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Britain’s controversial global diamond history in its colonies

The United Kingdom is a country known in the world to be enamoured with jewellery ā€“ but diamonds are not naturally found on the British Isles.

Britain’s crust is too young for diamonds to form. Still, they are in high demand.

Cardiff Diamonds, a jeweller, is the main sponsor of Miss Wales 2020, a beauty contest that will take place next month. Ever since diamonds were discovered, they have been a symbol of beauty and elegance, especially in Britain. But Britain’s earth does not naturally produce any diamonds. How did they make their way to the British Isles?

ā€œIā€™m afraid in Britain there is not much of a point looking for diamonds. Same in Germany or France. The crust is simply too young,ā€ says Wolfgang Maier, Professor in Earth Science at Cardiff University.

Britons led the greatest diamond rush in history in South Africa

The world was not really fond of diamonds until 1867 when a young boy named Erasmus Stephanus Jacobs discovered a large diamond named the ‘Eureka Diamond’ in South Africa. This completely transformed the diamond industry: It led to the greatest diamond rush in history, with tens of thousands of foreigners from Europe, mainly British, looking for diamonds. 

If you look for diamonds in Europe, you will face tough luck. Apart from Finland and Russia, there is a near zero possibility of you being as lucky as Erasmus:

It comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with British history that half of the top 22 diamond producing countries used to be British colonies. Out of the 22, Russia is the only country that was never colonised by any European – or in the case of Liberia: American – foreigners.

In 1868, another important discovery was made in South Africa: gold. This led to the foundation of the city known as Johannesburg.

“Johannesburg would not have grown in the way it did without gold – or even perhaps been founded,” says William Beinart, Professor of Race Relations at University of Oxford’s St Antony’s College.

The discoveries were much to the dismay of the Boer republics known as the Orange Free States. Britain annexed them and formed the territory now known as South Africa, which expanded the British empire. In 1910, the British named the annexed territory Cape Colony.

The man who built that British empire in South Africa was Cecil John Rhodes. He was Prime Minister of Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896.

“In South Africa he is viewed as an extremely negative person. The locals consider him to be a genocidal agent of imperialism,” says Maier.

Rhodes founded a mining company known as De Beers. One of its associates, Ernest Oppenheimer, founded his own company named Anglo American Corporation in 1917. It exists to this day under the name Anglo American and in 2019 reported a profit of $6.72 billion. 

Gold was discovered in what would later be known as Johannesburg, about 25 miles away from Serengeti.

For around 80 years, Anglo American was a South African company: “At the end of apartheid, the first thing the company did was to relocate,” says Maier. The company successfully argued with the South African government that in order to be internationally competitive, Anglo American needs to have access to funding. Since then, it is headquartered in London.

What about future prospects? Diamonds are as sought after as ever. “Rich people will always want things like this,” says Maier. When you wear your diamonds, you at least now know where they came from.