THE LAST EMPIRE
A FOCUS OF HUMAN PASSION.
DE BEERS’S STAID OFFICES and quiet Oxonian executives suggest old money and immemorial power.------ In fact, the history of the empire is a modern saga.------ Then again, so is the story of its home country.
Next to South Africa, the upstart nations of Australia and the United States seem to be ancient civilizations: Sydney was founded in 1788, and Cincinnati was later incorporated as a city in 1819. Kimberley, where De Beers began, mushroomed up in the 1870s. Johannesburg,. home of Anglo-American, was. born ten .years later. (1880)
Until then, the sunstruck country lay sleeping in the Middle Ages. It had no navigable rivers, no significant railroad line, no telegraph. Transportation was by ox wagon, communication by horse and rider. The land was so sere it took six thousand acres to nourish a herd of cattle. Boats of the Dutch East India Company had once used the southernmost city, Cape Town, as a place to take on supplies before heading out to India and China. But those fleets had not been a factor for a hundred years. The one site of lingering value, the seaport at the Cape of Good Hope, was about to be rendered obsolete. Ships to the East would cut through the continent at the new Suez Canal.
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After Waterloo , the British had annexed much of the territory to keep the French from getting a toehold. But in the post-Napoleonic era the occupation seemed to be a blunder. It diverted men and equipment from more important posts, and it produced no income. Historian Sir John Rober t Seely spoke for many of his countrymen when he concluded that England had gained its South African possession “in a fit of absence of mind.”
A Victorian globe-trotter added his own withering assessment:. “Her. Majesty possesses. not,. in. all. her. empire,..another. strip. of. land so unlovely.”
Britain’s competitors took much the same view, arid from the late eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth, the imperial scramble took place north of the Limpopo River, at the very edge of South Africa. It was as if marauders had broken into a house, systematically ransacked it for linens, heirlooms, and grand furniture—and neglected to look downstairs, where a cache of jewels lay unguarded.
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In 1867 it was accidentally pried open by a farm boy relaxing under a tree near the banks of the Orange River, northwest of Hope Town.
The territory in and around the Transvaal has not altered appreciably since the time of Erasmus Stephanus Jacobs. Occasional clusters of buildings make little impression on the basic topography. Then as now the river was muddy and meandering; the earth on either side was a grayish-yellow powder, uninterrupted by vegetation except for stands of silvery grass and the incidental, umbrella-shaped thorn tree.
So it is not hard to imagine the I 5-year-old on that epochal afternoon. According to Jacobs’s account, given when he was in his eighties, he noticed “in the glare of the strong sun a glittering pebble some yards away. . . . I, of course, had no idea that the stone was of value. I was at the time wearing a corduroy suit, and simply put the pebble in my pocket. I did not feel at all excited at finding such a beautiful stone.
After reaching home I handed the mooi k1ip (pretty pebble) to my youngest sister, who simply placed it among her playthings.”
A month later the Jacobses were playing a traditional game called “Five Stones.” One of the pieces was the mooi klip, the others ordinary river rocks. A neighbor, Schalk van Niekerk, “arrived during the game and greatly admired the stone, and tried to scratch a windowpane with it. My mother noticed that Mr. van Niekerk had taken quite a fancy to this “white stone”; so she gave it to him.”
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LIKE THE JACOBSES, Schalk van Niekerk was a member of that nomadic white tribe whose ancestors had come from the Netherlands two hundred years before. They were the only people to have brought slaves to Africa--—mostly Javanese, acquired during the seventeenth century when the Dutch were a very dominant force in the East.
The Boers (the Dutch word for farmers) were a robust folk whose clothes were homespun and generously cut and whose moral opinions were based on a literal interpretation of the Bible.
The man who was to become their greatest leader, Paul Kruger , believed the earth was flat; no one ever thought to contradict him. According to Boer teachings, slave-owning was not merely condoned, it was encouraged in the Old Testament.
Thus the local blacks of Africa were considered heaven-sent for the white man’s use. The farmers captured as many as they could and put them to work. Among these natives were an indigenous people who called themselves the Khoikhoi. The Dutch had another name.
They thought the natives sounded as if they were stammering and stuttering hateren en tateren. The phrase was shortened to Hottentot. Another local people, the Bantu, were called Kaffirs. That was neither a black nor a European word; it just derived from the unflattering Arabic Qafir--—infldel, unbeliever. Those of a mixed black and white ancestry went by the name of Bastaards, a label that was later changed to the less offensive term, Griquas.
A visiting aristocrat, Lady Anne Barnard, came to South Africa in the late eighteenth century and made notes. She found that in the company of strangers these transplanted Dutch could be “sulky and ill-affected.” Yet she had to admit that the men were fine looking, “six feet high and upwards,” and she was told that on the frontier some even reach seven feet.” Lady Anne provides a striking portrait of the white Africans out for a stroll “in blue cloth jackets and very flat hats.
They struck me as overdressed, but the Hottentot servant who crept behind each, carrying his master’s umbrella [was] underdressed .....a piece of leather round his waist and a sheepskin round his shoulders: one or two had a scarlet handkerchief tied round his head, sometimes an old hat ornamented with ostrich feathers.” She found Boer women attractive but over-plump; after the age of thirty few of them weighed less than 180 pounds. This may have been the result of having children early. Too early, she thought, and was corrected by an official : “Not at all madam. They come at exactly the proper time, but the marriages took place a little late.”
With the succor of Holy Writ and the aid of subjugated blacks, Boer families stolidly worked the land in the southernmost part of Africa raising cattle for food and sheep for wool Despite the work of developers, the Cape Town region has changed very little from the days of the Dutchmen. Back from the wide silvery beaches the land rises steeply into the Drakensburg Mountain range. It catches the rain and turns the valleys of Stellenbosch and Drakenstein into lush farmland.
As in the distant past, the soil supports crops of cotton, corn, beans, and grapes for excellent wines and a raw brandy called Cape Smoke . Beyond the valleys the land abruptly gives way to a plateau. Here the earth is cracked and powdery. Farming becomes impossible without irrigation, and the vegetable fields are replaced by vast stretches of grazing land. It is hardly enough for the demands of an industrial society. But it suited the Boers until the early nineteenth century, when two factors combined to push them on. First was the shortage of acreage to support a suddenly expanding population: the Boers, who felt crowded if they could hear the sounds of a neighbor chopping wood, were being undone by their own fertility . Second was the lack of sympathy from their British overlords.
These Englishmen had possessed the facto authority since the Napoleonic era. They had dejure control after 1815, when the Netherlands transferred its territory to Britain in exchange for some £6 million. Boer and Briton eyed each other uneasily, but there were certain calm occasions. One had come early on, in 1809, when administrators of William IV imposed the first Pass Law. It was as if the English King had read the Boers’ minds and granted them their fondest wish. From now on every black had to have a “fixed place of abode.” In order to move he required a pass from his master or from a local official. Failure to obey meant a fine or jail.
From London, the antislavery movement looked on and vowed to end this iniquity. Dr. David Livingstone gave expression to its deepest feelings. In Africa, he recalled, “The strangest disease I have seen seems really to be hroken-heartedness, and it attacks free men who have been captured and made slaves.” After five years of incessant lobbying the government gave way. In 1814 the Pass Law was revoked an(I a commission appointed to investigate the cruel usage of blacks.
Boer tradition has it that South African slavery was essentially a benign patriarchal system, far gentler than the one in America. The truth is that it was arbitrary, very violent, and inhuman. Cape Town’s Slave Lodge had beden turned into a brothel, open one hour a night for the pleasure of sailors on leave; and male slaves were treated with the full harshness of the age.
For disobedience they could be broken on the wheel, flogged, or tied hand and foot, sewed into sacks, and thrown in the bay. One offender was ordered to he “bound on a cross, his right hand shall be cut off, his body pinched in six places by red-hot irons, his legs and arms broken to pieces, after that to he impaled before the Town House on the Square, his dead body afterwards to be thrown outside the town at the usual place and left to be a prey to the birds in the air.”
For most farmers, human property was too valuable to be treated with such barbarism. But the threat was always there, and if rural slaves were seldom broken on the wheel, none of them were ever free of terror.
When the English revoked the Pass Law some sixty defiant Boers rose in armed protest. Five of them were hunted down, and in 1815 they were sentenced to death at a place called Slachter’s Nek. The hangings were particularly horrific. Four times the rope broke and the condemned men were hurtled to the ground, still alive. The crowd saw this as a sign from heaven and pleaded for mercy . The officer in charge turned his back, and the men were hanged until they swung lifeless against the South African sky . It was a bitter and unforgivable day, and Slachter’s Nek was turned into the first of many Boer shrines.
The final blow fell in 1833 when all South African slaves were declared freemen by order of His Majesty. The farmers valued their human property at £3 million; the Crown offered £1.2 million in compensation, payable only in London. This was the ultimate gesture of contempt. The Boers could hardly afford round-trip passage to England, and they were forced to accept sums handed down through a hierarchy of agents and lawyers. By the time the checks were cashed the owners received a mere fraction of their entitlements . Some got nothing at all. The black workers abandoned the farms, aimlessly roaming the countryside or squatting outside the small towns . Quite a few supported themselves by stealing.
Now it was the Boers who were chained to the land. Without a work force their farm economy was ruined. In 1837 , ten thousand of them packed their cumbrous ox wagons, left the hated British, and headed north and east on their Great Trek.
...Beet and his fellow passengers had not come across two oceans to turn hack at the last minute. The caravans continued to creak and groan over rocks and hillocks The sun cracked the earth and blistered skins. Occasionally an ox or horse succumbed to the heat and strain. Hyenas and buzzards materialized and quarreled over the carrion. The riders felt the chill of death, and their voices grew a little too hearty an(l their jokes a little too frantic. The wagons pushed on.
On the evening of the forty-second day they completed their trek. Beet had always expected a community of quiet, solitary workers. He found a frantic social hum. Zulus, Xhosas, and Bechuanas, enticed from their lands by promises of high wages, boomed out their chants of love and battle. The white tribes were mostly composed of Englishmen, Boers, Germans, French, and Americans, most of them veterans of the recent Civil War.
At night they all sat around drinking and singing and boasting in various languages. Occasionally a rifle shot sounded; someone had fired off a round just to hear the noise. Banjos and harmonicas harmonized in the background. Hundreds of dogs, ducks, pigs, and chickens added their own calls to the general chatter. “Talk about Roaring Camps!” exclaimed Beet. “If my reading of Messieurs Bret Harte and Company is correct, the hullabaloo .... . . would make the roaring of any California mining camp sound like the twitterings of a dove-cot.”
The American and English diggers agreed with him. The Yukon had been lethally cold, and the Alaskan prospectors had turned out to be an insular and surly bunch. California was still notorious for its claim jumpers and trigger-happy gunmen. The gold rush Down Under had been short and nasty. But here, one of the diggers commented, was “nothing .... . . of Australian brutality; the rowdy element does not exist.”
Optimism led them on: the diggers named their outposts Delport’s, Hope, Cawood’s Hope, Good Hope, Last Hope. At the start, those aspirations centered on Cornelius du Plooy’s sprawling farm. Diamonds had been found there, in the small hills the Boers called kopies (“coppies” to the Americans) and at the edge of a little reservoir called a “pan.”
News of the diamond strike reached Lilienfeld’s, and Gustav dispatched his brother Leopold to the scene . The Cape Town jeweler made a generous offer, but he was too late. That very morning du Plooy had sold his fields to a large speculator . Lilienfeld tried a new tactic. When did the transaction take place? Today? On a Sunday? The Lords Day? Surely business should not be conducted during such holy hours........ The pious Boer agreed and canceled the sale. The next day Lilienfeld moved in and closed his deal. “The Jews have got ahead of us again,” a prospector grumbled.
