OUR STORY | TRENDING
Did you know that the world-famous Big Hole in Kimberley was once a little hill, or kopje? The discovery of diamonds in the Kimberley area was a momentous one that physically changed not only the landscape, but also the lifestyles of the people who lived there. This includes the Batlhaping and their leaders Galeshewe, Toto and Jantjie; the Korana; and the Griqua – as well those who travelled long distances on foot to earn money for their clans and themselves. Before Johannesburg existed, the Vhavenda would walk from Vhembe to Kimberley – a distance of about 1 000km – and would rest for a while at a halfway point. A resting place in Tshivenda is “chiawelo”. Later this resting place became part of Soweto and is now one of its suburbs. The root of the Bafokeng’s wealth and money for the purchase of guns by Kumkani Langalibalele of the amaHlubi is one of the less known consequences of the discovery of diamonds. In this extract from the first of two books on Kimberley, we read about the multicultural origins of this mining town and the disputes over ownership of the diamond fields.
Kimberley – Hill to Hole (Book 1 of 2)
South African Heritage Publishers
48 pages, illustrated
R115 at bookstores
The first people to live in the Northern Cape were the Khoisan. They were hunter-gatherers and moved around from one place to another. As you have heard, around the time when diamonds were found near Hopetown, the Batlhaping lived in what later became the Northern Cape. A little further west, along the banks of the Vaal River, lived a group of mixed-race people, known as the Griquas. The area in which they lived was called Griqualand West and was under the rule of a leader who was called a kaptein, or captain, named Nicolaas Waterboer. You will hear more about him and his family in a little while.
At the time when the Star of Africa was found, the Griqua lived close to where the discoveries of diamonds were made. They were the first diggers to start prospecting for diamonds on the southern bank of the Vaal River. They allowed African people to prospect freely for diamonds. White diggers, however, needed to ask for permission from the Griqua leader to prospect on the south bank of the river.
A few months after the rush to the river diggings, diamonds were discovered on farms about 30km south of the Vaal River. Now, as was often the case in those days, these farms were owned by Afrikaans-speaking people. The area where these farms lay was under the rule of the Orange Free State. The Orange Free State government was the first to put down laws to govern the mining of diamonds. Under these rules, black diggers were not allowed to buy claim licences.
It is not surprising, then, that many people claimed that they owned the land where the diamonds were found. The Griquas and the Batlhaping who lived in the area claimed exclusive rights. Both Boer republics – the Transvaal and the Orange Free State – also claimed the rights to the area, as their land was close to the Vaal and the Orange rivers.
The miners who flooded into the area in search of diamonds were not too concerned about who owned the land, as all they wanted was to become rich through getting their hands on the precious stones. They also did not trouble themselves over the rights of the black diggers in the Free State area. In fact, they preferred a system in which they had all the rights and other diggers were subordinate to them.
Now Great Britain, which controlled the Cape Colony, had not previously cared about the Northern Cape area or any of the territory further north. They were not interested at that stage in moving troops to the outer corners of South Africa, or defending constantly moving outposts. In fact, at that time they had withdrawn from the Orange Free State and had left it to the Boers. Up to the time when diamonds were discovered they had no intention of extending their authority further north. They focused their attention mainly on Cape Town and the port of Table Bay.
There was a long argument between the four parties – the Batlhaping, the Griqua and the two Boer republics – over who should control the diamond diggings. Eventually the governor of the Cape, Sir Henry Barkly, was asked to mediate. He set up a committee that was chaired by the then governor of Natal, Robert Keate. The job of this committee was to decide on the borders, so the decision could be made about which territories the diamond fields rightly fell into. The committee took about seven months to listen to all the arguments and made a decision based on which of the four groups made the strongest arguments and produced the most evidence. This agreement became known as the Keate award.
In the end, the Keate award was in favour of the Griqua’s claim. This meant that the land where the diamonds were found, and that included the area where Kimberley was later established, would be given to the Griquas.
This agreement didn’t actually help the Griquas very much. Their leader, Waterboer, didn’t have the power to control the diggers, who constantly fought over claims. There was also a great deal of racial tension and conflict between the black and white diggers.
Waterboer asked for British help. The British were only too happy to assist as this would mean that they would gain control of the richest diamond fields in the world. Griqualand West was formally annexed by the British in October 1871 and incorporated into the Cape Colony. Then the new British administration announced rules and regulations to govern the working of the diamond fields.
Under British rule, black miners were allowed to own and to work claims. This did not go down at all well with white diggers and they were vehemently against black people owning claims. Many of the white diggers believed that all black miners were a part of the illegal buying of diamonds, called IDB or illicit diamond buying. They also felt that they couldn’t compete with black diggers, as they could live and work more cheaply than whites. As a result of these beliefs the white diggers didn’t leave the black diggers in peace to prospect for diamonds and kept harassing them.
Finally, in July 1872 the white miners forced the British commissioners to take action against black claim owners. They suspended the claim licences of 46 black diggers at Dutoitspan and Bultfontein. The governor of the Cape didn’t like this discrimination and said that black diggers could own claims as long as they first got a certificate from a justice of the peace or a magistrate from the area to certify that they were of good character and not involved in the IDB trade.
After this black diggers continued to pour into the Bultfontein and Dutoitspan mines in the early 1870s. The white European miners preferred to work at the Kimberley pit, where the pickings were richer.