Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa

To figure out how the world works, you've got to "follow the money," and the gold and diamonds of South Africa have certainly generated more than their fair share of cash - especially for Cecil Rhodes's De Beers diamond company.

Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa

"Diamonds, Gold, and War" is really a biography of Cecil Rhodes in which South Africa plays an important but subordinate role. That said, it is a riveting read, one that gave me a survey of 19th century South African history and started to fill in some serious gaps in my historical knowledge. Although I read this book back in 2013, I'm writing up the review now in 2018 because it fits quite nicely with my annual theme of "Crime and Punishment". To figure out how the world works, you've got to "follow the money," and the gold and diamonds of South Africa have certainly generated more than their fair share of cash - especially for Rhodes's De Beers diamond company.

Cecil Rhodes towers over the last 200 years of South African history and Martin Meredith helps us understand his perspectives and motivations within Rhodes's historical context. I read this book during a wave of anti-Rhodes sentiment - shortly thereafter, the "Rhodes Must Fall" movement roiled Oxford University in the UK. As an unabashed imperialist, Rhodes held undeniably racist views. But Meredith also includes some racist Gandhi quotes to show that Rhodes was not unusual in holding these views in the late 1800's. While acknowledging Rhodes's racism, Meredith doesn't allow it to overshadow his dominant trait: his overwhelming ambition.

We can begin to understand his state of mind by reviewing Rhodes's reading list (for another powerful reader's bookshelf, check out Bill Gates's book reviews). Aristotle, Aurelius, Gibbon, and Reade (author of "The Martyrdom of Man") were all major influences on Rhodes and Meredith shows how these books shaped Rhodes's later actions. From age 18, Cecil Rhodes exhibited a nearly superhuman drive for achievement and power. In fact, he reminded me of no one so much as another ultra-ambitious young man who attended Oxford less than a decade after Rhodes's death: Robert Moses. For example, this quote:

‘Money is power,’ said Rhodes, ‘and what can one accomplish without power? That is why I must have money. Ideas are no good without money... For its own sake I do not care for money. I never tried it for its own sake but it is a power and I like power.’

Almost exactly matches Robert Caro's assessment of Moses in "The Power Broker":

When the curtain rose on the next act of Moses’ life, idealism was gone from the stage. In its place was an understanding that ideas - dreams - were useless without power to transform them into reality. Moses spent the rest of his life amassing power, bringing to the task imagination, iron will and determination. And he was successful.

But unlike Moses, Rhodes also has a shadowy cloak of conspiracy enfolding him. As Meredith says, "Rhodes displayed his extraordinary ability for pulling the strings while keeping entirely out of sight," including buying up newspapers, "for the press rules the mind of the people." From a Rothschild connection to Rhodes's dream of a "secret society gradually absorbing the wealth of the world," the Cecil Rhodes story is full of intrigue, power, and global repurcussions. In fact, I found much of his elitist philosophy to be in line with that espoused by the "neoreactionary" movement described by Moldbug in "A Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations".

A final note - I was surprised to discover that the British were some of the earliest large-scale operators of concentration camps. Created during the Boer wars, British concentration camps had "conditions so appalling that some 26,000 [women and children] died there from disease and malnutrition." That little tidbit never came up in my formal history education...

My highlights below:


When Britain took possession of the Cape Colony in 1806 during the course of the Napoleonic Wars it was a slave-owning outpost, three months’ sailing distance from London, previously run as a Dutch commercial enterprise that had teetered on the edge of bankruptcy for years. Britain’s only interest in the Cape was its use as a naval base at the foot of Africa halfway along the vital trade route between Europe and Asia - a stepping stone that the British government was determined to keep out of French hands. Its wartime occupation was not expected to be permanent. The white colonial population, descendants of Dutch, German and French Huguenot settlers, was small, no more than 25,000 in all, scattered across a territory of 100,000 square miles.

To satisfy the white demand for labour, commandos frequently abducted African children, describing them as ‘apprentices’ - inboekelings - to avoid accusation of overt slavery. The practice was sanctioned in the Transvaal by an Apprentice Act passed by the governing body, the Volksraad. In the 1860s missionaries considered inboekelings provided the main source of labour in the eastern Transvaal.

