When Fact Meets Fiction: The Significance of Diamonds in Late Nineteenth Century Southern Africa
Works of fiction can provide an alternative route into history, particularly when a novel is embedded in specific historical and personal contexts. This is the case for Henry Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, which was published in 1885. Haggard pioneered the sun-drenched prose of empire, as both his personal experiences and knowledge of recent developments in southern African diamond mining provided him with literary inspiration.
Diamonds were first discovered on the banks of the Orange River – in the Northern Cape of modern-day South Africa – by the 15-year-old Erasmus Jacobs. Whilst on his father’s farm in late 1866, the young man noticed a transparent rock in the ground. Jacobs had little idea of how big an impact his discovery of the ‘Eureka Diamond’ would have…
Following the ‘Kimberley diamond strike’ of 1868, where diamond deposits were found in vast quantities, the first few years of South African diamond mining yielded more diamond treasure than India had amassed in the previous two millenniums. By the 1880s, southern African diamond production accounted for over 95% of the global trade, and it was this boom in diamond mining that meant the dream of diamond riches became a reality for some.
One man who struck it lucky within the new diamond mining industry was the young Cecil John Rhodes. Rhodes was sent to South Africa by his parents in 1870 – aged just seventeen – as they believed the climate would be good for his slightly poor health. In 1871, Rhodes entered the Kimberley diamond trade with an initial investment of £3,000, which is equal to approximately £350,000 today.
Although this seems like a large initial investment, it certainly paid off. By the time of Rhodes’ death in 1902, his De Beers Consolidated Mines Company controlled over 90% of global diamond production. Rhodes’ success in mining was so great that his British South Africa Company, founded in 1889, was able to take over large parts of southern Africa to establish new sites to dig on. He even had countries bearing his name – Rhodesia – which is now modern-day Zimbabwe.
The rise of Rhodes’ diamond empire coincided with Haggard’s time in South Africa, where he worked in the imperial administration from 1876. Because of his position within the empire, Haggard was extremely aware of the significance of diamonds in the area, as well as the riches they could bring – and did – for certain prospectors, such as Cecil Rhodes. It was personal experiences like these which allowed Haggard to weave facts into his fiction.
Ultimately, it was diamond mining in South Africa which made King Solomon’s Mines possible, as the story is rooted in Haggard’s knowledge of diamond mining and his experiences of visiting the mines. The prospect of diamond riches meant that those back in Britain came to view southern Africa as a source of treasure and riches, and this is a sentiment which Haggard exploited in his fiction.
Diamonds are at the heart of King Solomon’s Mines, as this treasure is the central feature of the three main adventurers’ quest. Allan Quartermain, Sir Henry Curtis and Captain John Good embark on a mission to unearth the treasure that awaits in the biblical mines of King Solomon, right in the heart of unexplored central Africa. One of the motives of this adventure is to search for the lost brother of Curtis, but for Quartermain – who is drafted into the expedition by Curtis for his hunting abilities – the main prize is the diamond treasures.
In order to make this discovery, the explorers must traverse the wild African landscape by following a mysterious map they have acquired. When turned upside-down, the map Quartermain possesses looks like a crude outline of the female body. Quartermain, Curtis and Good must traverse the body of Sheba, climb over her ‘breasts’ – two mountains – before their descent and push towards the final goal of the ‘treasure cave’. It is here, in Sheba’s treasure cave, where the adventurers will find their diamond riches.
However, in works of historical fiction, the choice of which facts to include or not is left at the author’s discretion. In King Solomon’s Mines, Haggard does not mention the notorious method of labour control – the ‘compound system’ – which Cecil Rhodes’ de Beers company used, where workers lived in on-site squalor away from their families and villages. Haggard offers no explanation of how diamonds were procured, meaning the reader does not see the historically cruel side of South African diamond mining. From this, we can see that historical fiction does not always tell the full story.
For Henry Rider Haggard, a specific historical context in which he could set King Solomon’s Mines was crucial. The prospect of diamond riches, which became a reality for men like Cecil Rhodes, provided the motive for the three fictional explorers’ adventure. Without the discovery of diamonds and the subsequent expansion of mining from the 1870s onwards, Haggard’s literary masterpiece could not have come to fruition.
By Miles Clayton
Miles is our resident blogger here at History Indoors. He is an a Final Year student studying Modern History at the University of Essex and researches the positive experiences of British children on the Home Front during the Second World War, with oral histories sitting at the heart of the research. If there are any questions you have on this topic that you would like to see answered, please post them in the comments section below and we will be happy to answer them!