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East-Ender Barney Barnato became the Diamond King of Kimberley

Posted in Africa, Geology, Historical articles, History, Industry, Minerals on Monday, 26 March 2012

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This edited article about Barney Barnato originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 676 published on 28 December 1974.

Barney Barnato, picture, image, illustration

Barney Barnato realised he had walked all the way to Kimberley

Everyone knew there were diamonds in South Africa. Not just ordinary diamonds, but massive gems that were just waiting to be picked up like pebbles from a beach. Men had made themselves rich for life in just half an hour. Wilder and wilder grew the stories from the diggings and soon every ship that arrived at Port Elizabeth and Cape Town was packed with prospectors eager to lay their hands on any sort of transport that would carry them the 600 miles to the get-rich-quick township of Kimberley.

It cost £40 to hire a coach that would cover the distance in comfort, £12 for a place on a bone-shaking ox wagon. But so far as 20-year-old Barney Barnato was concerned, both were hopelessly beyond his means. He had landed in South Africa in the summer of 1873 with barely enough money for food, let alone transport, yet he wandered up and down the sand-covered streets with cheerful optimism. The son of a poor Jewish family that had scraped up a living buying and selling old clothes off London’s Commercial Road, he was used to bargaining. Sooner or later he’d find someone who’d come down to his price.

Finally he succeeded.

“Ja. I take you for five pounds.” The Boer wagon driver studied his customer with amusement, seeing a youngster who was only five feet three inches tall, with golden hair and wearing small, wire framed spectacles. Then he added hastily, “But your food you find yourself. Also I have only six oxen, and they are old. So when there is bad going you walk, yes?”

“That’s all right. So long as you show me the way.”

It was an agreement, and Barney Barnato stuck to it. Even though, when he finally arrived at Kimberley two months later, he realised it had been bad going all the way and he had walked the whole six hundred miles.

He could hardly have reached Kimberley at a worse time. The early, surface deposits of stones had been exhausted and the diggers were finding themselves faced with tough, unpromising blue rock. Discouraged, many of the men were already heading for home, and young Barnato realised that if he was to survive he would have to act fast. It was pointless to start digging himself. Far better to stick to the thing he knew best: buying and selling.

Soon Barney Barnato discovered that for a salesman there was very little difference between Kimberley and London’s Petticoat Lane. He had picked up the typical salesman’s patter almost as soon as he could talk, and in no time he was selling pocket knives, braces, poultry and in fact anything that he could buy cheap and sell at a profit.

When a travelling circus arrived, complete with a boxing booth and a huge Portuguese “champion”, Barney Barnato decided to try for the prize of one shilling offered to anyone who could last three rounds. The crowd roared with laughter at the sight of the tiny man ducking through the ropes wearing his usual wire framed glasses and a bowler hat. But Barney Barnato had learned about fighting in London’s East End and had a punch like a mule. He promptly knocked out the Portuguese, then put on a juggling act with his bowler hat and three bottles of beer, rounding off the performance with a speech from “Hamlet”, delivered standing on his head! The showman promptly fired the Portuguese and took on the little Cockney instead at the magnificent salary of five shillings a day.

Barnato was glad of the job but he soon left, driven by an overpowering urge to buy and sell. He could make a living selling almost anything, but he was well aware that it was in diamonds that the big money lay. Diggers sold the diamonds to “kopje wallopers” or dealers who worked their way round the diggings with a pair of tweezers, scales and an eye glass, paying cash for stones that they eventually sold again at a profit. Barnato meant to be a “kopje walloper” too. The snag was that he didn’t know a diamond from a piece of glass.

He learned. Largely thanks to a dealer named Louis Cohen, who took him into partnership. Cohen, who knew the business thoroughly and spoke several languages, was fascinated by the bustling little man whose speech was so broadly Cockney as to be almost unintelligible. Even so, Cohen had never met anyone who worked so hard as his new friend. Soon, Barnato’s bustling, bowler-hatted little figure was a familiar sight around Kimberley, and the diggers kept their best diamonds for him, knowing that he always gave a fair price.

Cohen eventually left Kimberley to try his luck in the gold fields. Convinced that beneath the barrier of “blue ground” lay richer deposits of diamonds than he had ever seen before, Barnato stayed on. One by one he bought up the claims of discouraged diggers, paying the men to work for him. It wasn’t long before his gamble paid off. The diggings began to yield enormous quantities of diamonds, and now Barnato didn’t have to buy them because they came from his own mines. Money began to roll in. Instead of being glad to fight in a boxing booth for five shillings a day, he was making thousands of pounds a week.

Much of Barney Barnato’s success lay in the fact that he didn’t allow his sudden wealth to change him. He was a “character” and people enjoyed doing business with him. Proud of his boxing skill, he still took on professionals for a prize of a few pounds, and always had a pocketful of gold sovereigns to hand out to old diggers who were down on their luck. Having developed a taste for acting, he even played the leading role in a local production of “Othello”. The idea of a five foot three Moor speaking in the accents of Whitechapel struck one member of the audience as so funny that he laughed out loud. Barney jumped over the footlights, knocked the man out, then returned to carry on his performance. The tough diggers cheered loudly. One could do business with a man like that!

They were to do so much business that Barnato’s empire began to grow at a staggering rate. More and more members of Barney’s family were brought in to cope with the work, and a London office was opened. By the time Barnato was 35 his company, Kimberley Central, was producing diamonds at such a rate that his only rival, Cecil Rhodes of the De Beers Mining Company, was seriously worried that there would soon be so many stones on the market that they would become valueless.

Barnato was not in favour of controlling the supply and the battle that followed between the two diamond giants made financial history. In the end Rhodes won on points, but Barnato was by no means dismayed. His income was still nearly a quarter of a million pounds a year, and he decided to go into politics. He fought his election campaign from a magnificent coach, drawn by four matched horses, each with its uniformed postillion. South Africa had never seen anything like it, and Barney Barnato was duly elected as the Member of Parliament for Kimberley.

In 1894 Barnato returned to London and started to build himself a house in Park Lane. By this time his interests had turned towards the goldfields and he was employing more than 100,000 men in and around Johannesburg. His enormous wealth hadn’t changed him, and in spite of his amazing memory for figures he was still virtually illiterate, and as brash and noisy as ever, thinking nothing of walking round the restaurant of the Savoy Hotel on his hands, just to prove that he could. Soon, just as in South Africa, everyone knew the jaunty little bespectacled figure, and so many people made money from buying his company’s shares that crowds would stop his coach in the street and cheer him.

Barnato kept faith with the public, safeguarding their shares by pouring out millions of pounds of his own money in order to stabilise the South African gold market when it showed signs of collapsing. A few months later he fell from the deck of an ocean liner and was drowned. Nobody ever knew how or why. Murder? Suicide? Or just an accident? The mystery remains to this day.

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