02 February 2009

Humans in Nature: The Big Hole

By Carrie Lofty

Until 2005, when scholars proved that the abandoned Jagersfontein mine was actually about 110 feet deeper, the Big Hole in Kimberely, South Africa was the largest pit ever dug by hand. The open-pit mine, established in 1871, attracted as many as 50,000 small time miners from all over the world until conglomerates founded by men such as Cecil Rhodes began to buy up shares and consolidate claims. By the time it closed in 1914, the Big Hole had yielded three tons of raw diamonds (2,720 kilos), and every single one of those diamonds was extracted using pick-axes, shovels and bare hands.

As with any discovery of rich natural resources, international players wanted a piece of the action. Major contenders for the African colonial land grab, including Britain, Germany, Portugal, and the Netherlands, became obsessed with what some called "the Diamond Crusade." Using a loophole in an existing treaty with the Griqua tribe, the British were able to repartition boundaries between Cape Colony and the Orange Free State in a move that made Kimberely's diamond-rich land property of the Queen. But the diamonds belonged to those who could best get at them.

As the hole got wider and deeper, miners were at risk of side collapses due to poor scaffolding or rain storms. No longer able to simply stroll to their claim and start digging, the miners and their supplies were lowered into the pit by a series of pulleys and cables. The deeper they got, the more costly to continue mining, which precipitated the push toward consolidation and mechanization.

Cecil Rhodes envisioned an African continent made British, with its populace taught to appreciate British values and customs. He also imagined a railroad that would stretch from Cape Town to Cairo, and his obsession needed funds. He eventually consolidated so many mining claims that he was able to buy out his chief rival, Barney Bernato, for more than five million pounds--the largest sum ever paid by check at that time. This created the De Beers monopoly which still hold tremendous sway over the diamond industry today.

By the time the mine closed in 1914, it had grown to 1500 feet wide (460 meters) and almost 500 feet deep. Upon seeing the mine for the first time, Winston Churchill said, "All for the vanity of women!" To which a woman in the crowd replied, "And the depravity of men!"

Water and debris now partially fill the mine, which has become known throughout the world by its designation as a World Heritage Site. You can read more about the tourist town that has since sprung up around the Big Hole on its website.