Similar protests were to follow. The Colonial Secretary received a letter complaining , “The jews of course work into each others hands I am sure that . . . Lilienfeld have made a splendid bargain.” A British trading company noted that “Diamonds are turning up every day and Jews are moving heaven and earth to keep the trade in their own hands.” A Hope Town firm received a letter stating “Diamonds are cropping up fast and the trade in these Gems is now a firm fact; but the Jews up here are making .... . . efforts to keep the trade in their lands.” These are the earliest recorded instances of anti-Jewish senment; the volume would soon increase.
Diggers fanned out from the confluence of the Vaal and Orange Rivers. Few of them had ever seen a diamond in the rough. Quartz crystals got confused with the real thing. Potential jewels were knocked into shards because the diggers just mistakenly believed that diamonds could not be shattered by a hammer.
Sometimes a precious stone lay just beneath the surface, and a man’s fingers could scratch it from the soil. . More often, pounds of yellow dirt had to be dug up and water poured over them. The sludge was then shaken and jiggled through three sieves. This diamond field “cradle” served to separate the small ones from the large ones. They were then scattered on a board covered with grease. The worthless rocks fell away; the diamonds clung there. Just as Sinbacl had described.
In the early rush, land around the Vaal was covered with cradles and tents, and life in what one visitor called “A Canvas London” was like a holiday from school. The windy air was dry, game was plentiful, the sun brightened the diggers’ work. Diamond-field humor was primitive but seldom malicious. Mistakes were exuberantly called “Gregories” in honor of the geologist who had declared that there could be no diamonds in South Africa.
An American inventor, Jerome Babe, constructed a machine that made sifting easier; he was immediately dubbed the only babe who rocked his own cradle. Complainers received the sarcastic reply : “You’re just lazy. Give me ten kaffirs and I’ll do it myself.”
The informal brotherhood saw to it that no one wen t hungry. “A mutual regard for each other manifested itself all through the camps,” a digger recalled. “The unlucky shared in the luck of his neighbors. No man was long without money; some came forward and set him on his legs again.”
“To us,” a digger remembered, “a diamond stood rather for crystallized romance than for a form of carbon worth so much per carat.
It stood for the making of history, for Empire, and for unbounded wealth. We knew that wars had been waged for the possession of such gems, that neither blackest crime nor oceans of blood could dim their piercing lustre. We felt that every celebrated stone, whether shining on the breast of a lovely woman or blazing in the scepter of a king, was a symbol of power, a nucleus of tragedy, a focus of human passion.”
But enchantment slowly evaporated in the sun and wind. A constant breeze parched the nose and throat. No one could keep a pocket watch in working order; within a month tiny grains of soil worked their way into the gears. The nights were close to freezing, and the days could surpass 100 degrees Fahrenheit. When the ground shimmered with heat there was no place to hide; the shade trees had been cut down for lumber . In the rainy season, floods were prodigious. Afterward the men foundered in acres of mud. “Fancy sleeping in a puddle!” one of them exclaimed. The diet of meat and eggs was not as salubrious as it seemed. “For six months at least,” a prospector wrote, he and his colleagues “had not an ounce of vegetable diet of any sort, and then, upon privations of all sorts, fever set in.”
Sanitation was primitive; latrines drained into the rivers where the diggers bathed. Medicine was scarce, an(l it took four days’ ride to reach a doctor. The ill, a new correspondent reported, “slept on the ground with nothing to lie on but a rug . I don’t believe that out of the six thousand first arrivals twenty had a mattress.
Before 1870 wound down some £3oo,ooo-worth of rough jewels had been taken from the ground. This was not a sign of prosperity Given the number of diggers at the Vaal river, the gross profits worked out to about £6o each. London shopkeepers earned more and had an easier time of it. An informal brotherhood of diamond hunters still existed, but it was no longer possible to know every face or to trust very stranger.
For the first time, there was petty robbery on the fields. Further signs of civilization policemen appeared on both banks of the river. Men of the Frontier Armed and Mounted patrolled the Transvaal side, turned out in uniforms of dark brown corduroy with peaked leather helmets. Appearances could be deceptive: there were, digger complained, “a good many scamps and ne’er do wells among them.” The constabulary put in long hours, and any serious misde was severely punished. One witness saw two men, “convicted of a trifling theft, tied up to a wagon wheel to receive each four dozen lashes with the ‘cat’ laid on vigorously by a black executioner a most degrading and painful punishment, and, I should think, a salutary caution.”
On the opposite bank, constables of the Orange Free State wore whatever they pleased. The group was composed of “drunken, dissipated, seedy-looking reprobates, in garments of every shade, cut and pattern, but in dirt and dilapidation generally resembling those of the typical British scarecrow. ” They dispensed swift, unsubtle justice. Perpetrators and those suspected of crimes were put in the stocks, lashed, or intimidated with blunt instruments . No restraints were placed on the constabulary; with few exceptions the judges were straight out of a Rowlandson cartoon. A contemporary portrait of one couple is eloquent: “The Magistrate’s wife on the Klipdrift side was going the rounds of the camp with a loaded revolver in her pocket to shoot anyone whom she considered offensive, and his worship her husband, who sat in robes on the Bench, went for knocking men down with his fist as a preliminary to having them locked up.
Through the early 1870s, life became more and more brutish. The conditions did nothing to discourage new prospectors; they came by he hundreds and then the thousands, from Europe, Australia, and America, attracted by the mystique of diamonds and the chance at quick riches. Two small towns sprang up around them, Pinel and Klipdrift. In sheet-metal buildings the diggers bought vegetables and alcohol at high prices, exchanged gossip, and read the two rival newspapers, The Diamond News and The Diamond Field. The region’s first hotel arose, kept hy a Mrs. Jardine. A few prostitutes had appeared around the camps, but the middle-aged owner was no madam. The sentimental diggers called her “Mother” and sat politely at her home-cooked dinners of roast and boiled beef, anxious for kind words and tidings of home.
With a mix of restlessness and curiosity several diggers meandered north, far from the crowded river. Twenty miles away they reached a farm called Dutoitspan, owned by Adriaan Van Wyk. The Boer thought himself shrewd when he charged the diggers seven shillings sixpence, plus 25 percent of what they found, in order to work his land. Each claim measured 30 square fi~et or, as the diggers had it, “ten times the size of your grave.” After several false starts the prospectors hit a lode. In one week 100 diamonds were discovered.
The men tried to keep their finds to themselves, but no secrets could be contained in that rumor-hungry region. The Friend, a new paper in the Free State, said that 17 “veritable gems” had been found in the mud walls of Van Wyk’s homestead and corral. Other groups drifted up from the Vaal to see for themselves. En route they heard stories of a farm called Vooruitzigt Foresight—-where a lone explorer had unearthed some perfect diamonds. They headed there and opened negotiations with the owner’s son-in-law. He was, one of them complained, “a most offensive and objectionable fellow . However we were too wise to take offense and ultimately he gave us each permission to peg out a claim, 30 ft. by 30 on the 25 per cent arrangement, and also permitted us to peg for some friends we had by the river.
They rode back to their camp and rounded up the friends. As their eight wagons pulled out, hundreds of heads curiously looked up. “Before we were out of sight,” one of the drivers noted, “the majority of tents were down and oxen were being inspanned to chase after us. They forced the pace and we only managed to keep the lead, I being first wagon, the mob pretty close behind.”
In the summer of 1871 the mob was joined by the free-spirited son of a Coleshurg magistrate. Fleetwood Rawstone had come to the diggings on a lark, along with a party of carefree friends and an alcoholic black servant named Damon. They called themselves the Red Cap Party, dressed accordingly, and drank and gambled away the few stones they found. Then, on a July evening, Damon became disorderly and Fleetwood threw him out.
Sometime later Damon returned and poked his face into the tent: “Fleet, I want to see you.
“All right,” Rawstone replied. “Come inside. We are all friends here. What do you want?”
Damon replied by opening his fist. Rough diamonds glittered in his palm. He had dug them up a few hundred yards away. “The effect on us all,” said a Red Cap, “was electrical.” The group tumbled out into the evening and followed Damon to a hillock about 20 feet high. It was decided that each man in the group would be allotted two claims, except for Fleetwood. As “discoverer” he was granted four. Gratefully he placed a shovel in the earth and christened the place “Colesburg kopje” after his hometown. The other Red Caps joined in, working quietly under the moonlight. This was to be their secret.
But when morning came they were no longer alone. The shouts of celebration had been too loud, and the word had passed down the line: this stone-clotted field was the richest in the world. By noon scores of men combed the fields of Vooruitzigt. Hundreds more came along a day later. The little settlements of Pniel and Klipdrift collapsed into ghost towns. Along the Vaal and Orange Rivers, diamond hunters sick of standing knee-deep in water, cradling, and being wet all the week round,” moved with all their belongings. The newspapers with their presses and types, the canteen-keepers with their barrels and bottles, the smith with bellows and anvil, the shoemaker with lapstone and hammer, the clock and watchmaker, the chemist and druggist, marched off in long processions for the new diggings.”
Within weeks 8oo claims were cut out of Colesburg kopje, some of them subdivided into half and quarter shares. By midsummer the 30’ x 30 lots were going for £5oo each. The Friend of August 17, 1871 reported that Colesburg possessed “the richest diggings on these fields...... many workers would not take less than three or four thousand pounds sterling for their respective claims.”
This was the New Rush, and it had a different character from the one by the river. Water in the “dry diggings” was at a premium. Wood was impossible to procure. Labor was also in short supply; the “kaffirs” demanded higher wages. All kinds of money could be made here, not only beneath the earth but above it—retailing hardware , dry goods, liquids, and produce.; wholesaling sheet metal to make dwellings and stores.
VANITY and DEPRAVITY
IN LONDON, family and friends remarked that Rhodes had filled out since his last visit. The observation could not have been entirely flattering. He looked ten years older than his actual age of 35, and he tended to walk as if he were moving under water. A colleague of the time describes him “rolling in his chair like a whale in deep seas.”
In repose the fleshy face assumed an air of profound melancholy. Partly this was because of delicate health: the stress of competition weighed literally upon his heart. But there were other complicating factors. Rhodes had recently suffered a series of personal sorrows, and he had fallen in love. That episode had been the saddest of all.
The string of tragedies began in 1879 when his brother perished in a peculiar incident. Herbert Rhodes, who had enticed Cecil to South Africa in the first place, was the family’s compulsive wanderer. No sooner had he put in a cotton crop than he was off to Kimberley to look for diamonds.
Once the jewels were unearthed he abandoned Cecil once more, this time to investigate reports of gold strikes in the interior. Since then he had prospected in the eastern Transvaal, run guns from Delgoa Bay to the Pedi tribe, and roved northward to the areas known today as Mozambique and Malawi.
In every region he searched for gold; he was hunting for it when he stopped at the village of a Kololo chief. During the evening a demijohn of rum caught on fire, exploded a yard away, and killed him. He was 34. Herbert’s death was reported to Cecil as “a mystery, whether killed [by African thieves] and then burned or burned accidentally.”
Rhodes betrayed no emotion when he heard the news. Only in a letter to his aunt did he comment. He could not bear going into detail: “What a sad affair Herbert’s death is! I send you the paper with the account of it.” It took some twenty years before Cecil could deal with the fact of Herbert’s demise: then he had a marble statue erected on the bank of the Shire River, where it still stands.
