BOOK REVIEW / Crystalline romance, or just a form of carbon?: The Last Empire - Stefan Kanfer: Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 19.99

Related Topics
THERE must have been a time when everybody knew a De Beers story. My grandfather has often told one about a boyhood friend who was famous in the diamond business as the only man who did De Beers down over a trade. The name was surrounded by such mystique that even without knowing anything about De Beers, this sounded like a formidable achievement.

The Last Empire - De Beers, Diamonds and the World is peopled by scores of unlikely minor characters such as Henri Lemoine, the glorious hoaxer who fooled De Beers into believing he could make artificial diamonds long before it was possible, or William Lindsay Pearson, the Australian adventurer who was paid the dollars 56,000 reward for retrieving the Oppenheimers' stolen jewels although he was suspected of stealing them in the first place. There is the amazing, eccentric John T Williamson, owner of a mine in Tanzania, whose trained Maribou storks walked eerily alongside Harry Oppenheimer and his assistant when they came to buy him out. The most extravagant of all is Barney Barnato, one of the original Randlords and a ham actor of unbounded energy who came to a Maxwellian end.

And then there are the major characters. Cecil Rhodes, 'the Colossus', appears formidable and despicable at the same time. Stefan Kanfer's verdict on Africa's eminent Victorians is that they exhibited 'high intelligence, retarded sexuality, unstable temper and most important, an attachment to subtropical lands far from home'. We are left to marvel at what an explosive mixture this was.

The anecdotes are sorted as carefully as a De Beers man would his gems. Kanfer's research has taken him back to the chance events that began the diamond rush. The history of the company, which unfolds through the lives of Ernest and Harry Oppenheimer, is also the history of South Africa itself, with De Beers swinging from being the arrogant persecutor of the Boers to the liberal critic of apartheid, until its story becomes entangled - thankfully only right at the end - in the shell companies and disclosure requirements of modern international finance.

The informative chatter of the book hardly ever flags, and when it does it is because Kanfer has been seduced by one too many of these gleaming anecdotes which he has unearthed from mounds of documents.

The details of how the business developed are there, with the crucial financial battle between Rhodes and Barnato meticulously detailed, but the focus remains on the characters. The most memorable moment of all comes when Rhodes tipped the carefully classified diamonds he was selling to his rival into a bucket to buy himself enough time to clinch his deal.

The author acknowledges the help he has received from the company itself and from Harry and Nicholas Oppenheimer. He offers a sympathetic, though not uncritical, portrait of the family and, in the last resort, of De Beers, too. An insipid quip by one of the directors precedes an account of the inhuman conditions of black workers in the mines in the Sixties, just at the time when the empire was booming and Harry was accumulating 'oils done by the better French Impressionists'.

De Beers never let a principle get in the way of business, and found that black African countries and even the Soviet Union could be brought round to dealing with them. The Oppenheimers' arguments to the South African government over improving the lot of the blacks appealed not to altruism but to enlightened self-interest, and a hard-bitten form of it at that. But in South Africa even that made them dangerously progressive.

It is curious that the sale of what amounts to no more than a dream - inflated by ineradicable slogans such as 'A Diamond is Forever' - could have been kept alive so long by such a pragmatic organisation. At the beginning of the story a digger is quoted saying, 'A diamond stood rather for crystallized romance than for a form of carbon worth so much per carat.'

For the sake of this dream, thousands like him were prepared to put up with the sordid camps round the first mines. This book provides a fascinating account of the many forms that this mystical allure has taken. An allure of which the De Beers, with 90 per cent of the world's diamonds, are still the proprietor.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The victory of the NO campaign was confirmed at 6.08am on Friday morning  

Scottish referendum: Partisan fallout, Gordon Brown's comeback and Elizabeth, the Queen of unity

Jane Merrick
The central concept of Death Row Dinners is an interesting way  to make us think more about our food  

Out there: A death row diner, the other musicians taking a leaf out of U2's (i)book and rolling up my CV for a smoking hot job opportunity

Simmy Richman
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam