Long before Sir Richard Southey arrived on the diamond fields in 1873, white diggers had established a tradition of airing their grievances in a loud and boisterous manner that sometimes culminated in violence and riot. Since the early days, they had formed ‘diggers’ committees’ to regulate their own affairs, relishing the freedom from state authority and taxation. The idea of ‘diggers democracy’, as it was known, was firmly entrenched. Members of diggers’ committees were popularly elected and quick to defend the interests of their community. In clashes with landowners, diggers insisted that, on payment of an appropriate licence fee, they had the right to mine wherever diamonds and precious metals were found and had got their way. They had also placed a limit on claim-holders obtaining more than two claims each in order to protect small diggers and prevent mining from passing into the hands of large companies. Above all, they were determined to restrict the activities of blacks on the diamond fields: they wanted black labour but feared that black competition would undermine them. ‘The difference between the general wants, character and position of the two races utterly forbid it.’ Diggers’ rights were thus confined to whites only.

Although Southey was given a warm welcome on his arrival in Kimberley, he was soon at loggerheads with the diggers. An autocrat, he set out to impose his own authority on the mining community and curb the independence of the diggers. A new constitution for Griqualand West in 1873 provided for an eight-member Legislative Council with four members elected, but left Southey with a casting vote and the right to veto legislation. Diggers’ committees rejected the constitution but decided to participate in elections in November 1873 and put forward ‘People’s Candidates’, hoping to wreck the work of the Legislative Council. But their candidates failed to win either of the two Kimberley seats. Though defeated at the polls, the diggers’ committees continued to agitate for greater control, demanding that their remit should be extended from mining to municipal affairs.

Alarmed by the sheer belligerence of the diggers, the colonial secretary in Griqualand, John Blades Currey, feared that ‘given sufficient encouragement they would take sole charge and constitute themselves a Republican government’. Currey’s solution was to issue an ordinance setting up new mining boards with limited powers strictly confined to mining affairs. This, he recalled, was ‘the best means of compassing my object of curbing or getting rid of the Diggers’ Committees’. The diggers were given representation on the mining boards but felt aggrieved by their diminished status.

Another source of dissension was over the role of Africans on the diamond fields. While Southey agreed that the mines should remain in the hands of small independent diggers, favouring their interests over the demands of landowners and large companies, he was adamant that blacks and Coloureds should be given equal opportunity with white diggers as claim-owners and permitted to buy and sell claims for themselves on the same basis. ‘As until recently nearly all the land in the Province belonged to persons of Colour,’ he said, ‘there is great injustice in attempting to deprive them.’

But white diggers were fiercely opposed to such notions. ‘Ruin, financial ruin for the whites, moral ruin for the natives, these are the results of the attempt to elevate in one day the servant to an equality with his master,’ thundered the Diamond Field newspaper in November 1874. ‘Class legislation, restrictive laws and the holding in check of the native races till by education they are fit to be our equals, is the only policy that finds favour here.’

This contest between white and black on the diamond fields, coming at the start of southern Africa’s industrial revolution, was to have lasting repercussions.

The diamond boom attracted a steady flow of black migrants from across southern Africa. Many travelled for weeks on foot to get to the diamond fields, arriving exhausted and emaciated. The largest number came from Pediland in the Transvaal region 500 miles away, encouraged by the Pedi paramount chief, Sekhukhune, to earn money for the purchase of guns. Tsonga migrants (‘Shangaan’) walked from Gaza territory north of the Limpopo nearly 1,000 miles away. Zulus arrived from Natal and ‘Moshoeshoe’s people’ from Basutoland. In all, the mines drew more than 50,000 Africans each year in the early 1870s.