The next loss occurred six years later. The eminent Victorian Major General Charles George “Chinese” Gordon visited Rhodes in 1881. Lytton Strachey’s acid portrait introduces the General as a believer in biblical revelation, and then throughout his life the undersized figure fearlessly strolled through danger illuminated by a “spark of the god head.” By contrast the gallumphing Rhodes was an agnostic and a severely practical man, with no room for worship on his schedule.
Yet in certain ways the men were cut of the same British twill. Each believed that he could deal with the natives through the force of his personality. Rhodes, the old Africa hand, would bargain, threaten, cajole. Gordon was certain “that he alone possessed what some described as a mesmeric power over primitive peoples and he himself called the faculty of getting into their skins.” Both men nourished the idea of a secret society composed of idealistic young Britons. And both were isolates with no use for women.
Rhodes and Gordon immediately got on. They went on long walks, discussing, among other things, the future of Africa. Gordon prevailed on his new friend to leave Kimberley for Basutoland, where the General was to solve the problem of native uprisings. “Stay with me,” he insisted. “We can work together.” Rhodes resisted. He liked Gordon, but he thought the man was a bit too righteous for his own good—to say nothing of England’s. Rhodes was appalled, for instance, when the General spoke of the time he subdued the Tai~Ping rebellion in China. A grateful government had offered him a roomful of gold as his reward.
“And what did you do?” demanded the listener.
“Refused it, of course. What would you have done?”
“I’d have taken it,” said Rhodes, “and as many more roomfuls as they offered me; it is no use having big ideas if you have not the cash to carry them out.
After several more entreaties to join him, Gordon gave up. There were “very few men in the world to whom I would make such an offer,” he declared petulantly. “Very few men, I can tell you; but you will have your own way . I never met a man so strong for his own opinion; you think your views are always right.”
The General went off on his own. He and Rhodes never met again, but neither man forgot the other.
Two years later Gordon headed to the Sudan, attempting to suppress the Madhi, a charismatic and violent Moslem leader. Once more Gordon entreated his fellow Victorian by cable: together they might still bring peace and work wonders. It was a serious temptation. Gordon was threatening to “smash the Madhi,” and Rhodes knew this was a mistake. Instead of smashing him, the Colossus would find the Madhi’s price and make a deal. Alas, he noted, Cape Parliament was meeting, and there was no time to venture north; Rhodes cabled his regrets. Had he agreed, he would surely have ended as the General did only a few months later slain in Khartoum, his head mounted on a pikestaff and paraded around the conquered city. Still, when the news of Gordon’s death came to him, Rhodes acted like a grieving relative. “I am sorry I was not with him,” he lamented from the safety of Kimberley, “I am sorry I was not with him.”
The third loss was too severe for posturing. Early in the 1880s Neville Pickering entered Rhodes’s orbit. Contemporaries found the blond young man to be “frank,” “sunny-tempered,” “beloved by men and women alike.” Rhodes was immediately taken with Pickering and hired him as De Beers’s first secretary. Next to the Colossus, Pickering called Pickling by his intimates—seemed no more than a most gregarious young South African with average intelligence and few ambitions. But Rhodes was smitten. The two men moved into a corrugated iron house opposite a cricket ground. The Imperial Secretary of Cape Town described their close friendship at that time as “absolutely lover-like,” and a number of whispers attended this new living arrangement. No scandal ever surfaced, however, and their new association may well have been platonic. In any case Rhodes was powerfully affected. He hecame easier to talk to, more sociable anti focused. In a matter of months he altered his will, leaving his entire fortune to his great friend.
“My dear Pickering,” read the covering note. “Open the enclosed after my death. There is an old will of mine . . . whose conditions are very curious, and can only be carried out by a trustworthy person, and I con sider you one.” Curious is an understatement; the paper Rhodes called his “Confession” concluded that Anglo- Saxons were “the finest race in the world.” Therefore, “the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.” With the help of Rhodes’s enormous financial legacy, the English would elevate such lands as South Africa, at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings.”
Young Pickling would he charged with the repossession of Canada and the United States; the coopting of Asia, South America, and, it goes without saying, Africa from the Cape to Cairo. But it would not all he imperial drudgery. Rhodes’s message went on: “You fully understand you are to use the interest of money as you like during your lifetime.”
That great transfer of wealth and power never occurred. An absurd, real accident took place in 1884, and it changed the lives of everyone concerned. Neville Pickering suffered a minor spill from his horse. It seemed more nuisance than catastrophe: a few bruises and some sores where thorn-hushes had pierced his legs. But there were all sorts of exotic bacilli on the fields; an infection took hold and never let go.
For four years Pickering oscillated from extremely ill to almost well, only to relapse each time. During that period, word came of gold strikes in the Witwater-srand, the White Water Ridge in the Northeast, some 200 miles from Kimherley.
Ultimately the territory would prove to hold the largest deposit of gold in the world.
I. B. Robinson went there and quickly reestablished his fortunes; Barney Barnato had a look, and so did Alfred Beit and many other diamond magnates. Rhodes was one of the latecomers, totally ignorant of what lay beneath his feet. Ask him about precious stones and he supplied a dozen answers; of precious metal he knew only that if one were given a roomful of it, one should not walk away empty- handed.
Research had hardly begun when someone gave Rhodes bad news about his beloved Pickling. Against the advice of doctors the invalid had gone to Kimberley, and there his condition suddenly deteriorated. He was not expected to last more than a few days. Rhodes appeared to he in shock. He told an associate that he would leave by the next coach: “Buy a seat from someone who has already hooked . . . get a special coach anything.” No one was willing to give up his seat— not even for the Colossus—and no special coach could be hired. Undeterred, Rhodes clambered on top of a coach and sat on a pile of mailbags . For fifteen hours he bounced painfully and silently until the vehicle pulled up at Kimherley.
Rhodes rushed to Pickering’s bedside and stayed there, “careless of anything hut the wants and comforts of his friend.” On October 16, 1886, three weeks after the jolting ride south, Pickering muttered, “You have been father, mother, brother, and sister to me,” and died in his friend’s arms. Much of Kimberley turned out for the funeral. Barney Barnato wept; Rhodes, hiding his face in a large handkerchief, alternated between high-pitched, hysterical laughter and tears. Afterward, Rhodes sat at a table with Pickering’s brother. Both men cried and pushed the deceased’s gold watch back and forth. “No, you are his brother,” came one voice. “No, you are his greatest friend,” argued the other.
The head of De Beers was never to show such tenderness again.
* * * * * * *
From here on Rhodes evidenced a new and bitter cynicism, along with a stronger need to dominate men and events. In time he would grow closer to Jameson, and a parade of young men known as “Rhodes’s lambs “ would serve as his secretaries. But no one truly replaced Pickering in his affections. That October, the Rhodes who was not ashamed to display warmth, affection, and human vulnerability perished along with his companion.
* * * * * *
FOR VENTURE CAPITALISTS, gaining entry to the House of Rothschild could be notoriously difficult. Not for the Colossus; a servant showed him straight in. Two men had smoothed the way. Alfred Beit, whose financial skills had drawn the attention of the Rothschilds, provided a letter of introduction.
The great banking family also knew Gardner Williams, an American mining engineer with vast experience in the gold and silver mine fields of California and Nevada.
Rhodes had met him in South Africa, checked his credentials, and offered him a large salary. Williams, who had intended to take the next boat back to the United States, signed on to become the general manager of De Beers.
At the beginning negotiations were frosty, but Lord Nathan Rothschild gradually warmed to Rhodes’s proposal. In order for the amalgamation scheme to work, one man would have to sit atop the pyramid of diamond companies. That man would be eithe r Barney Barr who controlled most of the Kimberley Mine, or Cecil Rhodes, who controlled the neighboring De Beers Mine. The stock of one major firm was still outstanding, the French Company in the Kimberley Mine. Rhodes needed that foothold in enemy territory before he made his move.
As the interview ended, the financier spoke up. “Well, Mr. Rhodes, you go to Paris and see what you can do in reference to the purchase of the French Company’s property, and in the meantime I will see if I can raise the £1,000,000 which you desire.”
Rothschild’s “if” was enough to change the world. A few weeks later, a De Beers executive noted that the chief was back in town looking as fit as ever. He has just returned from Paris after his coup d’etat. The French Company that was is now practically in our hands and the Rothschilds have at last arranged to finance for us.” He and Rhodes expressed delight to “have the Kimberley crowd by the throat.”
Unfortunately for Dc Beers , Barney Barnato was not part of the crowd. He owned one fifth of the French Company’s shares and like Rhodes, he wanted it all. Barnato Bros. was prepared to offer £I,70 cash to the French—~3oo,ooo more than Rhodes’s opening offer.
Rhodes nodded. Very well, he countered, “You can go and offer £300,000 more than we do for the French, but we will offer another £300,000 on that; you can go on and bid for the benefit of the French shareholders ad infinitum, because we shall have it in the end.”
Barney refused to budge . He knew that De Beers’s threat was backed with borrowed money. Barney was using his own. So he cannot have been very surprised when Rhodes gave way in the autumn of 1887. The “surrender” was part of a grand design, imperceptible to those who were up too close to see it.
With Barnato’s permission, Rhodes proposed to buy the French Company outright. He would then sell it to Barnato’s Central Cormpany for the bargain price of £300,000 cash—plus 70,000 Central shares. That way he would apparently save face, and Barney would save money. To onlookers Barney appeared to have scored a complete triumph . He came away the owner of most of the Central and all of the French
Actually, the victory was Rhodes’s; he had traded his way into Barney’s territory. By the time the deal was settled he owned one fifth of the Central . Now he showed his teeth. Brokers were instructed to bid on the Central’s outstanding shares. It would take £2,000,000 to get them all, and once again Rhodes had to ask for some outside help. Beit knew a winner when he saw one; again he joined hands with the Colossus, “We will get the money if only we can get the shares.”
Those shares did not come cheap, but Rhodes got them. In the middle of February 1888, a Central share was listed on the London and Kimberley exchanges at £14. Barney thought his friends and colleagues would remain steadfast. But he found —if he did not already know—that money creates its own loyalties
“I’ll tell you what you will find out presently,” Rhodes warned him. “Here you have your leading shareholders patting you on the back and backing you up, but selling out around the corner all the time.” He was right. Share by share, day by day, Barnato lost control of his own company. The stock price rose to £20, then £30, and finally the high 40s. By March Rhodes had acquired three fifths of the Central.
Now it was Barney who needed cash. Prompted by desperation, he announced an outrageous plan. He would take what he owned of the Kimberley Mine, consolidate it, and make it a public company. He would then sell shares of that company in London at one pound per share. Perhaps this was a bluff; Barnato was surely aware that such a move would reduce the value of all diamond shares, and thus inevitably of diamonds themselves . It would be an act of financial suicide. Still, there was always something self-destructive about Barnato, and Rhodes could take no chances.
He stalled for time with what was to become known as “the historic trick.”
Rhodes planted stories that he was still short of cash. To raise money he was going to sell a large selection of De Beers’s surplus diamonds. Several prospective buyers came around, including Barney who stalled, grumbled, and ultimately agreed to pay Rhodes his price for the stones. To the astonishment of Kimberley, the deal went through, even though Barney was being given a very dangerous weapon: with these new diamonds he could flood the market. It might damage Barnato Bros., but it would surely ruin De Beers. Then, moments before Barney took possession , Rhodes pulled his stunt. It was unworthy of him, the prank of a fretful child. But it had very grownup consequences. He tilted the stand that held the entire diamonds, and they cascaded into a large bucket. “It took Barnato’s experts six weeks’ hard labor to re-sort them into their proper classes,” according to an onlooker . “This gave the European market a breathing spell.” Barney proved to be a good sport. In later years he recalled the incident indulgently: “Rhodes only beat me once. Over those diamonds in that bucket of his. But I didn’t mind—it pleased him.”