Faced with guerrilla warfare for which they were unprepared, British military commanders resorted to scorched-earth tactics, destroying thousands of farmsteads, razing villages to the ground and slaughtering livestock on a massive scale. Women and children were rounded up and placed in what the British called concentration camps, where conditions were so appalling that some 26,000 died there from disease and malnutrition, most of them under the age of sixteen. All this produced a legacy of hatred and bitterness amongst Afrikaners that endured for generations. Two men personified this struggle: Cecil Rhodes and Paul Kruger.


Just two miles away to the north, on an adjacent farm, Vooruitzigt, owned by Johannes de Beer and his brother, were two more diamond ‘pipes’, still undiscovered, with even greater deposits. Put together, the three farms covering an area of about fifty-eight square miles amounted to the most valuable piece of real estate in the world.

‘He says Cecil is such an excellent man in business; that he has managed all the business in Herbert’s absence wonderfully well, and that they are all so very fond of him... He says most young fellows when they get up here and do well get so very bumptious, but that Cecil was just the contrary.’ The two used to take long rides across the veld together, Rhodes on a rusty-brown pony named Brandersnatch, discussing the affairs of the Fields, the classics and world history. What many of his contemporaries also remarked upon was Rhodes’ lack of interest in girls. ‘For the fair sex he cared nothing,’ wrote Louis Cohen, who arrived in the diamond fields in 1872.

I remember his telling me that he had made up his mind to go to the University, it would help with his career; also it might be wise if he were to eat his dinners, the position of a barrister ‘was always useful’. Then in his abrupt way he said, ‘I dare say you think I am keen about money; I assure you I wouldn’t greatly care if I lost all I have tomorrow, it’s the game I like.’

Long before Sir Richard Southey arrived on the diamond fields in 1873, white diggers had established a tradition of airing their grievances in a loud and boisterous manner that sometimes culminated in violence and riot. Since the early days, they had formed ‘diggers’ committees’ to regulate their own affairs, relishing the freedom from state authority and taxation. The idea of ‘diggers democracy’, as it was known, was firmly entrenched. Members of diggers’ committees were popularly elected and quick to defend the interests of their community.

At the head of the Protection Association was a krygsraad or war council. Its members included ‘Captain’ Alfred Aylward, given command of one of the infantry companies; ‘Captain’ Henry Tucker, a former member of the Cape parliament, claim-holder and storekeeper; ‘Captain’ William Ling, a prominent claim-holder heavily in debt; and Conrad von Schlickmann, a former Prussian officer, given charge of the ‘German company’. A manifesto signed by Tucker and Ling declared that as ‘the rights, property and liberty of the diggers’ were threatened by a large number of Africans who were ‘not gaining their living by honest labour’, nor subject to adequate police control, the Association’s members would henceforth be responsible for the security of Europeans on the diamond fields.

"One is tempted to say that nothing is done by religion and very little by philanthropy. But love of money works very fast."


Haggard’s venture into the African interior was to provide him with a wealth of material for his novels King Solomon’s Mines, She and Allan Quatermain.

The book marked the beginning of a new historiography that would eventually take hold of Afrikanerdom, portraying Afrikaners as a valiant nation wrongfully oppressed by decades of British rule.

Wolseley assumed that such a demonstration of imperial might would have a salutary effect on the restless mood of the Transvaal Boers. But, by crushing both Cetshwayo and Sekhukhune, the British had liberated the Transvaal Boers from the two greatest threats to their security. They now saw a new opportunity to get rid of the British.

Before the burghers left, they built a memorial to the new unity of the volk. Each man gathered a stone from the hillside and one by one, walking by in single file, laid the stone to form a huge cairn around a pole bearing the old republican flag, the Vierkleur, each stone a symbol that the burghers had sworn loyalty to each other to fight to the death in the republic’s defence.


It was Rhodes, and Rhodes alone, who had conceived the plan, and who had persuaded all the important factors on the Fields to back the adventure. As always, Rhodes displayed his extraordinary ability for pulling the strings while keeping entirely out of sight.

