Of oxen, trees, sardines and stones: Writing a multispecies environmental history of the ‘Big Hole’, Kimberley South Africa, 1870-1920

29 July 2022

“The chance find of a diamond, at the foot of a Camelthorn tree on a kopje in South Africa in 1871, initiated an industrial mining revolution, the effects of which continue to reverberate into the present and far into the future. The Camelthorn was chopped down and the kopje shovelled away, to become the biggest hole dug by human hand and the richest diamond mine of the world, the ‘Big Hole’ in Kimberley. The mining revolution, triggered by diamonds, radically transformed all of southern Africa. It brought untold financial wealth to a small number of people, but at the expense of shattered ecosystems and societies throughout southern Africa.” said Jan-Bart Gewald, Professor of African History, Leiden University. “It’s a moment crucial to South African history – industrialisation, the South African War, even apartheid, would not have occurred without it.”

But he pointed out that research has concentrated on the mining magnates, Rhodes in particular, and the War, specifically the Siege of Kimberley (1899–1900). “Everything else has been forgotten. There is no research that consciously seeks to consider the animals, plants, geology and geography. No research beyond humans. This is an attempt to unpack the hidden and obscure history of other things without which the human history would have been impossible. I’m seeking to transcend disciplinary boundaries, to consciously crash categories not previously put together.”

STIAS Fellow Jan-Bart Gewald during his seminar on 28 July 2022

In the first seminar of the second semester, Gewald explained his project which involves researching and writing a five-chapter book focusing on an environmental history of the ‘Big Hole’ between 1870 and 1920. “I’m attempting to draft a history that consciously seeks to decentre the human, and focus instead on the interconnected nature of the past, in which geology and geography, flora and fauna, and water and air, all play a role. In this I am inspired by the work of James Lovelock and Alexander von Humboldt, and a worldview that seriously acknowledges the symbiotic interconnected nature of the world in which we live.”

He explained that to some extent his work has come full circle from commencing a BSc in geology and physics 40 years ago at Rhodes University. “Experience changed my focus to history, anthropology and political studies. This project is an attempt to think about geology but in relation to history, geography and anthropology in terms of animals, plants, wind, water and a void. A multispecies history of diamond mining.”

“STIAS encourages us to go out on a limb,” he added. “My research would be considered by some as way out there.”

Wealth and waste

Outlining in detail some aspects of the complex story, Gewald pointed out that within weeks of the discovery of diamonds thousands descended on the area, trees were chopped down and a hole created.  At 215 metres it became the world’s largest pit dug by hand – and later shafts were sunk to 1000 metres. It was initially a free for all, relying on self-regulation and the local Griqua territory Landros but the magnates, the War and incorporation into the Union of South Africa changed that.

“Self-regulation changed to the right of the strongest,” he said. “There was lots of moving and shaking, and the strongest survived.”

By 1888 the magnates – in particular Rhodes, had emerged and De Beers was formed. By the time production stopped in 1914 at the Kimberley Hole, 22.5 million tonnes of Kimberlite rock had been dug producing 14.5 million carats of diamonds at astronomical value.

“Initially there were so many diamonds they were throwing away those not worth enough,” said Gewald.  And about 90% of the purchase and sale of uncut diamonds was controlled via Kimberley and London.

Present-day Kimberley does not reflect that wealthy history. It’s the provincial capital of the Northern Cape – the province with the lowest population but highest social pathologies and crime. There is chronic poverty and major sewerage, water and sanitation issues.

Gewald’s draft ideas for the book include chapters on geology and geography, wood and water, food and fodder, muscles and miners, and wealth and waste.

Among the issues he will consider is how the diamonds came to be there (“they formed about 3.5 billion years ago and 90 million years ago came to the surface via volcanic pipes”); the effects on the environment (“as the mines went deeper steam engines were needed to pump water – these consumed three wagonloads of wood per day affecting trees all the way to Botswana, Knysna and the Cederberg”); how the humans and animals were fed (“within months there were 50 000 people and between 1870 and 1900, at any time, 12 000 ox wagons were travelling to and from Kimberley each with spans of 8 to 36 oxen – where did they come from, how were they fed?”); the birth of the migrant labour system (“which continues to plague South Africa resulting in Marikana and the HIV/AIDS epidemic affecting 20.4% of the population”); and, the current consequences of the mostly illegal re-digging of mine dumps and reopening of exploration in the province by De Beers.

Walking through history

He pointed to the challenges in writing about non-humans without Anthropocentricism, of writing a history of inanimate things, and of writing history that takes into account symbiotic relationships.

“The methodology is a work in progress. I’m walking the terrain, going with miners to pick up Rooikopje sediment, trying to get an appreciation of the world – the plants, geology, people,” he said. “I’m trying to get a feeling and understanding of the conditions – the cold, the tactility of the diamond gravel. You can’t walk through history and there are no real source materials so you extrapolate, make conclusions.”

Describing the hole as “a monument to human greed, “an example of what humans can do” and “an example of the Anthropocene before it became global”, Gewald, however, pointed out that he believes it would be wrong to attempt to refill the hole because it’s home to animal species that did not exist there previously – including rock pigeons, jackals, feral cats and swifts.

He also noted that the devastating effect on the environment was not completely unknown at the time – journal articles were published around 1903 describing changes to the microenvironment.

“The history of South Africa has been about exploiting people, flora and fauna, and the earth,” he said. “I’m looking at the effect on life in one place then and now, and predicting into the future.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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