Simanaitis Says

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SOMETIMES A BOOK REVIEW might reveal overly much. Like that kid’s comment, “This book tells me more about whales than I wanted to know.” This doesn’t disparage the writing, either of the book or its review. It may simply be the topic. Nevertheless, superlative writing in London Review of Books encouraged me to glean these tidbits about diamonds.

This came after my reading “Not Particularly Rare,” by Rosa Lyster in London Review of Books, May 26, 2022. Lyster reviews two books, Adrienne Munich’s Empire of Diamonds and Tijl Vanneste’s Blood, Sweat and Earth.  

Above, Empire of Diamonds: Victorian Gems in Imperial Settings, by Adrienne Munich, Virginia, 2020. Below, Blood, Sweat and Earth: The Struggle for Control over the World’s Diamonds, by Tijo Vanneste, Reaktion, 2021

Both books recount the tale of diamonds inherently involving colonialism and subjugation of one race by another, a grim tale indeed. But, as reviewer Lyster notes, “There is all kinds of material here to divert our attention. Take the reports, cited by Adrienne Munich in Empire of Diamonds, of diamonds being discovered in the walls of the old huts built with river mud that were dotted around Vooruitzict, the barren farm owned by two devoutly Christian brothers, Johannes and Diederik de Beer.” 

Cecil Rhodes. Chairman of the evolving De Beers Consolidated endeavor was Cecil Rhodes, who went to South Africa as a teenager in 1870.  Lyster describes, “When Rhodes arrived in New Rush—the name was eventually changed to Kimberley in honour of a colonial secretary who couldn’t pronounce ‘Vooruitzict’—Black miners were still allowed to hold digging licences, and were free to come and go as they wished. Not for long. By 1872, native ownership claims had been outlawed and, with the pass laws, Black labourers had to carry identity documents detailing the terms of their contracts, to be produced for whichever white person demanded to see them.”

Cecil John Rhodes, 1853–1902, British mining magnate and Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896. Portrait, c. 1900.

I recall Cecil Rhodes in a related context when he told a subaltern, “Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.”

John Ruskin. Putting this in perspective, Lyster quotes John Ruskin, Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford: Ruskin said it was England’s duty to “found colonies as fast and as far as she is able, formed of her most energetic and worthiest men; seizing every piece of fruitful waste ground she can set her foot on.”


John Ruskin, 1819–1900, English writer, philosopher, art critic, and Victorian polymath. Portrait, 1863.

On a perhaps less jingoistic note, Ruskin also wrote, “The art of any country is the exponent of its social and political virtues.” 

On “Rarity.” Lyster describes the establishment of De Beers Consolidated in 1888: “De Beers took full control of the distribution channels, setting prices and constraining supply to ensure that diamonds remained aspirationally expensive even as the astonishing output of the South African mines showed that they were not particularly rare. It would be a perfect story for explaining the concept of monopoly to a child.”

Other Diamonds Gleaned. “Children,” Lyster says, “might also like the one about the Premier Mine, initially owned by competitors of De Beers. The Premier Mine is where the Cullinan Diamond was discovered: a spectacular stone the size of a packet of rolling tobacco, pulled out of the clay and presented to Edward VII, who made it the star of the Crown Jewels.”

This YouTube from The Telegraph describes the Cullinan. For more details, see also History Calling.

Lyster continues, “Premier, ultimately taken over by De Beers, has yielded more celebrity diamonds than any other mine in the world: the Taylor-Burton Diamond, blinking out at Princess Grace of Monaco from Elizabeth Taylor’s cleavage; the Golden Jubilee, described as a topaz in Thai state media so as not to burden the country with the knowledge that the king was buying diamonds the size of ping-pong balls during a financial crisis….”

Facets such as these make London Review of Books such entertaining reading, even when telling me more about something than I thought I wanted to know. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022

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