If Barney was telling the truth, if he really didn’t mind, then the denouement may well have been stage-managed. Certainly the diamond world watched it with all the intensity of playgoers; and Rhodes and Barnato did everything but sell tickets.
All of one day and night four men gathered in Jameson’s cottage to hammer out a final agreement: Cecil John Rhodes, Alfred Beit, Barney Barnato, and (since Harry was in England attending to business) their nephew Woolf Joel. The argument raged on past midnight, with Rhodes holding the floor most of the time. He spoke of managing the diamond industry, and by extension, the Africa that lay waiting to he taken. At one point Woolf Joel asked, “Aren’t those just dreams of the future? Dreams don’t pay dividends.”
“No, my friend,” Rhodes pointed out, “they’re not dreams, they’re plans. There’s a difference.”
Barney seemed the most difficult to persuade. Rhodes wanted the Central Company; without it amalgamation would be impossible. Barnato refused to sell it, even for shares in De Beers. Rhodes threw in all sorts of emoluments: he would get Barney a membership in the snobbish Kimberley Club (“1 propose to make a gentleman of you”). He guaranteed him a Life Directorship of Dc Beers, a company “worth as much as the balance of Africa.” He promised Barney a seat in the legislative assembly. At four in the morning Barnato finally succumbed. Some people have a fancy for this thing,” he wearily concluded, “and some for that; you have a fancy for making an Empire. Well, I suppose I must give it to you.
Various tales grew up around this surrender, most of them false.
The Kimberley Club, for example, already had several Jewish members and not a few vulgarians. Barney’s inclusion would break no new ground. As for joining the legislature, offices could be bought by anyone with the means, and the Barnatos certainly had the means.
A story circulated that after shoe-horning Barney into the Club , Rhodes made a simple request. “You’ve had your whim. I’d like to have mine. I have always wanted to see a bucketful of diamonds; will you produce one?” And so Barney is said to have placed every available stone in a pail and allowed his old adversary to lift out “handfuls of the glittering gems and luxuriously let them back through his fingers like water.”
No doubt this is the Rhodes “trick” retold and distorted until the legend worked its way into the history books.
The fact is that the founder of the De Beers fortune would have had no trouble getting his hands on thousands of diamonds; he might have taken a bath in them anytime he pleased.
Remove the myths and there remains a salient biographical detail: Barney Barnato was first, last, and always an actor. For all his devious schemes, he may never have been sincere about taking control of the industry. By holding out, posturing, frowning, menacing—and then capitulating with a sigh, he gained power without responsibility and wealth without industry.
As one revisionist puts it, “If anybody laughed all the way to the bank at the time it was Barnato Brothers.., thereafter the firm made handsome profits as a major share-holder.”
In March 1888, the amalgamation was made official when Rhodes formed De Beers Consolidated Mines, incorporating all of his holdings. The new power only seemed to increase his appetite. The Colossus turned his attention to what he then called the “poorer mines” of Bulfontein and Dutoitspan. He would make the owners of those mines “fair offers,” he told the De Beers stockholders.
Understandably there would be “a period of antagonism,” Rhodes had accurately predicted, “but we are bound to win.”
There were a few obstacles on the way to total victory. In August 1888, a group of Central stockholders appeared before the Supreme Court of the Cape Colony. They could see that Barney had sold them out; instead of being essential parts of South Africa’s mining industry, they were to become obedient and faceless pawns in Rhodes’s grand design.
Rhodes had made no secret of his aims; he had listed them in a paper available to the court. They included plans to trade in precious stones and metals, to construct railways, factories, and canals, to operate banks, to acquire “tracts of country,” and even to pacify and administrate territories where “arrangements” could be made with native rulers.
The Central stockholders’ counsel had no trouble proving that the new De Beers had no intention of remaining a mere diamond company. He argued that it stood to become a dangerous new entity responsible to no one but itself. Under Rhodes’s direction, he pointed out, De Beers “can do anything and everything, my lord. I suppose, since the time of the East India Company, no company has had such power as this..... . . If they obtain a Charter in accordance with their trust deed from the Secretary of State, they would be empowered to annex a portion of territory in Central Africa, raise and maintain a standing army, and undertake warlike operations.”
The plaintiffs had a very strong case. The idea of a chartered company had begun in the administration of Prime Minister Gladstone. He allowed private enterprise to extend the Empire with the official backing of (and at very little cost to) the British government . A chartered company thus amounted to a small state, with immense and flexible powers. Theoretically it reported to British authority; except for major diplomatic decisions, it was responsible chiefly to itself.
After pondering all this the Chief Justice decided in favor of the dissidents. But he was manifestly uncomfortable. In his summation he hinted at a way to preserve the amalgamation. Rhodes took the suggestion and ran with it. He and Barnato owned a preponderance of shares in the Central Company; the dissidents held less than a tenth.
It was decided to put the Central into voluntary liquidation. De Beers could then pick up the pieces, and the minority stockholders would be absolutely helpless to stop them . On January 29, 1889 the Central was formally put to sleep; on July 18, 1889, De Beers bought its scattered assets for £5,338,650, the largest check yet written. The amount dazzled the world. For years tourists bought replicas of it in the souvenir shops of Kimherley, and the original still hangs on the wall of the De Beers boardroom.
Objections resounded in London and South Africa. The financial press of England interpreted the maneuver as a sellout of stockholders, which indeed it was. Barney enjoyed every minute . He regarded all publicity as inherently good and decided to run for a seat in the Legislature. During his campaign he outdid himself, sporting a silver-gray coat with brightly colored lapels and a pale gray top hat. He was then taken everywhere in a gilded carriage, drawn by four dappled horses and also accompanied by riders in gold lace and jockey caps. But this time he found his speeches interrupted by miners and merchants apprehensive about De Beers’s plans to cut production and mechanize the mines. In Cape Town, J. X. Merriman commented that “Men are being put forward for election who, if returned, would be a disgrace to any society.” The objection did no good; an old Barney-hater looked at the election results and moaned , “I see Barnato heads the poll at Kimberley. 0 temporal! 0 mores!”
The criticism widened to include Rhodes. After the Central shut down, he saw no reason to carry so many employees on the payroll and ordered a wholesale dismissal of workers. In response a group of white miners, accompanied by some black men playing guitars, marched a half mile from Dutoitspan to Kimberley. In town they burned an effigy of the Colossus. One of the protestors read a dedication: “We will now commit to the flames the last mortal remains of Cecil John Rhodes, Amalgamator General, Diamond King and Monarch of De Beers. . . . And in doing so let us not forget to give three cheers for a traitor to his adopted country, a panderer to the selfish greed of a few purse-proud speculators, and a public pest. May the Lord perish him. Amen.”
Several days later a new march took place in Dutoitspan. In the market place, effigies of Barney Barnato and Alfred Beit met a similar end. It was a futile gesture. The protestors spoke boldly, but they were so wary of De Beers’s new power that they wore masks.
Within a year the laborers’ worst fears were confirmed. De Beers acquired the outstanding portions of the Dutoitspan and Bulfontein mines. Now Rhodes could do whatever he wanted with the diamond industry, and what he wanted was to cut the payrolls. Widespread unemployment had begun earlier, with the collapse of mine walls, and with a horrific fire that took the lives of at least 24 white men and 178 natives. But this was mere prelude. De Beers officially claimed that a new reduction of the working force was necessary to save the diamond business—and besides, according to an officer, “the reduction was not quite 200. This is at odds with the known statistics. Some 25 percent of the white working force became redundant, and almost 50 percent of the black workers found themselves jobless. Rhodes personally dismissed nearly 1,000 more. Resentment rose so high that for a time he traveled with a police escort.
But after the marches and bonfires, protests quietly died away. This time no threats were necessary, no company policemen had to intimidate the populace with night-sticks and barbed wire . From the official start of amalgamation early in 1889, everyone in the diamond industry sensed that he would be dependent on the Beers for his very existence. In Kimberley, fear took the place of rage.
A measure of digger dependence can be seen in the legacies of those who died in the fire. Only four survivors left any property, and the combined total of their estates added up to £337. They carried no insurance, no workmen’s compensation; the families of the other men had to live on handouts from their employer. De Beers made much of its charitable works: “The fact is worthy of mention,” says the official history, “that the widows and children affected by the disaster were all provided for by the Company, the pension list remaining open for many years.
Yet the philanthropy had its dark side. All diamond laborers in Kimberley now served at the pleasure of De Beers. One learned not to complain about the size of the payments, or the conditions in which one was forced to live. To cause the Company any further distress would be more than ill-advised; it would be damn near catastrophic. Such was the fate of the whites.
After the initial shakeouts, black laborers found plenty of backbreaking work in the mines. They were always cheaper and more easily managed than the whites, and now every one of them was placed in De Beers’s “monastery of labor,” as The Times of London approvingly called it. There every black was now “stripped perfectly naked and compelled to leap over bars, and their hair, mouth, ears, etc., carefully examined—not a particularly pleasant duty for the searchers when the thermometer stands at perhaps ioo Fahrenheit in the shade.”
As evidence of that vision, Kipling could point to Rhodes’s will. The estate was worth over £6,ooo,ooo, an enormous fortune at the time. Hardly any of it went to his survivors. Grid, his old college at Oxford, received a generous bequest for its faculty and for a series of new buildings. Groote Schuur was left in trust as a residence for future Prime Ministers. Rhodes had mistakenly assumed that Rhodesia would keep his memory green for at least 4,000 years. Actually, the one provision that saved his name was the establishment of the famous Rhodes Scholarships.
This was the final version of his Secret Society, concocted when he and the diamond fields were young together. The grants would ensure, he thought, a steady procession of stalwart Anglo-Saxon males. They would he chosen for their scholastic achievements, their love of sport, their manly and moral characteristics.
In short, for everything that Rhodes had never been.
* * * * * *
THE BOER WAR wound down in the early months of 1902.
To Americans the battles bore an eerie resemblance to their own Civil War. Just before the fighting began South Africa’s Chief Justice accurately predicted, “What a legacy of hate for the future!”
As in America, the losers had begun with sudden victories and a sense of euphoria. The winners, smarting, announced that they had the bigger forces, the better and more equipment. It would be a short conflict; the boys would be home for their Christmas. Both sides were wrong. Spectacular triumphs on both sides gave way to guerrilla warfare. It ground on for almost four years.
More deaths were caused by fever and infections than by bullet wounds. In the end the Boers were undone by casualties and desertions, and by Britain’s ruthless scorched-earth policy that ruined farms and towns.
The echoes of Antietam and Gettysburg resounded across the Atlantic. To many American minds, England was still the enemy of the Revolution and the War of 1812. For them, Britain’s enemies were automatically friends of the United States.
So it was that a New York congressman proposed that the Secretary of State “invite the whole Boer people to settle on the public lands of the United States,” and that the governor of Arkansas offered five million acres as a gift to the Boer nation. Colorado made a similar suggestion. The official answer was always the same: “The Boers love Africa too well to think of emigration.”
