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Royal Commonwealth Society : Kimberley Diamond Diggings


Royal Commonwealth Society

<p style='text-align: justify;'>A collection of loose prints mounted on card, uncaptioned apart from the inscription 'Diamond fields lent by Mr. Blaine,' pencilled on the reverse of the mounts. </p><p style='text-align: justify;'> Diamond Mining at Kimberley:</p><p style='text-align: justify;'> The first diamond to be found in South Africa appears to have been one picked up by a child on the bank of the Orange River in 1866. Other diamonds were found in the Hope Town shortly afterwards, but it was the discovery of the diamond later to be known as the star of South Africa (at 83.5 carats) at Zandfontein near the Orange River in March 1869 which started the major influx of diamond diggers. The first organized party to reach the Vaal River diggings arrived in November 1869 and in 1870 some 50,000 people flocked to the Orange and Vaal River valleys where mining activity was concentrated on alluvial diggings along the banks and in dry water courses.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'> A diamond was found on De Beers Farm in July 1871 and a wave of diggers moved form the alluvial sites to 'New Rush' and what was soon to be known as Colesberg Kopje. The scenes recorded in these views show these diggings in the early years before the Big Hole had been dug to any depth: the ground is chequered with the individual square plots of various depths connected by a network of narrow roadways. As the depth of the diggings increased, so too did the dangers involved as unevenly shored earth collapsed into the plots. As the difficulties of digging vertically down in a small plot grew, amalgamations inevitably took place. Two of the largest holders, C.J. Rhodes and C.D. Rudd, joined forces and formed the De Beers Mining Company in 1874 and, after a financial battle with the other great diamond fields magnate Barney Barnato, formed De Beers Consolidate Mines Ltd. In 1888, paying for the assets of the Kimberley Central Diamond Mining Company with an historic cheque for £5,338,650. The days of the individual digger were of course now over and with one overall authority in charge of operations the diamondiferous volcanic pipe was excavated into one huge hole which was for a time, since operations ceased in 1914, the largest man made crater in the world. In its lifetime an estimated 14.5 million carats of diamonds have been recovered from the 25 million tons of blue ground excavated from the mine.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'> Photographers and the Diamond Fields:</p><p style='text-align: justify;'> As with the Victoria gold rushes of the 1850s, the discovery of diamonds and the subsequent influx of diggers lured the photographers to the fields. Outside the large centres of population, photography was generally a commercially precarious undertaking and most of the early workers combined photographic activities with other trades. The diamond fields offered not only a concentrated population with a quick circulation of money, but also the opportunity for digging for diamonds (Matthew Hale, T.G. Towert and Frederic Stow were photographers who all originally came to the area as prospectors). William Roe of Graaf-Reinet made the first of several visits to the diamond fields in 1869 and his prints of the Kimberley area are probably the earliest that survive. He was followed by a number of photographers intent on making their fortune either by taking pictures or digging, among them Thomas H. Howard, George W. Clipp and Charles C. Hamilton. In Marjorie Bull and Joseph Denfield's 'Secure the Shadow' it is stated that 'it is safe to say that any existing photographs of camp life were probably taken by him (Hamilton),' (Bull and Denfield, 1970, p. 135) and this may be the case with these prints, although the assertion is rather weakened by the list of active photographers in the area which follows.</p>

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