William and Mary Law School

Diamonds and Gold

While there are many fascinating aspects to South Africa's history, one thing I have been especially curious about is its mining history.  The discovery of diamonds really drove immigration and economic development in South Africa, and has had a huge impact not just on this country, but the entire continent of Africa.  Gold mining has also been a major driving economic force in all of Africa's history, causing Europeans to battle over territory they viewed as awash in riches, regardless of the rights or concerns of Africans already living on the territory.

I was able to learn more about African gold mining at the wonderful Gold Museum in Cape Town, but for diamonds I decided to head to the heart of it all: Kimberley.  I had studied the Kimberley Process for certification of diamonds a bit in law school, but it hadn't even really occurred to me what kind of a place Kimberley was.  Kimberley is the home of the world's largest known diamond pipe, as well as multiple other enormous diamond mines.  Diamonds were first discovered in the region in the 1860's, and within 20 years the town was swarmed with Africans and European immigrants, all hoping to make their fortune by chipping away in a small, concentrated location where the various pits would eventually merge into the largest manmade hole in the world, known simply as the "Big Hole." 

Below is a picture of the Big Hole itself, now filled with groundwater, making mining from the surface unfeasible.  Next to it is a picture of the enormous pulley system built for the elevator that descends to the many underground minind tunnels.  On the right is a model of the mine from the museum.  It gives you a good sense of how the visible hole is such the "tip of the iceberg," if you will, of the mine itself.  Underneath it tunnels reach down over 1000 meters, allowing miners to bypass the groundwater seepage and get at lower portions of the diamond pipe.

The Big Hole in Kimberley The Mine Shaft Elevator Diagram of the Kimberley Mine Shaft

My stay in Kimberley was fantastic.  I stayed in the Kimberley Club, the turn of the century gentleman's club which once had such illustrious members as Cecil John Rhodes and other diamond barons.  Kimberley is clearly hoping that a tourist influx is imminent; they had the nicest tourist center I've seen in South Africa, and also just finished building an enormous museum complex next to the Big Hole which includes dozens of restored buildings from the early mining village.  Sadly, I was the only person I saw visiting those places, but perhaps they get more tourists in the summer.  Below are pictures of some of the mining town buildings: the first church, some shops, and one of the many, many saloons.

A church in Kimberley mining town The Kimberley mining town Inside an old Kimberley saloon