A longside his business interests, Rhodes’ political horizons began to expand. As a youth, in common with many young men, he harboured grand dreams of power and glory. What was unusual in his case was the extent to which he held on to them. He grew up in an age when Victorian Britain regarded itself as the standard-bearer of civilisation, sending its colonists, missionaries, officials and engineers abroad to open up new continents, develop markets for its industrial products and spread the gospel of Christ. The expansion of empire was seen both as an economic necessity and a moral duty to the rest of humanity.

In part, the ‘confession’ reflected his interest in the work of authors he admired: Aristotle’s Ethics; Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations; Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But Rhodes was also influenced by two more recent publications: One was a book published in 1872, The Martyrdom of Man by Winwood Reade, an obscure British Darwinian who argued that man had no hope of an after-life or posthumous reward; the only reward to be found was in improving the human race. ‘To develop to the utmost our genius and our love, that is the only true religion,’ wrote Reade. Rhodes described The Martyrdom of Man as a ‘creepy book’, but added, mysteriously, that it ‘made me what I am’. The other publication, an inaugural lecture by John Ruskin as Slade Professor at Oxford, delivered in 1870, was brimful of imperial fervour:   There is a destiny now possible to us, the highest ever set before a nation to be accepted or refused. We are still undegenerate in race; a race mingled with the best northern blood. We are not yet dissolute in temper, but still have the firmness to govern and the grace to obey... Will you youths of England make your country again a royal throne of kings, a sceptred isle, for all the world a source of light, a centre of peace; mistress of learning and of the Arts, faithful guardian of time-tried principles...? This is what England must either do or perish: she must found colonies as fast and as far as she is able, formed of her most energetic and worthiest men; seizing every piece of fruitful waste grounds she can set her foot on, and there teaching these her colonists that their chief virtue is to be fidelity to their country, and their first aim is to be to advance the power of England by land and sea... All that I ask of you is to have a fixed purpose of some kind for your country and for yourselves, no matter how restricted so that it be fixed and unselfish.

Rhodes’ own ‘draft of ideas’, written in June 1877, drew heavily on such exhortations. Starting in an Aristotelian manner, he wrote:   It often strikes a man to inquire what is the chief good in life; to one the thought comes that it is a happy marriage, to another great wealth, to a third travel, and so on, and as each seizes on the idea, for that he more or less works for its attainment for the rest of his existence. To myself, thinking over the same question, the wish came to make myself useful to my country... I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. I contend that every acre added to our territory means the birth of more of the English race who otherwise would not be brought into existence. Added to which the absorption of the greater portion of the world under our rule simply means the end of all wars.

He also proposed that the society should purchase newspapers, ‘for the press rules the mind of the people’.

They often went for long walks together. Gordon, twenty years older than Rhodes, chided the younger man for his independent opinions. ‘You always contradict me,’ he said on one occasion. ‘I never met such a man for his own opinion. You think your views are always right and everyone else wrong.’ On another occasion, Gordon complained, ‘You are the sort of man who never approves of anything unless you have had the organising of it yourself.’

‘I would have taken it,’ said Rhodes, ‘and as many roomfuls as they would give me. It is no use for us to have big ideas if we have not got the money to carry them out.

The model for the closed compound system that developed in Kimberley was a convict station built by De Beers as a base for employing cheap convict labour. In return for housing and feeding several hundred convicts, De Beers was given the right to use them as free compulsory labour, paying only a small fee to the Cape government. The government’s inspector of mines considered ‘these convict barracks... the perfecting of the compound system’. De Beers found the employment of convicts so advantageous that it continued to use them for nearly fifty years.

Rhodes’ meeting with Rothschild in London went well. Rhodes asked for a £1 million loan to help him purchase the French Company and Rothschild promised to support him if he could get the agreement of its directors and shareholders to sell. Rothschild looked to make a profit of at least £100,000 on the deal. Travelling on to Paris, Rhodes was given a similarly favourable reception by the directors of the French Company. Once again, Beit had prepared the way, persuading Jules Porges in advance that amalgamation of the mines was a sound financial objective and that Rhodes was the man to accomplish it. A price of £1.4 million was agreed, subject to the approval of shareholders at a meeting scheduled for October. Rhodes subsequently liked to boast of his genius in pulling off the deal: ‘You know the story of my getting on board the steamer at Cape Town, going home and buying the French Company within twenty-four hours,’ he would say. But the real architect behind the deal was ‘little Alfred’.

