Diamonds Are Forever

The Randlords

by Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Atheneum, 314 pp., $17.95

Cecil Rhodes
Cecil Rhodes; drawing by David Levine

South Africa defies comparison with other countries. It is unique not only in the persistence of its rigid racial divisions, but also in possessing the world’s greatest accumulations of gold and gem-quality diamonds. Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s book describes the activities of the men who clawed their way to the top in the scramble for control of these mining industries toward the end of the nineteenth century—men who were the British imperial equivalents of their American contemporaries, the “robber barons.”

One can approach The Randlords with four different expectations: as a racy story about the goings-on of an astonishing variety of exotic people; as an account of how they came to dominate the first great industries in South Africa; as a description of their contribution to the degradation of the indigenous peoples of South Africa; or as a study of their part in British imperial history.

Consider Wheatcroft’s cast of characters. There is Cecil Rhodes, whose name was on the map until the fall of white Rhodesia in 1980 but still survives in Rhodes University, Grahamstown, and the Rhodes scholarships. Younger son of an English country parson, Rhodes went to Natal for his health in 1869. In 1877 in the first draft of his will he donated his growing fortune to the founding of a secret society for the reunification of Britain and the United States, and Anglo-Saxon domination of the world. By 1895, he dominated the diamond-mining industry of Kimberley, had a major share of the gold-mining industry on the Witwatersrand, and was prime minister of the Cape Colony and founder of Rhodesia. He was also planning a conspiracy to overthrow the Afrikaner government of the Transvaal Republic and transform it into a British colony.

Less well known is Alfred Beit, the shy and socially unobtrusive German Jew who was the brains behind the amalgamation of the diamond mining companies and the development of deep-level gold mining. There were Percy Fitz-Patrick, a South African–born Irish Catholic, the author of Jock of the Bushveld, which Theodore Roosevelt called “the best of all dog books,” who rose to a powerful position in the gold-mining industry and agitated for British intervention in the Transvaal, and Joseph B. Robinson, who was also born in the Cape Colony and was friendly with President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal Republic and detested by most of the other Randlords. Another outsider, Barney Barnato, son of a London publican, got control of enough claims in Kimberley to become a major obstacle to the amalgamation of the diamond-mining industry, until he lost out to Rhodes and Beit; he then proceeded to make a second fortune on the Witwatersrand gold fields, only to die a suicide in 1897.

Wheatcroft tells us much about the eccentricities of these people and their activities in early Kimberley and Johannesburg. He tends to divide them into two classes: relatively good guys such as Alfred Beit, the…

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