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I speak of Africa

Among the Boers

The Kimberley diamond mine, from John Nixon's Among the Boers, or, Notes on a trip to South Africa in search of health. London: Remington and Co., 1880 [FCO Historical Collection DT1032 NIX]The Kimberley diamond mine, from John Nixon's Among the Boers, or, Notes on a trip to South Africa in search of health. London: Remington and Co., 1880 [FCO Historical Collection DT1032 NIX]In 1867 a single diamond was picked up by a Boer farmer near Hopetown, a settlement in the far north of the Cape Colony. It was sent to Grahamstown for verification and then to Cape Town, where Richard Southey, colonial secretary to the Cape government, declared ‘This is the rock upon which the future success of South Africa will be built’.

Initial diggings proved disappointing but in 1870 large numbers of diamonds were found in Griqualand, a semi-desert area of disputed ownership lying between the Cape Colony and the Orange Free State. Thousands of diggers poured into the region from all over the world in the hope of making a fortune and by the mid-1870s Kimberley, the town that grew up near the mines, had a population second in size only to Cape Town.

The discovery of diamonds had a profound effect both on the Griqua (an Afrikaans-speaking people of mixed race descended from Cape slaves and white settlers), whose land was annexed by the Cape Colony, and on other African peoples, who streamed in their tens of thousands to Kimberley to meet the demand for labour. These migrant labourers could command much higher wages in the diamond mines than were available to them elsewhere, and with their earnings they bought guns. John Dixon, whose account of his 1877-8 trip to the diamond mines is shown here, comments:

The trade in guns was alarming. It was known almost to a certainty that the guns were being bought by Ketchwayo’s orders [Cetshwayo, the Zulu king] to be used at some future time against the whites.

In fact, the Zulu War, which erupted the year after Dixon’s visit, saw very little use of modern firearms by the Zulus, who relied almost entirely on traditional weapons.

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