‘Aren’t those just dreams of the future?’ asked Woolf Joel. ‘Dreams don’t pay dividends.’ ‘No, my friend,’ replied Rhodes, ‘they’re not dreams, they’re plans. There’s a difference.’

Rhodes was well pleased with the result. De Beers’ ranking as one of the most powerful companies in the world provided him with a solid platform from which to pursue other ambitions. ‘Money is power,’ said Rhodes, ‘and what can one accomplish without power? That is why I must have money. Ideas are no good without money... For its own sake I do not care for money. I never tried it for its own sake but it is a power and I like power.’


The Kruger household on Church Street, Pretoria, offered genial hospitality to all who called, friends and strangers alike, even after Paul Kruger became president of the Transvaal in 1883. During the day, the front door was kept wide open; there were no sentries posted there. To each visitor, Kruger extended his huge hand in welcome. From the kitchen, his wife, Gezina, provided an endless flow of coffee, rusks and other delicacies.

In 1888 they bought Robinson’s share of the Robinson Syndicate for £250,000. Needing further funds, they gained the support of key European financiers - the Rothschilds of Germany, Austria and France and Rodolphe Kann of Paris.

Wernher, Beit also led the way to a new phase of deep-level mining that transformed the Witwatersrand’s long-term prospects. Mining companies had originally regarded land to the south of the main reef as worthless. They assumed that the main reef descended downwards at an angle and simply followed it. But Joseph Curtis, an American engineer working for Wernher, Beit, developed the theory that the main reef dipped out of the vertical confines of existing claims and headed south and was thus accessible via deep-level shafts.


The British South Africa Company, emanating from a flimsy agreement involving an illegal arms deal that had been obtained in dubious circumstances, and since repudiated repeatedly by its principal signatory, was formally granted a royal charter by Queen Victoria on 29 October 1889, with a remit similar to that of a government. Whereas Lobengula had granted Rudd a concession assigning to him no more than the right to mine metals and minerals, the royal charter empowered the BSA Company to build roads, railways and telegraphs; to establish and authorise banking; to award land grants; to negotiate treaties; to promulgate laws; to maintain a company police force; and to aid and promote immigration.


In harnessing allies to his cause, Rhodes displayed remarkable powers of persuasion. But what was equally influential was the power of his money. Many hitched themselves to Rhodes’ band-wagon lured by the prospect of making their own fortunes. When he encountered resistance or scepticism, Rhodes was adept at providing incentives, bribes, share options, directorships and other positions, convinced that every man had his price.

Shortly afterwards, in June 1890, she wrote to Ellis excitedly: ‘I am going to meet Cecil Rhodes, the only great man and man of genius South Africa possesses.’ She told Stead that she felt a ‘curious and almost painfully intense interest’ in ‘the man and his career’.

In April 1891, John Merriman, who agreed to serve as the government’s treasurer, complained in a letter to a friend that, with few exceptions, ‘all his familiars are self-seekers and stuff him with adulation for their own purposes’. Olive Schreiner urged Rhodes to break with the dubious characters who seemed perpetually to surround him, but Rhodes flew into a rage. ‘Those men my friends?’ he retorted. ‘They are not my friends! They are my tools, and when I have done with them I throw them away.’

As the liberals departed, Vere Stent, a correspondent for the Cape Times, commented: ‘High honesty and a nice sense of honour, brilliant biting wit and moral courage, erudition and fearless criticism, [all] left Rhodes’ cabinet, and the door was open for sycophancy, opportunism and time-serving.’

I am off to Mashonaland... They are calling the new country Rhodesia, that is from the Transvaal to the southern end of [Lake] Tanganyika; the other name is Zambesia. I find I am human and should like to be living after death; still, perhaps, if that name is coupled with the object of England everywhere, and united, the name may convey the discovery of an idea which ultimately led to the cessation of all wars and one language throughout the world, the patent being the gradual absorption of wealth and human minds of the higher order to the object... The only thing feasible to carry this idea out is a secret [society] gradually absorbing the wealth of the world to be devoted to such an object.


