1873 the "respectable female element" had increased in
the diamond fields, as more wives arrived, accompanied sometimes
by daughters. Julius appreciated their civilizing effect, and on
New Year's Eve even consented to go to a ball, where his Nierstein
champagne "flowed like rivers". Still, however, preferring
to stay at home in the evenings, he wrote to his parents for a supply
of books; not novels, but biographies, travel books and histories
of art. He particularly wanted a work on Michelangelo, Mommsen's
History of Rome and Macaulay's Essays. He also needed
from that period afterwards described him as a born diplomat, calm
personified, thoughtful, slow and determined, never in a hurry,
never suffering from 'nerves', strong in mind and body, keeping
to himself. A fellow diamond dealer was to write :
was known to be a very just man, upright and strictly honourable
in all his dealings, incapable of doing anything, shady. In
a time when fortunes were easily made, by all sorts of means,
and temptations to be crooked very great, it was rare to come
across a character like Wernher's. A curious feature about him
was that whilst he was slow to act in business affairs, when
otherwise occupied he raced. He never rode to the mines, or
about the camp, except at a good hard gallop, and in the ballroom
he flew across like a heavy dragoon in a charge.
Julius complained that the women he had to dance with were too small
or fat, and since he was usually described as burly or massive,
we may assume his performance on the floor must have been quite
his competitors in business were the smaller peripatetic dealers,
or kopje wallopers, shady operators and scamps many of them, and
some rising to enormous wealth, such as the incomparable Barnett
Isaacs, from the East End of London, better known as Barney Barnato.
Rivalries lay ahead with Barnato, a long way in the future, but
even he would have acknowledged that Julius Wernher was that rare
combination, a man of unlimited ambition who was also a man of principle.
Other potentially colourful but less controversial dealers of the
period such as David Harris, Francis Oats and Sigismund Neumann
were to become friends or colleagues.
was said that Julius was "not luxurious but liked his comforts",
and that he used to "indulge in a great deal of sarcasm, which
although humorous was at times very stinging". He especially
liked to "chaff" about the Boers and loved to tease his
Dutch friend Martin van Beek, who later lived with him, about speaking
the local dialect, the Taal, For all that, there is not much intentional
humour in his letters, which often seem to have a self-congratulatory
tone -though this would have been deliberate, in order to reassure
his parents, worrying about his future in a time of financial crisis
occasions he felt obliged to apologize to his mother for sending
her his Jewish friends from the diamond fields, and would emphasize
their special qualities. He himself appeared to have completely
lost whatever anti-semitic feelings he might once have had. As for
the blacks, they still "greatly intrigued" him, though
there were some "serious problems". In October 1874 he
was writing once more about "this strong though lazy people",
and continued: "As slavery exists no longer one cannot force
them, and there is little to be done with money either. It will
take a lifetime before these savage forces can be properly channeled.
People are thinking seriously of importing Malays and Indians, of
whom there are any amount in town." But the greatest 'problem,
of all was IDB (Illicit Diamond Buying), mainly by the kopje wallopers
and to a large extent blamed on pilfering by blacks.
claims in mines were owned by blacks, and this was resented by white
diggers. Julius did not necessarily share such a prejudice but was
convinced that the days of small owners were doomed, as the increasing
depth of the mines and the frequent caving in of the reef made the
working of their holdings unprofitable. Many of the deeper claims
were under water in winter, and little combination existed between
the various owners. In any case numbers of claims were mortgaged
and coming on the market.
had to be "very very careful", he said, about lending
money. There were some reckless speculators around. "It is
dreadful how much swindling there is here, particularly in dens
for billiards or roulette run by Americans and Irish." Fortunately,
he added, there were still decent people about, and "matters
are not anything like as bad as they were and still are in the Californian
he was speaking from the heart. Some years later he revealed that
he had had a bitter experience in 1873. "An acquaintance from
the war, a German, betrayed me to the tune of £400, the savings
of my first year. I had lent him the money so that he could establish
himself, but he absconded.
all that, it is clear that Mège and Julius took advantage
of buying up claims at bargain prices. Throughout his business life
Julius stuck to the maxim that one should buy when prices are at
wrote again about the importance of purity in diamonds. Mège,
for instance, had paid £1,600 for a 38-carat stone that Julius by
a lucky chance had found at Waldeck's Plant. They had thought it
would cut to 16 carats, but one dealer in London reckoned that it
would only make 12 1/2, which would have meant a loss. As it happened,
it cut to 18, so there was a "pleasing profit". On the
other hand a friend had bought a stone for £900, and when it was
cut the highest offer was only £256. "Our enemy remains the
London market which last year broke the neck of many a fellow."
admitted that he was longing for the day when Mège would
return to Europe. Not that they ever had the slightest quarrel.