Most stayed for periods of between three and six months, working as labourers for white diggers or finding other work in the camps. They earned usually about 10 shillings a week and a further 10 shillings in the form of food, leaving for home once they had saved enough cash to buy cattle or a plough or a gun. An old muzzle-loading Enfield discarded by the British army could be bought for £3; a breach-loading Snider cost £12. Between April 1873 and June 1874, some 75,000 guns were sold in Kimberley. Gun sales provided a striking spectacle. ‘At knock off time,’ wrote one pioneer digger, ‘our Kaffirs used to pass down streets of tented shops owned by white traders and presided over by yelling black salesmen whirling guns above their heads. These they discharged in the air crying: “Reka, reka, mona mtskeka” [Buy, buy, a gun]. A deafening din. A sight never to be forgotten.’

White diggers commonly complained about black labour, resorting frequently to abuse and violence. Black labour, the Diamond News argued in 1872, was both ‘the most expensive in the world’ and ‘the most unmanageable’. With 5,000 independent diggers competing for their service, black labourers were able to move from one claim to the next in search of higher pay or a better employer. Without labour, diggers faced ruin. Time and again, they railed against their employees’ tendency to ‘desert’, usually linking it to diamond theft, and demanded greater methods of control.

The problem of diamond theft became ever more prevalent from 1872. It was, wrote Dr Matthews, ‘the curse of the Fields’. Large quantities of stolen diamonds were smuggled out of camps for sale in coastal towns or in foreign markets. Whites and blacks alike were involved in the trade. Diamonds were commonly stolen from claims or depositing grounds by black workers and sold on to white fences - illicit diamond buyers, as they were termed - operating from the myriad sleazy canteens and bars around Kimberley. Some bars - like The Red Light - became notorious as clearing houses.

Rough justice was meted out to both whites and blacks accused or suspected of involvement. In dealing with whites, the routine usually adopted was for a group of vigilante miners to confront their culprit before setting fire to his tent, shop or canteen, destroying all his property and then expelling him. In dealing with blacks, the usual punishment was flogging.

Added to diggers’ anger over diamond theft was resentment at the way that some blacks and Coloureds from the Cape had managed to establish themselves as claim-holders, or share-workers managing claims in return for a percentage of profits. They were congregated mainly at Bultfontein, otherwise known as the ‘poor man’s diggings’. White diggers maintained that black diggers possessing the right to sell diamonds acted as conduits for the illegal traffic in the gems.

In March 1872, Kimberley’s white residents demanded sweeping new laws enabling them to control and regulate black and Coloured workers. They wanted employees to be held to written contracts registered with a government official; to be subjected to searches at any time; and to be restricted by a night-time curfew. They also wanted a ban preventing blacks and Coloureds from holding a digging licence unless supported by fifty white claim-holders. In the following months, they resorted increasingly to sporadic violent protest, burning the tents of black claim-holders and attempting to lynch blacks suspected of stealing diamonds.

British officials, with few police at their disposal, struggled to impose their authority. In July 1872, a white digger who flogged two of his black workers, accusing them of diamond theft, then left them naked and bound in the open air on a winter’s night, causing the death of one of them, was brought before the magistrate’s court. He was found guilty by the jury only of common assault, committed, it was said, under ‘great provocation’. The shock for Kimberley’s residents was that the magistrate sentenced him to six months’ hard labour without the option of a fine. Hitherto, crimes of violence against blacks had rarely been punished and even then sentences had been limited to small fines. The Diamond Field newspaper argued that the sentence had ‘done more to defeat the ends of justice than uphold the dignity of the law’.

However, faced with increasing disorder, British officials capitulated to most of the diggers’ demands. Using the terminology of ‘masters’ and ‘servants’, Proclamation 14 of August 1872 laid down a new regime for labour contracts, linking it to a system of pass laws that became the main device for controlling black labour throughout southern Africa for decades to come. On arrival in Kimberley, black migrants - ‘servants’ - were required to register at a depot and obtain a daily pass until they had secured employment. The labour contract they were given showed the name of the servant, his wages, his period of service and the name of his master. Once employed, the servant was required to carry a pass signed by his master. ‘Any person who shall be found wandering or loitering about within the precincts of any camp - without a pass . . . and without being able to give a good and satisfactory account of himself’ was liable to a £5 fine or imprisonment for up to three months or flogging. Masters were entitled to search the person, residence or property of their servants at any time without a warrant. In theory, the law was colour-blind, applying equally to all servants or employees. In practice it applied only to blacks.