Rhodes and Jameson were now involved in several monumental miscalculations. One was that, having captured Matabeleland, the overthrow of Kruger’s regime would be similarly straightforward; another, that the uitlander population was ready and willing to participate actively in an uprising; and a third, that white settlers in Rhodesia would be safe from African revolt once the company police had been withdrawn to take part in a Transvaal coup.

But otherwise he was prepared to wait. ‘If I want to kill a tortoise,’ he told burghers, ‘I wait until he sticks his head out.’

Rhodes remarked: ‘You see, I was a naughty boy, and you tried to whip me. Now my people were quite ready to whip me for being a naughty boy, but directly you did it, they said, “No, if this is anybody’s business, it is ours.” The result was that Your Majesty got yourself very much disliked by the English people, and I never got whipped at all!’

Thus, the Rhodes conspiracy ended as it had begun: in collusion, lies and deceit.

After conferring on himself the rank of colonel, Rhodes joined the campaign, riding into combat wearing white flannel trousers and armed only with a riding crop. ‘He is very like Napoleon,’ Weston Jarvis wrote to his mother. ‘He quite thinks that he was not intended to be killed by a damned nigger .

After further protracted meetings, the terms of a peace deal were agreed in October. Much to the fury of white residents and many imperial officials, the leaders of the revolt went unpunished; and indunas who proved their loyalty were given appointments and salaries. Thus Rhodes saved his company. The Ndebele, however, still lost most of their land. Despite promises he had made about restoring land to the Ndebele, the whites had no intention of giving it up. Two-thirds of the Ndebele people returning home found themselves living on ‘white’ land.


Thus southern Africa, as Chamberlain and Milner saw it, was a test case about the future of the empire.

Their other grievances we are quite ready to redress, if there are any... Don’t be under the delusion that any concessions that I can make will ever satisfy the enemies of my country.

His former friend Olive Schreiner remarked: ‘He has chosen... not only the worst men as his instruments, but to act on men always through the lowest side of their nature, to lead them through narrow self-interest instead of animating them with large enthusiasms.’

To enable Smuts to serve as state attorney, Kruger enrolled him as a ‘second-class’ burgher. Smuts soon found himself amidst a swirl of intrigue and complained of being surrounded ‘by political and official enemies, by liquor syndicates, scheming concessionaires and powerful evildoers in high places’. But he quickly made his mark, tackling corruption and malpractice in the police force and racketeering in liquor sales, prostitution and counterfeit money. It was, he said, like ‘clearing out the Augean Stable’. He became an indispensable member of Kruger’s team, responsible for drafting virtually all new legislation as well as providing legal advice.

In his autobiography, he claimed that Johannesburg’s residents were ‘probably the most corrupt, immoral and untruthful assemblage of human beings in the world’ and quoted a remark made by Merriman describing Johannesburg as ‘Monte Carlo superimposed on Sodom and Gomorrah’.


If it is ordained that we, insignificant as we are, should be the first among all peoples to begin the struggle against the new-world tyranny of Capitalism, then we are ready to do so, even if that tyranny is reinforced by the power of Jingoism.

In all, some 26,000 Boers died in concentration camps from disease and malnutrition, most of them children under the age of sixteen - about one tenth of the Boer populations of the old republics. In black concentration camps, where the population eventually rose to 116,000, some 14,000 died, most of them children.

In October, Smuts broke further west, into the open plains of the Karoo, collecting recruits as he went and fetching up in Namaqualand, a remote part of the western Cape of little interest to British forces. He was free to roam about at will, but to no discernible effect. He whiled away the time reading copies of books he managed to acquire along the way, such as Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Überweg’s History of Philosophy. ‘On the whole we were much hampered by want of literature, many of the Boers highly educated,’ wrote Smuts, ‘and one of the pleasures of capturing an English convoy was the number of English books found among the officers’ kit.’