On May 31, 1902, the fighting stopped. A peace treaty was signed, and Lord Kitchener, Chief of Staff, held out his hand to the Boer delegates. “We are all good friends now,” he said. Of all the lies told during the conflict, this was the biggest.
Neither side expressed remorse or forgiveness. The British had lost 22,000, the Boers 24,000, of whom 20,000 were women and children, dead of starvation and disease in the concentration camps.
Only a few Britons gained any repute from the conflict. Sir Randolph Churchill’s son Winston, a war correspondent, became famous with dispatches about his daring escape from a Boer prison. Lt. Col. R.S.S. Baden-Powell did almost as well. He admired uniforms and young men and combined them by going on to found the Boy Scouts.
Lord Mimer reigned as High Commissioner, determined to maintain British rule over the whole of South Africa. He promised that military administration would be succeeded by civil government as soon as circumstances permit” meaning that voting for civilian representatives would take place at his pleasure. “The ultimate end,” he wrote, “is a self-governing white Community, supported by well- treated and justly governed black labor from Cape Town to Zambesi.”
Perhaps the greatest triumphs were enjoyed by the Randlords, who retained their mines and their bank accounts and their friendships with the Crown. The gold and diamond mines were reopened, and once more the profits flowed to the companies Cecil Rhodes had founded. From the Boer ranks only one man, a steely officer named Jan Smuts, emerged as a leader with a global reputation. Much would be heard from him in the next decade.
Both sides suffered permanen t changes. Paul Kruger went into exile in Switzerland, where his life ended four years later. He never saw his country again. “Born under the British flag,” he wrote after the war, “I have no wish to die under it.” Queen Victoria and Cecil Rhodes had expired during the conflict, and with them had died the Cape-to-Cairo fantasy. The rallying cry at the start of the fighting——”We are all imperialists now”—gave way to feelings of revulsion and self-doubt.
Of all people, Kipling’s aunt hung out a black banner from her with the device, “We have killed and taken possession.” George Bernard Shaw, who could never bring himself to condemn the conflict, wrote that “two hordes of predatory animals” had fought for the possession of a country “where neither of them has, or ever had, any business to be. ..... the moral position of the Boers and the British is precisely identical in every respect; that is, it does not exist. Two dogs [fought ] for a bone thrown before them by Mrs. Nature, an old-established butcher with a branch establishment in South Africa.”
The bone was mineral wealth, and in the bitter peace the Randlords became everyone’s favorite target . Labouchere and Hohson continued to rail about the Hebrew profiteers, and in London a musical entitled The Girl from Kay’s had as its central character a comic South African millionaire called Hoggenheimer, referred to by the chorines as “Piggy.” Nothing more needed to be said: the name and the country of origin indicated that he was a Jewish parvenu, ripe for parody.
The Girl from Kay’s traveled to Johannesburg, where it played for one season. The caricature, however, came to stay. Late in 1902 a political cartoonist co-opted him, and Hoggenheimer entered South African mythology as the big-bellied, hook-nosed Shylock in search of profit and reputation. A young German Jew could not have chosen a worse time to enter South Africa. And if his name was Oppenheimer, he was practically begging to he savaged. But what was Ernest Oppenheimer to do? That was his surname, and he had no intention of hiding his identity. Instead he would have to cloak his ambition.
Ernest was horn in Germany in 1880, the fifth son of a bourgeois merchant with modern ideas. Ecuard Oppenheimer encouraged his sons to move on, preferably to England because “in England everything is allowed except what is strictly forbidden . In Germany everything is forbidden except what is specifically allowed.” And what was forbidden most of all was a future for young Jews.
Bernard and Louis Oppenheimer honored their father and found jobs in the diamond business. Bernard was first in Kimberley, followed by Louis, who then went on to London. Ernest watched their careers enviously and, at the age of 16, left school to follow their example.
Louis got him a job with Anton Dunkelshuhler, a frowning taskmaster who believed in winning by intimidation. His bald head caught the light as he walked around his London establishment, terrifying the young clerks. Once when Ernest was filling the inkwells, he spilled some ink on the boss. “Diamond expert!” The boss exploded. “Diamond expert! Why, you wouldn’t even make a good waiter.”
He kept the young man on anyway. The other Oppenheimers had worked out; and besides, Ernest was beginning to show a unique gift for sorting diamonds. He appeared to know instinctively which rough stones would he jewels of the first water and which would have to be cut up into small, undistinguished baubles. “Dunkels” expected his staff to work long hours, but Ernest worked longer than the other clerks. He not only studied diamonds, he studied South Africa, examining records of mining operations, profits, futures. And he read continually and enviously of the Randlords.
They had gone to Kimberley when it was New Rush, when a man with a shovel and a pail and a mind could make millions. Those days were long gone. Since he could not be a man of wealth, Ernest decided, he would be a man of leisure. He would work hard, save £50,000, invest it wisely, and live on the interest. The rest of his life he would spend as an Edwardian gentleman, reading and filling in the blanks of an abbreviated education.
But first one had to get on at the office. He redoubled his efforts. One of his young colleagues recalled that, watching Ernest, “I sometimes told him ‘you’ll emulate Cecil Rhodes,’ but he did not like my teasing him or my mingling into his business.” On November 21, 1901 Ernest became a naturalized British subject. The following May the Boer War ended, and after some industrious office politicking he boarded a boat for South Africa. The old man had decided that his Kimberley office needed a younger man in charge of things.
The current Dunkels representative took the news hard. Leon Soutro was a middle-aged bachelor with an impressive business background. The upstart who had elbowed him aside was 22 years old. Soutro sent what must have been an uncordial wire. Up until then Ernest had been a model of conciliation, unfailingly polite and accommodating to his elders. For the first time he bared his teeth. “Your telegram received,” he wrote back. “Meet me at station to look after luggage.
Oppenheimer.” And Soutro did.
Aside from the luggage, £50 was all Ernest had to his name. To save money he resided with his mother’s cousin Fritz Hirschhorn, another diamond connection. Hirschhorn had been on the fields since the early days, and he had become a considerable personage. He held a position at Wernher, Beit and served on the board of De Beers. It was clear that Ernest could expect no favors; the young man had to make his own way . Still, the home was luxurious and full of servants, a far better situation than anything an immigrant could find on his own.
And in the evenings some celebrated guests came for drinks or dinner: David Harris, Solly Joel, Alfred Beit, Gardner Williams, De Beers’s consulting engineer. All of them, Ernest knew, would be invaluable to his career if only it got started.
A fellow employee at Dunkels remembered the first time he saw Ernest: “He had just got to the town and I noticed him immediately; [Kimberley] was a little place and you always did look twice at strangers in those days. It was 1902 and a warm sunny day. His sleeves were rolled up and I noticed his arms immediately. I thought I’d never seen such muscular arms on any man. . . .
‘Well,’ I asked the man in charge of the office, ‘who’s that fellow with the big arms?’ And he said it was a new man, Ernest Oppenheimer, who’d just been sent out from London. He said, ‘I don’t think very much of him from what I’ve seen so far. He’s terribly shy, and he doesn’t seem to be very bright.’”
Judgments like that had a way of getting around, and Ernest felt that he had to do something to establish his credentials in a town of young men on the make. He consulted one of his cousin’s guests. “Every day I go there,” Oppenheimer then complained, “and I work as hard as anybody in the firm, if not harder. I sit down and sort diamonds with them . Yet somehow they don’t respect me.” “Of course they don’t respect you for working hard,” said Leander Starr Jameson. “If you want to be someone in the town, leave the task of sorting to others.”
Dr. Jim was the greatest living authority on fame, obscurity , and rehabilitation. Only a few years before he had been jailed and disgraced following the Jameson Raid . He had nearly died of a circulatory ailment. But he refused to succumb to bad health or ill fame. Upon his return to South Africa, he had then assumed the leadership of Rhodes’s Progressive Party.
He had unabashedly run for office and got himself elected to the Cape Parliament. These days he made no secret of his ambition to become Prime Minister. In past years he was a dangerous man to know; now it was dangerous not to make his acquaintance. Ernest hung on his every word. Here was the beginning of his true education. He heard of the dreams of Jameson’s great friend Cecil Rhodes, and how they could still come to pass. He heard about the right people to cultivate, received the proper formula for mixing politics and business, the correct English attitudes toward race and ethnicity.
And yet he nourished the idea of £50,000 and independence until the day he was invited into De Beers’s boardroom in Kimberley. It was then, as it is today, austere and hard-edged, looking out to a small courtyard, with matching fireplaces at each end. Portraits of great men looked down at a long table and leather-backed chairs. Rhodes, Barnato, Woolf Joel only the dead would ever be allowed space on these hallowed walls. And there in a frame was the celebrated check for over £5 million. The life one could lead with that kind of money . .
Solly Joel was in attendance. By this time he had that kind of money, and he let the world know what it meant to be a Joel, shuttling between opulent houses in London and Johannesburg, promenading on the decks of his steam yacht, strutting around his stable of racehorses. During a lull in the meeting he dipped into his pocket and pulled out a glittering piece of rock. It had come from banks of the Vaal River that morning.
“How much do you think it’s worth?” he asked Hirschhorn and the others. The stone passed from hand to hand . Estimates rose with each man; this was a prize of prizes. Finally it came to rest in Ernest’s hands.
“Well, Oppenheimer?” inquired Solly. “What’s its value?”
“Nothing. It’s not a diamond.”
Joel looked indignant. “What do you mean?” he demanded.
“You prepared to put £50 on that?”
Ernest took a breath and nodded. A diamond evaluator was brought in. He judged the rock to be nothing more than broken bottle glass, worn smooth from years under water and sand. Joel handed over the £50 and gave the audacious young bettor a rueful look.
One day Ernest Oppenheimer would accrue more gold and diamonds than Rhodes and Barnato and Joel combined. But he savored that first victory more than any other. It was, he concluded, “the best £50 I ever earned.”
Pages 196 - 201.
Then, seven years later, labor unrest shook the black compounds.
On Monday, February 16, 1920, two African gold miners, Mobu and Vilikati, were arrested for trying to organize a strike on the East Rand. The following day, 2,500 native workers refused to go to work unless the men were released. Mobu and Vilikati stayed under lock and key, an(l the strikers escalated their demands. They would settle for nothing less than improved working conditions and a cost-of-living increase of three shillings a day. After two weeks 771,000 workers ------- more than half the black working force -------were out.
The government sensed that something extremely ominous was under way. Johannesburg was put on notice that “this is not, as all previous native troubles have been, a riot; it is a regular strike organized on the European model.” The entire future of labor relations was at stake here; the disruption would have to be put down abruptly and absolutely.
Federal troops were brought in to aid the private police. They surrounded the compounds, identified the ringleaders, and marched them off to jail. The next day black miners were forced back to their posts at bayonet point. Some went with an air of resignation, others protested vigorously. Confrontations were met with gunshots and beatings; before the strike was put down, 11 miners had been killed and 120 injured.
Ernest knew that these were only the first indications of a dangerous and possibly lethal new attitude. All over the world, workers were beginning to speak out in a different , defiant tone. They had effected severe changes in America, and they had taken over Russia entirely. Was South Africa next?. Its labor troubles were in every sense just below the surface, waiting to erupt. Ernest sensed that the next few years might be the most dangerous in his life; he would have to act very cannily to control the mines and the miners. Otherwise they would control him.
* * * * * * * *
IN 1921 LOUIS COHEN, sprung from jail and feeling alternate twinges of rheumatism and nostalgia, paid a visit to the gold city he had known a generation before. The old mixture of buccaneering and bonhomie was gone. Everything was regulate(l in the British style; the Union Jack flew over the town jail. Cohen always had an eye for pretty ladies, and he found the streets crowded with them.