Not all blacks, however, were subject to the pass system. Colonial officials saw fit to distinguish between civilised and uncivilised blacks:

There are many natives, half-castes, and others from the Colony, who are honest, intelligent and respectable men and these must of course be treated in every way similar to the whites, but the great mass of the labouring coloured population consists of raw Kaffirs, who come from the interior with every element of barbarism, and no touch of civilisation among them; in fact they must be treated as children incapable of governing themselves.

Thus, blacks who were their own masters, holding claims or cart licences, or engaged as independent traders, were granted ‘protection passes’ proving their exemption from pass laws - a pass to avoid a pass.

Despite these concessions, the diggers remained in a truculent mood, complaining of high tax impositions and continuing black disorder. They were further aggrieved by the demise of diggers’ committees ordered by Southey’s administration and their consequent lack of influence. Adding to this mix of grievances was dissension over rent increases in Kimberley demanded by private companies that owned the land on which the mines were located.

In August 1874, 500 whites gathered in Market Square to elect members to a Committee of Public Safety, a name chosen to signify revolutionary intent. Southey was left in no doubt that its members saw themselves as constituting potentially an alternative government. The Committee purchased editorial control of the Diamond Field and appointed as editor Alfred Aylward, a bearded Irish republican previously connected to the Fenian movement. A man of many talents, fluent in Dutch, he had worked as a medical orderly in Dutoitspan before becoming a digger. In 1872, he bought five claims in De Beer’s mine, employed 75 labourers and became chairman of De Beer’s diggers’ committee, but he lost his claims and his position after being convicted of assault in November 1872 and sentenced to 18 months hard labour. Released in December 1873, he became a share-worker first in De Beer’s then in Kimberley mine.

Aylward pursued his republican agenda relentlessly. In October 1874, he travelled to Bloemfontein for an audience with President Brand and five members of the Volksraad, exploring the possibility of linking Griqualand to the Orange Free State where the standard treatment of blacks was more to the diggers’ liking. Brand told him he approved of the work of the Committee of Public Safety and, on his return to Kimberley, Aylward used this endorsement to support his campaign for a republican government. Aylward’s enthusiasm for the republican cause, however, caused a rift with other members of the Committee who wanted reform rather than revolution. He consequently threw his energies instead into forming a Defence League and Protection Association which pledged not to pay taxes.

The issue that ignited this combustible cocktail of grievances and dissent was rent increases. In February 1875, after a prolonged dispute, the courts ruled that the owners of Vooruitzigt farm, a syndicate of Port Elizabeth merchants, were entitled to raise rents as they pleased. At a mass meeting of 800 people in Kimberley Hall on 3 March, Aylward urged diggers to take up arms. ‘If I erect the English ensign with a black flag under it,’ he declared, ‘I expect to see you with your rifles and your revolvers . . . [ready] in the name of heaven and your country, to protect yourselves from injustice.’

Ten days later, a variety of dissident groups joined forces to form a Diggers’ Protection Association, a paramilitary organisation consisting of seven armed companies, five at Kimberley and a burgher guard at Dutoitspan and De Beer’s. At the head of the Protection Association was a krygsraador war council. Its members included ‘Captain’ Alfred Aylward, given command of one of the infantry companies; ‘Captain’ Henry Tucker, a former member of the Cape parliament, claim-holder and storekeeper; ‘Captain’ William Ling, a prominent claim-holder heavily in debt; and Conrad von Schlickmann, a former Prussian officer, given charge of the ‘German company’. A manifesto signed by Tucker and Ling declared that as ‘the rights, property and liberty of the diggers’ were threatened by a large number of Africans who were ‘not gaining their living by honest labour’, nor subject to adequate police control, the Association’s members would henceforth be responsible for the security of Europeans on the diamond fields. With some 800 men under arms, rebel militias took to drilling openly in Market Square and on the cricket ground. Witnessing these events, Louis Cohen recorded: ‘Sometimes, when ordered to “right about face”, they would, in a menacing and derisive manner, point their rifles at the Government Offices.’

