How Finding a Pebble Transformed South Africa - OZY | A Modern Media Company

How Finding a Pebble Transformed South Africa

How Finding a Pebble Transformed South Africa

By Nick Dall

Diamond miners in South Africa, Harper's Weekly, Nov. 19, 1870
SourceKean Collection/Getty


Because normal folks really can find treasure.

By Nick Dall

Life on a farm in the arid, infertile Northern Cape, the poorest corner of a poor colony, wasn’t easy. Erasmus Jacobs’ parents were so hard up they could barely afford to feed him, let alone buy toys. So he and his siblings played with the multicolored pebbles they found along the banks of the Orange River.

Sometimes Erasmus found real beauties — neighbor Schalk van Niekerk was so taken by one of the stones he saw lying on the floor of the Jacobs’ hovel that he offered to buy it. Mrs. Jacobs laughed at the idea, saying, “You can keep the stone if you want it.”

Some accounts say the stone was found in 1866, others say 1867; some suggest it was Erasmus who found the gem, while others point to his younger sister. But there is less doubt about what happened next, says Yair Shimansky, owner and curator of Cape Town Diamond Museum. Van Niekerk entrusted the diamond to a traveling salesman by the name of Jack O’Reilly, who promised to ascertain its value. No one he showed it to in Hopetown or Colesberg was very impressed, but O’Reilly finally persuaded the local magistrate to send it to William Atherstone, an amateur mineralogist in distant Grahamstown, for appraisal.

There are still billions of dollars buried in the ground beneath it.

Yair Shimansky, owner, Cape Town Diamond Museum

Despite the stone being sent to Atherstone loose and unsealed, in a plain envelope, he instantly saw it for what it was. In a letter to Colonial Secretary Richard Southey on April 2, 1867, Atherstone described it as a “veritable diamond” weighing approximately 20 carats. “It cuts (not scratches) glass easily,” he wrote, and “its specific gravity is 3.5343 (that of the diamond being 3.5295 to 3.6).” Atherstone’s verdict was soon backed up by other experts in Cape Town. The Eureka, as the stone came to be known, was then shipped to London, where it was valued at 500 pounds (about $60,000 today) by Queen Victoria’s goldsmiths. After protracted negotiations — including a claim (later retracted) from another neighbor that the stone had been found on his land — the diamond was purchased by Philip Wodehouse, governor of the Cape Colony, for 500 pounds.


This was by no means the end of the squabbles, but after a few small deductions, van Niekerk received a 50 percent finder’s fee (some of which, he promised, would go to the Jacobs) and O’Reilly kept the bulk of the proceeds. Whether the Jacobs family ever saw any of the profits is still up for debate. “Old Mrs. Jacobs was astounded when she received her third share,” according to a source quoted in Diamond Fever: South African Diamond History, but an affidavit signed by an elderly — and still penniless — Erasmus Jacobs in 1918 states that except for a sum of 30 pounds collected from the residents of the mining town Kimberley in 1906, he had not received a dime for his discovery.


Eureka Diamond

Source Fair Use

The find, says Shimansky, pretty much “guaranteed the existence of important deposits somewhere nearby.” But that didn’t mean spotting alluvial diamonds (i.e., those removed from the primary source by natural erosive action) was going to be easy. Within months, O’Reilly got his hands on a second diamond, much smaller but more perfect than the first, but in the years to follow there were only a few more minor discoveries. All that changed in 1869, when van Niekerk bought a much larger stone from a local shepherd boy for the monstrous sum of 500 sheep, 10 oxen and a horse. Van Niekerk then “sold it easily for £11,200 … and it was subsequently purchased by Earl Dudley for £25,000,” according to Gardner Fred Williams in The Diamond Mines of South Africa. This extraordinary 83.5-carat gem, known as the Star of South Africa, didn’t just make van Niekerk wealthy, it also changed the fate of a nation.

Diamond fever struck, and in 1870 and 1871, three separate deposits of “primary source” diamonds (later known as Kimberlite diamonds) were discovered within 70 miles of where the Eureka had been found. Prospectors from around the world flocked to the area; by 1873, Kimberley — which hadn’t even existed before the discovery — was South Africa’s second-largest city. Less than a decade later, it was rich enough to became the second city in the world (after Philadelphia) to install electric streetlamps.

Diamonds brought riches to the impoverished region. They helped finance the South African gold rush of the 1880s, and their impact is still felt today, as reflected in South Africa’s mining tradition, which remains vital to the country’s economic growth. Kimberley may no longer be the “City that Sparkles,” despite tourism slogans, but the Big Hole at its center — now filled with groundwater — remains a poignant reminder of the city’s glittering past. 

But if that water ever recedes, says Shimansky, the rush will begin anew: “There are still billions of dollars buried in the ground beneath it.”

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