Kimberley was the African “Golconda”, just as Johannesburg was the “Golden City”. Therefore as soon as our work permitted we paid a visit to the De Beers diamond mine. Warned, however, by our underground experiences at the Robinson mine, we refused to leave the light of day. We saw countless numbers of trucks full of blue clay, in which the diamonds are imbedded. Then there are the rooms where the diamonds are sorted. Unusual specimens are kept on show. But we thought nothing so interesting as the great compound.
This is a wide space within a great stockade about twelve feet high. Strong wire netting was fastened above, so that it looked like a monstrous aviary.
The compound was large and unlit. Here and there were large holes, which after rain were filled with water. Into these holes one invariably stumbled when in a hurry.
Here the natives who work in the mines live, to the number of I am afraid to say how many hundreds. They engage to work in the mine for a term of months, agreeing to remain prisoners for that period. They sleep in sheds round the compound, have shops where they can buy what they choose, and dens where they smoke a sort of narcotic plant – in its effects not unlike Indian hemp. All these precautions are taken to prevent the diamonds from being stolen. But for the wire the men would throw the stones over the stockade. As it is they contrive to steal some. The difficulty is to get their spoil out of the compound. A day before their time expires they are carefully searched. Strong medicines are also administered in case they should have swallowed a diamond.
Photograph: Kimberley diamond fields worker circa 1885. South African National Library, Cape Town