In Kipling’s memorable phrase, the war gave Britain ‘no end of a lesson’. It had been provoked by Britain - by a handful of politicians and officials - on the assumption of an easy military victory over a group of backward peasant farmers - a ‘tea-time’ war that would be ‘over by Christmas’. But it had turned into a campaign of humiliating reverses and setbacks, and it had been won only through the deployment of 450,000 imperial troops and the use of scorched-earth tactics. The cost to the British military was 22,000 dead, two-thirds of them from disease and illness. The cost to the British exchequer - originally estimated at £10 million - was £217 million. When it was finally over - after two and a half years - it was not so much a sense of victory that the British felt as a sense of relief.


The other principal method that Milner intended to use in his campaign to ‘anglicize’ the Transvaal was a new education system. ‘Next to the composition of the population, the thing which matters most is its education.’

Development, said Milner, was ‘our trump card’. ‘Every new railway, every new school, every new settlement is a nail in the coffin of Boer nationalism.’

Gandhi still retained hopes that Britain would eventually deliver on its promises of justice and equality for British subjects. He was concerned only with the welfare of the Indian population - and in particular the interests of what Gandhi called ‘respectable’ Indians, like himself - rather than with the wider issue of civil rights affecting Africans and Coloureds as well. Indeed, he objected to ‘the mixing of the Kaffirs’ with Indians as vehemently as did the whites. ‘If there is one thing which the Indian cherishes more than any other,’ he wrote in 1903, ‘it is the purity of the type.’

Polak was an admirer of the work of John Ruskin and lent Gandhi a copy of Ruskin’s book Unto This Last, a treatise on the merits of life based on simplicity and self-reliance. Gandhi read the book on a train journey to Durban. ‘The book was impossible to lay aside, once I had begun it,’ wrote Gandhi. ‘It gripped me. Johannesburg to Durban was a 24-hour journey. The train reached there in the evening. I could not get any sleep that night. I determined to charge my life in accordance with the ideals of the book.’ Gandhi proceeded to set up a communal settlement on one hundred acres of land at Phoenix, fourteen miles from Durban, intending, once he had retired as a lawyer, to live there, working as a manual labourer. But he only ever visited Phoenix for brief periods.

This new political technique was called at the time ‘passive resistance’. But Gandhi disliked the term and, after offering a prize for a better name, settled on satyagraha, a Gujerati expression which meant ‘soul-force’ or ‘truth-force’ but which was more commonly used to denote non-violent struggle.


By the 1930s, the Broederbond had developed into a tightly disciplined, highly secretive group with an elite membership bound together by oath. Its reach extended throughout the country. It had penetrated the civil service and the teaching profession and begun to infiltrate members into ‘key positions’ in all leading institutions. Its ultimate goal was to establish Afrikaner domination in South Africa - ‘baasskap’. With the help of Afrikaner academics, it fashioned a new, hardened version of Afrikaner ideology. Christian-Nationalism, as it was called, was essentially a blend of the Old Testament and modern politics, influenced in part by the rise of European fascism. At its core was the notion once expounded by Paul Kruger that Afrikaners were members of an exclusive volk created by the hand of God to fulfil a special mission in South Africa.

In essence, he said, the war grew out of a conspiracy by gold millionaires and Jewish financiers, aided and abetted by British politicians, aimed at making mining operations more profitable. Hobson developed this theme into a general analysis of the relationship between capitalism and imperialism in his book Imperialism: A Study, published in 1902. Hobson’s work had a profound influence on Lenin who acknowledged it in his treatise Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, published in 1917. It was subsequently used by generations of Marxist and left-wing writers to illustrate the evil machinations of capitalism.

Rudyard Kipling travelled to the Cape at the end of each year from 1900 to 1907 accompanied by ‘a complete equipage of governess, maids and children’. In his memoir, Something of Myself, he relates how returning by boat to England on one occasion, Dr Jameson joined him, sitting for meals at the Kipling table in the dining room. ‘A most English lady with two fair daughters had been put there our first day out, and when she rightly enough objected to the quality of the food, and called it prison fare, Jameson remarked: “Speaking as one of the criminal classes, I assure you it is worse.” At the next meal the table was all our own.’ Jameson was subsequently knighted.