Still, there was no doubt that this was a provincial place: they wore dresses that had long gone out of style in London. Prices were astronomical and inconsistent. One proprietor would charge 25 percent more than his neighbor for the same article, and customers were met with calculated indifference.
The visitor stopped by the old stock exchange. There may have been a touch of autobiography in his description of the building, now abandoned: “disreputable and frayed, like a broken-down rake who had rooked his friends, lost his name and was avoided by everybody.” Malice colored his picture of the new stock exchange as an “immense structure, forlorn anti despairing, like a giant without vitality, stately as a museum, hungry as a workhouse a hopeless center, busy doing nothing.”
Cohen was right to see the skull beneath the skin. Johannesburg’s prosperity was largely bluff and promises. The war had taken 5,000 men from the mines. Five hundred of them had been killed in action, more had been wounded, and still more chose not to return to their old positions.
Since the war, gold had fallen from 130 to 90 shillings an ounce, while the cost per ton of mining it had risen from 21 to 25 shillings. All this might have been peacefully surmounted if labor and management had worked out a modus vivendi. But the owners were determined to drive costs down, and they had slowly allowed Africans into semi-skilled positions. A mining engineer calculated that a full 50 % of the white workers could be let go, and a rumor circulated that the Randlords would soon replace all white laborers with Africans.
The Chamber of Mines neither denied nor affirmed the scuttlebutt. It refused to say anything at all until January 28, 1922, when it decided on a formal increase in the ratio of black to white workers. There had been 8.2 blacks to every white; now it would be 10.5 to one. The information acted like kerosene on a brush-fire. By March, when the workers met at Trades Hall, all hopes of labor peace had vanished.
The handful of moderate leaders were thunderously drowned out. Two men broadcast a new message from the balcony. Messrs. Fisher and Spendifi were Leninists imbued with the spirit of Bolshevik Russia, and they convinced the crowd that the hour of revolution had struck.One man produced a Red flag; another announced a general strike.
The crowd erupted into the streets, ready to express its anger against people and property. In the following days post offices were stormed, trains and trains also boarded and halted. Electric light and power was cut off, and trucks hauling food were stopped in their tracks . The Johannesburg Star saw the strike as part of a “revolutionary movement aiming at establishing Bolshevism” in the country. If it was Bolshevism, it was the kind that disappeared from the official record. Soviet historians were particularly anxious to expunge the time when radicals marched through the streets of Johannesburg under the banner: WORKERS OF THE WORLD FIGHT AND UNITE FOR A WHITE SOUTH AFRICA.
Led by a group called the Council of Action, these workers grew increasingly violent. They barged into shops, forcing customers and salespeople to leave. A bomb was thrown into a miner’s house after he criticized the Council’s tactics. A cabdriver who refused to go along with the crowd came home to find his residence dynamited. Bands of strikers raided the suburbs, stoning cars and firing at police. Rumor had it that the natives were on the verge of an organized uprising; before it could be denied, several Africans were murdered in vicious racial attacks.
Prime Minister Smuts was advised to declare martial law. He hesitated. The mining industry was not merely integral to South Africa, it was South Africa. And yet to break the strike would be to repudiate the rights of white workers. While he debated with himself, almost all of Johannesburg fell under control of the radical leaders . A magistrate concluded that “the character of the revolt was fast approaching that of the French Revolutionaries,” and it was “practically certain that all Government officials in this town and a number of others” would suffer “death at the hands of the revolutionaries.”
Smuts decided to see for himself. He boarded a special train from Cape Town and headed north. Strike leaders were sure that he had set his face against them, and they had the railway line blown up. But Smuts was no longer on the train. He had decided to stop 8o miles outside Johannesburg and drive the rest of the way in an anonymous-looking automobile. Even then his life was in danger: someone spotted him in the back seat, and the car was peppered with rifle bullets. The driver made some evasive maneuvers and brought his passenger safely into the city.
As soon as he was barricaded behind closed and guarded doors, Prime Minister Smuts reverted to General Smuts. He declared martial law and called out 20,000 troops, backed by tanks, field artillery, and airplanes. It was as if World War I had returned from the grave. The strikers were better organized than the government had been led to believe, and for the next four days neither side could gain a foothold as fighting raged from the inner city to the outlying districts. The air stank of cordite and gunpowder, and the ground shook from the incessant pounding of artillery . Several police stations were overrun and the constables summarily executed. Some natives unlucky or unwise enough to be on city streets were lynched. Stray bullets cut down a number of uninvolved civilians caught in the crossfire.
Then official South Africa went on the attack, rolling and booming its cannons through the streets, strafing the rebels from biplanes circling overhead. Smuts personally took charge, visiting field positions, counseling his officers, positioning his artillery, offering instructions to pilots. The rebel leaders stopped, retreated, and slowly made their way back to their headquarters in suburban Forsburg.
On March 14 the Prime Minister confidently prepared his troops for the final assault. Civilians were told to abandon their houses and leave the area. Most of them obeyed; others defied Smuts’s edict, peeping out from their windows or just gathering at a nearby ridge to watch the battleground below. From there they witnessed the kind of event that would receive far greater coverage when it occurred in Spain a dozen years later: a government bombing and shooting its own citizens. By now the odds had tilted heavily in favor of the army and police, and the rebel leaders knew that it would be suicidal to go on. They continued, regardless. Deafening barrages went on for several hours; planes unloaded bomb after bomb and continued to circle noisily over the rebel stronghold. Just before nightfall a white flag appeared, and men began to pick their way through the rubble and come out into the daylight with their hands raised. In the background two shots suddenly rang out from deep within a building. The radical leaders Fisher and Spendiff had both chosen death over surrender . One day later the strike came to an end, and the men returned to their jobs.
In the bloody aftermath it was difficult to decide who had won. Certainly not Smuts: even his ardent supporters believed that the Prime Minister had been too slow to react, and too harsh when he did. His government, the South African Party, stood accused of fatally exaggerating the “Red Threat.” As the press pointed out ad nauseam , most of the strikers were politically unsophisticated. Hardly any of them wanted to shake up the existing social order. They had simply reacted to Randlord insensitivity and agitators’ promises.
As the detritus got cleared away and the grave diggers did their work, the acts of the government looked more and more irresponsible. The final death toll came to 214, of which only 76 were strikers; 78 troopers and 62 bystanders had been killed by shells or bombs, and 30 Africans had been lynched. Over the course of eight weeks, more than 4,700 men had been arrested, 40 of them charged with murder. Prosecutors could only obtain 18 convictions; of those, four were hanged. The doomed men saw themselves as the latest in a long procession of South African martyrs. They chanted “The Red Flag,” a new Communist hymn, on the way to the gallows.
If the Prime Minister and his party had been damaged; if the mining companies had suffered huge financial losses; if the white laborers had to return to work and the Africans were no better off than before, who had won the strike?
At first it seemed a battle with no victors and no spoils. Then, gradually, the truth emerged. The decline of one politician invariably meant the rise of another; South Africa’s new political star appeared to be James Barry Hertzog. He too had been a Boer general, a war hero, and a politician. But he was far to the right of Smuts. Hertzog regarded the Prime Minister as the “valet of Britain,” too hard on his fellow Afrikaaners and too tolerant of the natives. Hammering away at the South African Party, Hertzog headed the opposition National Party under the rubric “White South Africa First.”
The Randlords were not wholly uncomfortable with the outcome. They balanced their deficits with the consoling knowledge that, given the choice between men and commodities, the government had come down in favor of gold and diamonds. Social agitators remained out of sight. Stability returned to South Africa, and once again cheap labor was back where it belonged, in the mines.
Yet at least one mining executive was unhappy with the results. Ernest Oppenheimer had deliberately kept himself out of the crossfire, but at election time he had felt compelled to defend Smuts and his party. In one speech he reminded an audience, “If you had a good watch dog and you discovered the dog had fleas you would not drown the dog. But you are asked to kill the South African Party because of a few unpopular measures, which our great leader has already promised to put right.” Yet even as he had campaigned for Smuts, Ernest was aware that he had backed the wrong dog. Wary of social disturbance, J. P. Morgan’s company announced that it would dispose of its holdings in Anglo-American. Other United States investors followed, precipitating a stampede for the exit. South Africa, a haven for investors only a few months before, now looked to be a risky proposition.
Just then J. B. Robinson emerged from retirement to fight yet another courtroom battle in London. The old belligerent had not lost his touch: his timing was, as always, catastrophic.
Sir Percy himself wanted no further part of the diamond business. “I’m sick of crooks and sick of spying on them. All I want is a nice quiet job as a country lawyer or administrator in a university, or some other job where I can clear all this muck out of my mind.”
In the mid-1950s a senior IDSO operative was allowed to go public with his memoirs, and the editors of Punch had such a good time reading them that they offered a piece of doggerel about the whole affair, It recalled the espionage novels of E. Phillips Oppenheim, fashionable in the 1920s:
Fiction’s frequently sublime
But fact is far sublimer,
For fiction may be Oppenheim,
But fact is Oppenheimer.
* * * * * * * *
FACT GREW SUBLIMER STILL ON THE EVENUING OF DECEMBER, 5, 1955. Harry Oppenheimer was on safari in the Belgian Congo, and his son Nicholas was away at preparatory school. Bridget and their daughter Mary were at Little Brenthurst, along with the customary staff of servants and guards. A dinner invitation arrived; Mrs. Oppenheimer decided to go alone. She chose a few pieces of jewelry from the bedroom safe and returned the key to its resting place, a dilapidated bluish-green satin box that held bric-a-hrac, cigarette holders, and badges from various horse shows.
In those days Johannesburg dinners began early and ended early; she was back home by 10 p.m. Bridget noticed nothing peculiar about the bedroom except for one detail: a pillowcase was missing. Nothing to worry her personal maid about; she would say something in the morning. Upon arising Bridget decided to put back the jewels she had worn the night before. Strange, she thought: the satin box was not in its familiar resting place.
She went to her handbag, fished out a duplicate key, and opened the safe. Someone had picked it clean. Sixty-three pieces were gone, including a pure white emerald-cut diamond ring weighing more than 23 carats, an emerald-cut pink (liamon(l ring with emerald and sapphire shoulders, a blue marquise diamond ring, a white marquise diamond ring, and a ring of white goid and platinum with a blue- white brilliant of more than eleven carats . Some brooches had vanished as well, along with a string of pearls and two Budclhas set in platinum and diamonds.
Here was no incident of a native sticking a stone in his hair, or even a high-born company man siphoning off some private treasure. The Prince and Princess of Diamonds had been robbed in their own castle.
Because Harry was in the jungle, beyond the reach of a telephone, his assistants were notified at their offices. Hurriedly, a phalanx of gray-suited executives, company security men, and local police moved in. Trailing them were the reporters, and behind them De Beers’s public relations staff.
A spokesman set the Oppenheimer tone. He declined to give the press a list of stolen jewels because, “After all, we don’t want to flaunt our wealth in front of the public.” His statement was not materially aided by Bridget’s remark, “I’m now left with about as much jewelry as the average city typist.” Or by her husband’s casual
The PR men might have spent their time more creatively; the Oppenheimer wealth had been a subject of speculation for years, and withholding information only served to sharpen public interest. In pubs and clubs and restaurants, new theories were advanced. De Beers had “lowered the diamond curtain” because of embarrassing revelations.
