weighed, assorted, valued, and deposited in safes against shipping-day. An unknown and unaccredited person cannot get into that place; and it seemed apparent from the generous supply of warning and protective and prohibitory signs that were posted all about, that not even the known and accredited can steal diamonds there without inconvenience.
We saw the day's output—shining little nests of diamonds, distributed a foot apart, along a counter, each nest reposing upon a sheet of white paper. That day's catch was about $70,000 worth. In the course of a year half a ton of diamonds pass under the scales there and sleep on that counter; the resulting money is $18,000,000 or $20,000,000. Profit, about $12,000,000.
Young girls were doing the sorting—a nice, clean, dainty, and probably distressing employment. Every day ducal incomes sift and sparkle through the fingers of those young girls; yet they go to bed at night as poor as they were when they got up in the morning. The same thing next day, and all the days.
They are beautiful things, those diamonds, in their native state. They are of various shapes; they have flat surfaces, rounded borders, and never a sharp edge. They are of all colors and shades of color, from dewdrop white to actual black; and their smooth and rounded surfaces and contours, variety of color, and transparent limpidity make them look like piles of assorted candies. A very light straw color is their commonest tint. It seemed to me that these uncut gems must be more beautiful than any cut ones could be; but when a collection of cut ones was brought out, I saw my mistake. Nothing is so beautiful as a rose diamond with the light playing through it, except that uncostly thing which is just like it—wavy sea-water with the sunlight playing through it and striking a white-sand bottom.