Digging for diamonds: A voyage of fortune

In the winter of 1871, twenty-one-year-old Charles Howes, son of Reverend T.G.F. Howes, set off on the R.M.S. Cambrian alongside other enthusiastic prospectors to South Africa where an event very reminiscent of the Californian Gold Rush was taking place. While he was away digging for diamonds, his father back home would read out contents from his letters during sermons.

After a long and uncomfortable boat ride from Plymouth to Capetown, Charles set off for the diamond fields in which many hopeful treasure hunters were digging for diamonds. As they found out the hard way however, the odds of finding a good quality diamond were stacked against them, and many fortune seekers despite much toil, would return home with nothing, and that’s if they could afford the trip back to England. Charles agreed that the fields would bring out the ruining of many lives. Fever ran rampant in the area; the scorching day and bitterly cold nights would become unbearable and drinking water had to be boiled as it carried the risk of cholera and malaria. Rain was the most disruptive however, coming down in ‘bucketsful’, halting all digging for several days after. At one point it rained so heavily that the large tent Charles took shelter in became flooded with 3 inches of water within a few hours. He once stated that he would rather become a labourer in England, not because of the digging process itself, but the rough conditions surrounding it.

With the help and advice of a fellow settler, Charles travelled to the diamond fields by Ox driven waggon. The diamond fields were located in the Orange Free State at the south of the Vaal River, an area occupied by the Boers. Charles hated travelling this way as the road was rough and the oxen constantly had to stop and feed. On the way to the site he saw a bush full of ‘tigers’ and at night he would hear the ‘awful’ noise of the jackals. He also came across numerous tall ant hills, which were commonly used as makeshift ovens once the inside had been taken care of. Upon arriving at the camp, Charles licensed 30 square feet of land to carry out his hunt for riches. It was the largest and amongst the richest camp in the diggings and Charles was surrounded by 7,000- 8,000 other prospectors all trying to achieve the same goal. Even though food and shelter were provided at nightfall, it was all hard work; minimal clothing was worn, food was very basic, and opportunities to wash were scarce.

Diamond license NRO MC 340.7 710X9

One of Charles Howes’ licences granting the right to dig for diamonds, 1872. Norfolk Record Office, MC 340/7, 710X9

Charles vowed to leave upon discovering a diamond worth £5,000-£10,000. For him this exciting prospect never came to be, and he and the vast majority of diggers were forced to toil on. To try and locate small diamonds in the dirt, soil would be passed through a coarse sieve and then a fine one, before being laid out on a table to sort. Apart from a lucky few, however, this method barely turned up anything sufficient. In the rare instances in which a diamond was discovered, diggers would whoop for joy before attracting nearby observers looking enviously on at their prize, in other cases they would quietly pocket their findings. Eventually, Charles found his first diamond. While it was a measly 1 ½ carats he was delighted with his discovery and was hopeful that more would follow, especially as valuable 9-16 carat diamonds had been found nearby, while rare 20-40 carat diamonds were being discovered twice every week. Not long after, a 127-carat diamond was found, the largest in the area at that point, worth around £10,000. An envious Charles was not so lucky however and ended up selling his find for a mere £3.10, though he would later discover more small diamonds as he continued to dig. He would also come across some yellow diamonds, but since they were not as fashionable as white diamonds, they were worth considerably less.

Norfolk Record Office MC 3409, 710X7

Page from a letter from Charles Howe to his father Reverend T.G.F. Howes describing the discovery of his first diamond in South Africa.  Norfolk Record Office, MC 340/9, 710X7.

Life in the camp reflected many of the prejudices and racism of the outside world. Many diggers had servants, black Africans who they subjected to endemic and horrendous abuse. Black servants were regularly whipped for minor ‘indiscretions’ and were subject to strict and arbitrary rules.

White men could also receive a £5 fine for buying a diamond from a black person, based on the absurd assumption that it must be stolen. Unfounded moral judgements like this were common at the time.

Late 19th century views on race were markedly different to our own. Views held by many people as perfectly normal then would today be seen as shocking and unacceptable. Indeed, Charles often used awful language when referring to his servants and South Africa’s black population. This ranged from assertions on moral character; ‘they do not know right from wrong’, to nasty racial slurs, likening black servants to baboons. This is clearly unsavoury language, but unfortunately it was no doubt common in the camp.

Charles’ racism was not solely reserved for the local black population. He held similar views of the Boers, who he referred to as ‘a stupid set’. Tensions had been rising between the Boers and the diggers, no doubt fanned by attitudes like Charles’, but Charles had not anticipated a war breaking out. President Brand of the Free State sent a force to intimidate the diggers into leaving, but an opposing force was sent from Cape Town to stop them and the Boers backed down for the time being. There continued to be clashes between individual Boers and British diggers and there were also rumours that someone had tried spreading conspiracy of a smallpox outbreak in the diggings, to get the Dutch in the area to evacuate. Slowly, Charles noted, the British with the support of mounted colonial police began to annexe the diamond fields. Representative of a wider expansion of imperial power in South Africa at the time. Though he thought little of the Boers Charles wrote that it was ‘a very mean thing’, stating that they wouldn’t have dared take it if the Free State possessed a stronger army.

Charles remained at the fields for some time after, eventually becoming a diamond merchant, though he never achieved his goal of obtaining a fortune or £10,000 stone. Nevertheless, the digging experience clearly made an impression on him, and his letters recounting his endeavours as a diamond rush prospector provide us with a valuable and vivid insight into the harsh and unsavoury realities of life during the South African diamond rush.

Researched and compiled by Rebecca Hanley, NRO Research Blogger.

This entry was posted in NRO Research Bloggers, Snapshots from the Archive and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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