Southey issued a proclamation warning all and sundry against ‘taking illegal oaths or assembling in arms’ and gave orders to protect public buildings with sandbags. But he had only a minuscule police force - nine officers, twenty-four white constables and a variable number of black auxiliaries - on whom to depend. Despite his precarious position, he decided to act.

In April, William Cowie, a dissident hotel keeper, was charged with supplying guns to Alfred Aylward without a permit. On the day of Cowie’s trial, demonstrators gathered at the courthouse to demand his release. Showing considerable courage, the magistrate convicted Cowie, fined him £50 and denied him bail pending confirmation of his verdict.

No sooner had the verdict been announced than Aylward rode off to Kimberley mine to raise the black flag of revolt. On the way, he passed Louis Cohen who recorded the incident in characteristically flamboyant prose:

I shall never forget on this memorable revolutionary occasion being in the Main Street, when suddenly I saw a man of Satanic bearing come galloping down it, waving a black flag in one hand and shouting valorously as if he were leading a heroic charge of cavalry. By his side a huge General Boom sabre dangled . . . This burlesque of Murat was a fair-sized man with luxuriant black curly hair and beard and moustache, which brought into prominence his thick sensual red lips and bright, though dissipated, bloodshot eyes. The Rouge et Noir on horseback was none other than the redoubtable Irish Fenian, Alfred Aylward . . .

That afternoon, one of Aylward’s colleagues hoisted the black flag on a whim on a debris mound known as Mount Ararat, the signal for rebellion. Some 300 armed men rushed to the magistrate’s court where a handful of constables, with drawn revolvers, managed to hold them in check.

Under police escort, Cowie was taken from the courthouse and marched 250 yards to the prison. But the prison entrance was by now blocked by a group of 150 armed men. Police reinforcements arrived. In the tense stand-off that followed, with a crowd of several thousand milling about outside the prison, rebel leaders and colonial officials negotiated a compromise. Cowie was released after Tucker signed a cheque for £50 that was to be cashed only if the sentence was confirmed.

The following day, Southey declared ‘certain evil disposed persons’ were in rebellion, requested British troops to be sent from the Cape Colony, and called for volunteers to enrol as special constables to protect government property. One of those who came forward was Cecil Rhodes. For ten weeks, while an expeditionary force was assembled in the Cape, rebel leaders ruled the streets of the mining camps but dithered over whether to overthrow the government by force of arms. When British redcoats finally arrived in Kimberley on 30 June 1875, after a journey of 700 miles, they met no resistance. Louis Cohen witnessed their arrival:

I well remember seeing the men march up Du Toit’s Pan Road, tired and dusty, straining their eyes for the sight of the diamonds they expected no doubt to see in heaps. They were led right into the heart of town . . .The next morning five of the loud-voiced rebels were arrested, an operation effected on them as easily as if they were goats. A bleat or two, and all was over.

With government authority restored, seven rebel leaders were put on trial. Three of them - Aylward, Ling and Schlickmann - faced charges of sedition, conspiracy and riot. After three days of hearing evidence, a local jury took twenty-three minutes to return a verdict of not guilty. The other four accused were also acquitted.

Southey, however, fared less well. His handling of the crisis was severely criticised. Military intervention had cost the imperial government in London £20,000. In a despatch to Lord Carnarvon, the colonial secretary in London, Sir Henry Barkly, the Cape governor, made it clear that he did not consider morality and justice to be worth such a high price. In August, Southey was relieved of his post.

The ‘Black Flag Revolt’, as it was called, marked a significant watershed. It represented a clear victory for white interests above all others. But it also led to the demise of the era of independent diggers and the consequent rise of Kimberley’s diamond magnates.

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