“Fancy old Harry being caught like that,” said a barroom critic. “Should’ve known better than to keep all that ice lying in the friclge.” Taxi drivers laid fingers alongside noses and spoke of hanky-panky at Brenthurst. one speculator decided that little Mary Oppenheimer had lifted the jewels in her sleep and hidden them somewhere on the grounds . “Call in a hypnotist,” came the advice. “He’ll soon make the kid re member.” Others thought that African witch doctors and psychics should “throw the bones” and locate the treasure.
Every notion, no matter how bizarre, seemed as plausible as the next. There were no clues, no footprints or fingerprints, no revealing fibers. No disturbance had aroused the night watchmen . The dogs did nothing in the nighttime, a signal for all Sherlock Holmes readers to conclude that the Brenthurst robbery was an inside job. Yet inquiries showed that every one of the staff had an imperm~ahle alibi. Very well then, it was an outside job, meticulously planned. But Interpol investigators reported that none of the major jewel thieves had been spotted in South Africa, and such a theft could not have been accomplished by amateurs or small-time crooks.
The first major development in the case came on December 9, when the insurers offered a reward of $56,000 for information leading to the whereabouts of the stolen treasure . Scores of self-appointed sleuths materialized at Brenthurst, complete with magnifying glasses and cameras, ready to comb the grounds. They were all turned away by a 24-hour police guard ringing the house. The one investigator who was allowed through came with impeccable credentials.
Representing the insurers, Dudley Strevens had flown in from London. The retired army captain played clown his role: he dressed in a deliberately non-descript manner and told reporters that he was merely a claim adjuster who had found, through the years, that sooner or later a “squealer” would turn up and provide a way to crack the case. Had any candidates contacted the police? he inquired. There had been, replied one of his colleagues, but they were “mainly cranks.” He did not know what to make of “one persistent chap with au Australian accent who so far refuses to speak to anyone but you.” Strevens thought he might look up that particular chap right away.
The police had other ideas. Colonel Ulf Boberg, chief of the Witwatersrand Counter Intelligence division (CID), was a small, Napoleonic officer with a bristling moustache and cold blue eyes, much given to assertions of authority. He issued a severe warning. The Londoner was to do no private detecting. If anyone attempted to reach him with information, he was to report it to the police immediately. Violation of this order would he prosecuted to the full extent of the law . Strevens agreed and then went off to his rendezvous anyway.
In a well-appointed hotel suite, the mysterious Australian identified himself as William Linsay Pearson, 33. He was a rather dashing combat veteran of World War II, with strong survival instincts. A beating dispensed by a gangster in Sydney, Pearson said, “was the greatest lesson of my life. Now I do the other bastard before he can do me whether it’s business or brawling.” His business was gambling in hotel rooms and hanging around Johannesburg bars, looking for the main chance.
It came one evening at a hotel bar, where a drunken stranger mumbled something about a big job about to he pulled off. That had been some weeks before. When Pearson read the headlines he was certain that the job in question was the Oppenheimer robbery. He checked the city bars until he located the stranger and confirmed his suspicions.
The Australian confidently offered Strevens some choices. He, Pearson, would buy the jewels from the thieves, then claim the reward. If the insurance company balked, Pearson would go to Europe on his own, disposing of the treasure piece by piece. There was an alternative: Pearson could hand the jewels directly to Strevens. In that case, the finder’s fee would be $112,000.
Strevens went away to ponder these proposals. He was still considering them when a call came in from Boberg. The colonel got straight to the point. He suspected that, despite official warnings, Strevens had been in touch with the underworld. If the captain had information, and if he failed to share it with the police, he would be charged with conspiracy . Cornered, Strevens told him about Pearson’s impudent offers. The policeman hardly knew which way to turn. He was furious with the insurance man for acting alone, yet he needed him to trap the thieves. In the end he forced Strevens to call Pearson with an ultimatum. Either he came downtown to the insurance offices, or any deal was off.
Rather than being frightened away, Pearson was only too delighted to show up. Upon his arrival Col. Boberg stepped forward to demand: “I want to know something about you. Who you are, where you are from, and what you are doing here.” A few days before, Pearson had watched Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief and he responded with a Cary Grant insouciance . “I’m a crook.” He smiled wickedly. “I live by my wits . I do no work and I never have worked. Satisfied?”
“You are very frank, Mr. Pearson; you call a spade a spade. So do I. Now you’d better tell me damned quick everything you know.”
It was bluff and Pearson knew it. He showed no signs of intimidation and stayed with his story . He claimed to be nothing more than an entrepreneur, shady perhaps, but operating within the law. If he was so innocent, Boberg demanded, then why had he consorted with thieves? Because, said the Australian, they were so easy to con. He had bragged of his intimate relationship with an old Mafia chieftain: “I told my contact that Lucky Luciano wants the jewels.”
The policeman realized that he was dealing with an uncommon criminal. Boberg muted his hostility and offered a fresh idea. What if the insurance company were to supply a trunk full of money? The thieves would he invited to Pearson’s hotel, where they would bring the jewels and examine the cash. A plainclothes detective would be in attendance, posing as Luciano’s man in Johannesburg. While the crooks were palavering, the police would surround the place and spring their trap. Pearson would get his reward; the authorities would capture the malefactors; the Oppenheimers would regain their treasure. What could be more equitable? The Australian shrugged. “There is no honor among thieves,” he told Boberg, and asked for his instructions.
On the warm evening of December 15, 1955, Boherg saw to it that the Carlton Hotel was surrounded with unmarked squad cars. Shortly before 9:30 p.m., two visitors arrived separately and rode the elevators to Pearson’s floor. One man had nothing with him; the second carried a suitcase. Pearson extended a warm greeting and introduced them to “Luciano’s rep.” As planned, the Mafia man was one of Boherg’s plainclothes detectives; four others waited in the hall, just out of sight.
Someone lifted the lid from the suitcase. There, among some silken material, lay almost all the Oppenheimer jewels, minus a few brooches and rings . Satisfied, the plainclothesman went to the door, ostensibly to get some air, and signaled four waiting colleagues. The quartet barged into the room shouting, service revolvers drawn.
Neither visitor offered any resistance. The first was a tall, fair man; his companion was slightly shorter, with slicked-hack dark hair. Both protested their innocence all the way to the police station. There a few more facts emerged. The dark-haired man was Percival William Radley, 42, who claimed to he credit manager of Tropic Airways, a small charter company operating between Johannesburg and Amsterdam.
The fain-haired one was Donald Ernest Miles, 34. He identified himself as a private detective, but he had been without visible means of support for more than a year.
Their story was simple, unshakeable, and just this side of plausible. Raclley said that he and Pearson had just met, and that the Australian had invited him up to his hotel suite for a drink . There had been no talk of diamonds or thievery or anything illegal whatsoever . As for Miles, he maintained that he had been drinking in a bar earlier that evening, when a slight acquaintance whose name he did not know “a Jewish chap” came in. He and Miles got to talking, as drinkers will. The chap was on his way out of Johannesburg and asked Miles to do him a small favor: deliver a parcel to a friend at the Carlton. Out of the goodness of his heart Miles agreed. Upstairs he went, and there were Radley and Pearson. He had never seen either of them before and, like them, was astonished at the police invasion . The disgruntled Boberg had all three men thrown in jail, where etectives tried to break down their collective plea of innocence.
Through Christmas and New Year’s they refused to budge from their accounts. Radley had the best alibi: he had been spotted going into a cinema the evening of the robbery. But there was no hard evidence incriminating the other two either. Then, on January third, the first fissures appeared. Pearson asked to see Boberg and informed the Colonel that he might give evidence in return for his unconditional freedom. That seemed agreeable to Boherg. He went back to Miles and Radley with the news: the Australian was about to rat on his friends. Miles remained firm; Radlcy began to weaken.
In England he had accumulated a long police record, and he knew it would go against him in South Africa. Several more days went by, and then he cracked for a price: the police could have his evidence, but in exchange he would have to be made immune from prosecution. Boherg nodded, took him to a private room, sat him down in a luxurious leather armchair, plied him with cigarettes and tea, and invited Radley to talk. A stenographer wrote down the confession in shorthand. It took six hours.
The adventure had begun on a rooftop, according to the confessor. A year before the robbery, Miles had been employed by a roofing firm. One day he found himself working on Little Brenthurst, fireproofing Harry and Bridget’s home. The Oppenheimers happened to be overseas during the construction, and when the roofer spotted her safe and the key in the dish, he saw his way to a life of ease. Unhappily for him, the safe was nearly empty. But that was just as well, Miles decided. Better to wait until the roof was finished and the jewels returned to their resting place. Johannesburg was not London. No one hurried in this part of the world.
Underworld connections put him in touch with Radley, and they took to each other instantly. During the time the partners were working out their scheme, Pearson arrived from Australia. He and Radley had indeed met by chance in a hotel bar and, after some mutual inquiries and background checks, agreed to work together. Miles and Radley would pull off the job. Pearson had contacts with major fences; he would arrange to peddle the stolen goods overseas.
Detectives went over the testimony and investigated his story. They even flew to Italy in order to interview Lucky Luciano. Graying and overweight, the old godfather lived under relaxed house arrest in Naples. He insisted that his modest income came from the sales of surgical instruments, and wished that people would stop bothering an honest businessman. Putting on his best Damon Runyon intonation, Luciano denied any knowledge of Pearson. “Never hoid of da bum,” he insisted. He was also ignorant of “Johannesbug,” as he called the city. “Da only Jonannesbug I ever hoid of was a horse I once backed. And dat nag lost, too.”
No evidence contradicted him; this time, apparently, he was telling the truth . According to police theorists Radley was a small-time crook incapable of a major heist, and Pearson a braggart but not a mastermind. Prosecutors decided to concentrate on Miles.
* * * * * * *
Strong enough to return to his office, and to increase his good works. In the next months Ernest donated £ioo,ooo for the establishment of Queen Elizabeth House, a center for colonial studies at Oxford. Other funds went to the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Stellenbach and to the Institute of Medical Research in South Africa.
He also found time to sit for yet another portrait, add to his already huge collection of books on Africa, and accumulate a few more oil paintings. But he was slowing down; Harry was unobtrusively assuming the burden of his father’s duties. The elder Oppenheimer gave up his flat in London. His collection of paintings, including rare oils by Renoir and Goya, were shipped to Brenthurst. Possessions seemed to he losing their appeal . When a big diamond was discovered at the Premier mine, a rumor circulated that Ernest would buy it for his wife. Only recently he had stated his sentiments about precious stones. “Diamonds,” he recalled, “were my first love. I never lost the feeling. Diamonds speak to me.
Now, pondering the dimensions of this new stone, he pronounced it lovely. “Why don’t you buy it, then?” he was asked. The old man shook his head. “It would cost a lot of money.”
Ernest reduced his office schedule. After a noontime whiskey and soda with associates, he went home for lunch and usually did not return. In July 1957 there were more intimations of mortality. At the opening of a gold mine, Wes Deep, Ernest told a small crowd that he expected to see the first yield, but doubted whether he would live to see the mine in full production five years down the road. Several weeks later he collapsed during a country amble. The mild heart attack was followed by a series of more serious relapses.
Ernest regarded his latest illness as a personal affront, and he fought back. After six weeks, signs of the old vigor returned. The patient began making jokes and also showing renewed interest in Anglo and De Beers. Ina had been at his bedside almost every hour, and she was visibly worn. Ernest encouraged her to take a holiday in London, visit her sister, take a holiday from nursing an old nuisance. Ina protested at first, but she knew she had been depleted by the ordeal, and Ernest prevailed.
