John Cass's Reviews > Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa

Diamonds, Gold, and War by Martin Meredith
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May 17, 11

bookshelves: biography, history
Read from April 22 to May 15, 2011 — I own a copy, read count: 1

Similar in approach, this book explores the history of South Africa in a way that reminds one of Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel".

Starting in 1870 around the time diamonds were first discovered near Kimberly, the book initially focuses on Cecil Rhodes, who realized early on that the best way to make money out of the diamond industry was to establish a monopoly. He wasted no time in going about buying up all of the smaller mines to form De Beers (still the dominant, privately owned, diamond mining and trading company in the world today).

Rhodes was also a fervent imperialist, and set about using his immense wealth to try and expand the British empire in Southern Africa using any means necessary, including bribery, propaganda (using newspapers he acquired specifically for this purpose), mobilizing a private army to launch a military campaign to the north, and attempting a coup d'état of the Transvaal in the Jameson raid.

As a little Boer republic, the Transvaal (and Orange Free State) had the 'misfortune' of being the richest place on earth (by 1910 it was producing one third of the world's gold supply and 98% of the world's diamond production). Fiercely independent, the Boers' only aim seem to have been to establish a republic which would allow them to continue leading their traditional lifestyle. With the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand (which the secretary of the Transvaal referred to as "...that cancer in our country..."), it soon became apparent that Transvaal would eclipse the Cape Colony (which Britain controlled) as the dominant force in Southern Africa. As such, war was inevitable.

About a third of the book is spent dealing with the tragic fate of the native peoples, who first lost their grazing lands to the Boers, and then the mineral rights and their sovereignty to imperialists and speculators. The chiefs of many of the indigenous tribes kept up a steady stream of correspondence with Britain, even sending delegations consisting of the chief's advisors (so called 'InDunas') to meet with the queen to beg her assistance by asking for the protection of the British flag.

Martin Meredith succeeds in creating a riveting account of the history of South Africa between 1870 and 1910, which allows one to 'fast forward' through events as new discoveries are made and new groups of people come into contact for the first time. The pattern becomes predictable as exuberance turns to opportunism, broken alliances, deceit, disenfranchisement, and ultimately violence.

If you've ever lived in South Africa you'll enjoy the book for the insights it offers as to how things came to be as they are: from the names of streets in Johannesburg, the cultural differences of that city compared to Pretoria, how companies like Gold Fields, Anglo American, and others were formed, and how the borders in Southern Africa came to be drawn.

If you're interested in the era of adventure and discovery of Africa in the 1800's, the book also offers that as well as vignettes of the personalities that frequented this part of the world when it enjoyed center stage in the British Empire: Rudyard Kipling, Percy Fitzpatrick, Sammy Marks, Robert Baden-Powell, Mohandas Gandhi, and others.

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message 1: by Marius (new)

Marius John, thanks for a very succinct book report. It looks very interesting and I'm enticed to read it. It's also quite sad, a testament that we're (seemingly) forever bound to remain victims of our own (corrupt/greedy) human nature.


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