Being on his own did not mean being alone. A nurse was in attendance; his personal physician frequently dropped by; Harry and Bridget visited almost every day. The weekend after Ina’s departure, Ernest felt hale enough to attend a dinner party, and early Monday morning, November 27, 1957, he and Harry went over some business matters. The doctor made an examination and agreed that Ernest could spend a little time in the office. When he left, Ernest chatted with his nurse, Sister Pam Walton. A servant announced that breakfast was ready and the old man looked up to see Sister Walton watching him from the banister at the top of the stairs.
“We’re just like Romeo and Juliet,” he called up, and sat down to eat. The attack came before he could lower his fork to his egg; Ernest clutched his chest, cried out, and crumpled over the table, still conscious but in very obvious pain. The servants rushed to his side and called for the nurse. “What’s going on?” He gasped for breath. “You don’t feel very well,” Sister Walton explained in a soothing voice. She and the servants carried him to the living room and gently lowered him to a couch. “What’s happening?” he repeated suddenly, breathed heavily, and lost consciousness. By the time Dr. Kaplan arrived, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer was dead.
Later that morning Anglo issued the official announcement, and South Africa went into mourning . A tribute from Father Huddleston might have astonished the newly deceased: “Above all it was his simplicity which was always so endearing. He retained a quality of childishness which one could hardly have believed possible in one with such vast material concerns.”
Other encomia were less effusive. International business leaders paid their respects ; Queen Elizabeth II sent a message, and now that a Hoggenheimer was safely dead , condolences came from Prime Minister Strijdom. Another salute issued from the opposite corner, the black South West Township where new housing had begun to replace the battered shanties. The occupants wanted to name the new place after their benefactor, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, but the Johannesburg city fathers thought this might fan some smoldering animosities, and they chose a less controversial name: Soweto, the abbreviation of South West Township.
Ernest’s will was published a few days after his cremation. One sentence summarized the contents: “1 give and bequeath the whole of my estate and property whatsoever situate and of every description to my son Harry Frederick Oppenheimer absolutely.” The amount of money mentioned was absurdly small: £3,500,000. The fortune had been channeled into a maze of trust funds and investments, and no one outside the family would ever be able to find the way through it. Ernest had been the richest man in South Africa; now Harry was.
* * * * * * *
“THE NEW KING” sat at 44 Main Street, head of Anglo and De Beers, controlling at least 40 percent of South African gold and more than 8o percent of the world’s diamonds.
No doubt Harry would have preferred a period of tranquil adjustment. Tranquillity, however, had vanished from South African life.
The wild prospector John Williamson died seven weeks after Ernest. Williamson’s brother Percy inherited his mine and put it up for sale. He wanted more than £5 million. The price was extravagant, but De Beers could not afford to let him sell it to anyone outside the cartel.
Harry flew to Tanganyika to provide the personal touch, sans lawyers or advisors. The two men sat up all night, conceding here, demanding there, until they agreed on a deal. When Harry returned he showed the paper to Anglo’s legal department. “A little unorthodox,” was their judgment. CEOs were not supposed to negotiate personally with the opposition. That was left to the attorneys; it was like sending a general into the trenches without a rifle. Nevertheless, they conceded, “it seems to hold water.
A larger obstacle remained. The Williamson Mine was in Tanganyika. The country had been a British mandate since World War I, but that relationship was about to end. Black power advocates had found their voices and Whitehall, uncomfortable with its colonial past, was about to give in. Harry reacted quickly; better to make terms with the native leaders before they took over, he realized, than to risk the future nationalization of the mine . He spoke with the incoming native Tanganyikan administrators : how about a fifty-fifty proposition, with De Beers providing whatever loans were needed for expansion of the mine?
As soon as he got an acceptance, Harry went in search of investors. He found them in an unaccustomed place: West Germany. Not since the clays of Kaiser Wilhelm had Deutschmarks been sunk in an African venture.
The ink had scarcely dried on the Williamson papers when some other unsettling news came in. Diamond fields had been discovered in the Siberian tundra. Since the late 1940s Soviet geologists had been exploring the banks of the Vilyu River, where an explorer had accidentally come across some miniscule diamonds. Early in 1955 a Soviet geologist, Yuri Khabarin, stumbled onto a foxhole.
Digging itself a burrow, the animal had turned up a lot of blue earth. Khabarin did considerable digging of his own before sending back a code message: “I am smoking the pipe of peace.” By 1958 engineers had determined that it was more than a pipe; it was a whole field of diamonds, seventeen acres long and a half-mile wide.
The discovery of precious stones always signaled prosperity in South Africa . In the Soviet Union it meant misery. Siberia resisted every form of diamond mining . In the winter, temperatures dipped to minus 8o degrees, freezing oil in blocks and shattering rubber tires and steel tools. In the summer, ice and earth became a sea of mud . In order to recover the diamonds, the U.S.S.R. had to create Aikhal, a city on stilts, cocooned in translucent plastic to shield it from the weather, heated and dehumidified from within . Using jet engines and dynamite, the Soviet diamond hunters blasted big holes to loosen the diamond-bearing earth. The floors of Aikhal could not bear the weight of the soil, so it was hauled to a separation plant 20 miles away.
A complicated process but, as far as the Soviet government was concerned, worth every ruble . For once the world learned of the Siberian explorations De Beers shares dropped from i114 shillings, six-pence to 82 shillings. The U.S.S.R. now had the upper hand. At any time, it could flood the market with stones and bring down the entire diamond industry. A hundred years of history might vanish in a week.
Harry had to act decisively and fast. His cousin Philip, Otto Oppenheimer’s son, flew to Moscow with a question and an offer. Why sell the stones independently? It would only impoverish every retailer and wholesaler—including those in Russia. Suppose De Beers were to buy the Soviet Union’s entire production this year and every year thereafter. Suppose that production was always to be purchased at prices higher than the market rate. “A single channel,” as Harry pointed out on numerous occasions, “is in the interest of all diamond producers whatever the political difference between them may be.”
The Soviets, who spent their days and nights maligning capitalism, found the deal irresistible. All it required was carbon and hypocrisy. Russia would sell 100 % of its uncut gemstones to the syndicate, provided the route from mine to retailer was heavily camouflaged. De Beers created a path impenetrable to outsiders: diamonds would travel from Siberia to a series of small corporations huddled under the umbrellas of various holding companies. Those companies would in turn be held by other companies, and so on up to De Beers. This arrangement would give the Soviet delegate license to pound his fist on the tables of the United Nations, denouncing monopoly, condemning the racist capitalists of South Africa, and urging a boycott of the countries exports—even as his country was wholesaling its stones to the enemy.
With the emerging nations De Beers used the same methods. Tanzania, Ghana, and Sierra Leone would naturally refuse to trade with an apartheid state. Yet who could criticize them for selling their unpolished jewels to the Diamond Development Corporation and Technical Services Ltd., unaffiliated companies licensed outside Africa, in Switzerland, Luxembourg, and England? It was not the African countries’ fault that the diamonds were subsequently sold to Dc Beers. And so it continued from the 1950s onward, and if everyone’s hands were not exactly immaculate, they were at least well laundered.
The United States presented Harry with more complexities. Seventy-five percent of the diamonds sold for rings and jewelry were sold to Americans. And yet not a single office could bear the De Beer’s sign: anti-trust laws barred any cartel from operating within the national borders. As important as Americans were as customers, they worried Harry: the stones being bought in the United States were low priced and small. Not much profit there; not much chance for growth. Once a man gave his fiancée an engagement ring, chances were he would never buy another diamond. It was “the result,” said a De Beers analysis, “of the economy, changes in social attitudes and the promotion of competitive luxuries.
Altering the economy was beyond the resources even of De Beers; attitudes and promotion were not. Harry had first come to New York in the fall of 1938 to meet Gerald M. Lauck, president of N. W. Ayer. The advertising agency had been recommended to Oppenheimer by the Morgan Bank, Sir Ernest’s old friend. Ayer was an inspired choice. It became the company’s American arm, shrewdly carrying out Harry’s injunction to keep diamonds before the public as the preeminent symbol of romance and durability. Perhaps more importantly, it orchestrated corporate public relations in the United States.
From the 1930s through the war years, Ayer had one aim in mind. As a De Beers memo put it, Americans must he convinced that “the Diamond Industry, though an admitted monopoly, operates fairly and in a manner that accords with American interests. This must be done in a way that will stand up under direct attack even from a government source.
The agency knew that consumers were made, not born, and that image was everything. It homed in on America’s dream factory, convincing Hollywood producers to change the title of a film from Diamonds are Dangerous to Adventures in Diamonds, and arranging for stars like Merle Oheron and Claudette Colbert to flaunt their jewels on screen. Later, newspapers werc spoon-fed upbeat stories with such headlines as “War Gives Impetus to Diamond Cutting” and “How Diamonds Spark the Wings of War and Peace.”
After VJ Day, with an increased budget and higher goals, Ayer submitted a new strategy to strengthen the century-old tradition of the diamond engagement ring, making it “a psychological necessity capable of competing successfully at the retail level with utility goods and services.”
To begin with, the principals of selected high schools were persuaded to allow visiting speakers to address student assemblies. Their subject: the unique and fascinating history of diamonds. “All of these lectures,” said a confidential memo to De Beers, “revolve around the Diamond engagement ring, and are reaching thousands of girls in their assemblies, classes and informal meetings in our leading educational institutions.”
Indoctrination continued outside the classroom. Another strategy paper reported, “We spread the word of diamonds worn by stars of screen and stage, by wives and daughters of political leaders, by any woman who can make the grocer’s wife and the mechanic’s sweetheart say ‘I wish I had what she has.’ ” To increase sales of bigger and more expensive jewels, men were encouraged to buy “the biggest diamond they could afford.”
In 1948 the slogan “A Diamond Is Forever” was concocted by an Ayer copywriter; it became a much-parodied, fervently imitated hallmark of American advertising.
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In the mid-1960s Harry Winston , America’s leading diamond merchant, acquired a 100- carat diamond from the syndicate. He had it cut down and shaped into an astonishing 69.42-carat pear-shaped bauble.
In 1967 its 58 facets caught the daylight and the flashbulbs as it was sold to Harriet Annenberg Ames , daughter of the millionaire publisher Moses Annenberg, for $500,000. But the jewel failed to make Mrs. Ames happy—insurance premiums alone cost her $30,000 a year— and in 1969 she offered to sell it back to Winston.
He claimed that she would do a lot better on the open market; why not put it up for auction at Parke Bernet? Informed that the owner did not want her family’s name connected with the sale, the gallery dubbed the stone the No Name Diamond, thus implying that anyone who bought it would have the right to give the jewel his or her own surname.
This was too great a temptation for Cartier and for two actors. The store bought the No Name for $1,050,000. For four days it was known as the Cartier Diamond. Then Elizabeth Taylor and her then-husband Richard Burton purchased what was to become the Taylor Diamond for $1,100,000.
The attendant publicity brought Cartier a fresh prominence, and just when the public thought that no more ink could be given to the on-again-off-again couple, the jewel furnished a new headline and some fresh arithmetic. In 24 months a De Beers diamond had doubled in value. Everyone was ecstatic, Cartier, the Burtons, and Harry. (What’s his name) Especially Harry.
His happiness was more durable than such shaky institutions as New York retail stores and Hollywood marriages.
THE LAST EMPIRE.
DE BEERS, DIAMONDS , and THE WORLD.
by: Stefan Kanfer
Church of the Science of God
La Jolla, California 92038-3131
© Church of the Science of GOD, 1993