Mège was well educated and had good manners, but he was a
"heartless egoist", rather too keen on the ladies. Julius
obviously on occasion had to stifle irritations, especially in the
heat of February. He had been annoyed by Mège's selfish attitude
during some torrential rains when the roof of their bathroom fell
in. Apart from this, he was in suspense about his own future, being
aware that a great deal of private correspondence on the matter
was going on with Porgès.
need not have worried. Both Mège and Porgès
thought so highly of him that he was given a year's contract as
manager with 25 per cent participation in the profits, all expenses
paid. He was allowed to do business on his own account, and thus
for awhile became manager for two other unconnected firms. Looking
ahead to the "joy of independence", he bought and furnished
a small house at Old De Beers, corrugated iron of course, "charming
and very comfortable, even with the luxury of a chest of drawers
and a wooden verandah".
De Beers had now become the fashionable area in the diamond fields,
especially for the British. Ladies in gigs could be seen calling
on one another, or cantering about, "exquisitely dressed".
best friend then was his neighbour August Rothschild the auctioneer,
known to all as the Baron, a "noted card", the "Beau
Brummel of Griqualand West" because of his shiny pomaded locks.
Julius described him as a "generous fellow if a bit affected
and uncultured". This Rothschild had made "pots of money"
and would soon be visiting his family in Munich, bringing with him
a present of ostrich feathers for the Wernhers.
had to announce that he had been afflicted with severe hemorrhoids,
and put this down to the sedentary life in the hot weather, stuck
in his corrugated-iron shack behind a pair of scales. It was not
possible to go for walks, the countryside being dull and sandy.
"Ninety out of a hundred people here are plagued with hemorrhoids."
Needless to say, his mother reacted at once with the greatest alarm.
slump in the diamond fields became worse after Mège's departure.
cannot see the end of it owing to this idiotic rivalry. For the
last six months diamonds have been more expensive here than in
London, but although there have been colossal losses people go
on speculating madly. New buyers keep on arriving so this condition
can last longer than it might otherwise have done. In order not
to fall into this same trap one needs the patience of an angel,
besides a great deal of caution. People who once earned thousands
of pounds are now not worth ten.
had consequently decided to suspend shipments for a while to London.
had meanwhile been discovered in the eastern Transvaal. Julius was
sceptical about prospects there, but several diggers left to try
their luck in this fresh El Dorado. The news of the find spread
quickly round the world, and prospectors were landing 'almost daily'
at the nearest port, Delagoa Bay (later Lourenço Marques),
in the Portuguese territory of Mozambique, to find themselves faced
with the long and dangerous journey across the "thankless veld".
"Many have perished from exhaustion or disease, or have been
killed by animals."
the end of 1874 Julius found his circle of acquaintances narrowing
with so many being lured away to the gold fields. Apart from Rothschild
he saw most of Anton Dunkelsbühler, popularly known as Dunkels
(which name he adopted), perhaps his chief competitor among the
dealers and agent for Mosenthal of Cape Town, and another dealer,
Levy, whose wife was a highly strung lady, fond of practical jokes.
This could have been the same Levy who was a gun and general merchant,
in trouble with some old hands for selling guns to "niggers"
-an offensive word which had recently been borrowed from America
and was sometimes adopted by Julius.
had to apologize for his letters becoming so "dreadfully boring",
but "my mind is like leather and full of business". "Money
is nothing to me now,, he added somewhat alarmingly." "But
I am not one of those who make fortunes by genius, lose them and
then win them back. I only walk well-known paths." He had almost
made up his mind to stay on in Africa for a few more 25 years, in
the hope of eventually becoming a partner in the London end of the
news predictably evoked a wail of anguish from his mother. What
about that nice German daughter-in-law she so longed for? His reply,
under the circumstances, must have seemed a little odd. "You
need have no fear of my respectability. I am as fresh and well as
I could wish, especially in the cooler weather when the days are
glorious. The work suits me down to the ground. The only disadvantage
is its everlasting sameness. I live as regularly as in a girls'
Rush and De Beers had turned into Kimberley, named after the Secretary
of State for the Colonies, and the area around Dutoitspan and Bultfontein
had been anglicized to Beaconsfield, in honour of the Prime Minister.
Discontent among the diggers had been growing ever since the arrival
of the new Lieutenant- Governor, Richard Southey, mainly on account
of his liberal attitude towards the blacks, and his failure to have
them "disciplined". The main grievances centred upon IDB,
and Southey's support for small-scale producers. In order to prevent
IDB, the white diggers wanted blacks and anyone of colour to be
banned from owning claims or dealing in diamonds. Other grievances
were connected with taxation and relations with landowners, or rather
speculators. A Diggers' Protection Association was formed, originally
a vigilante group but developing rapidly into full-scale rebellion.
Arms were collected and parades held in the market square. As a
result troops had to be summoned from Cape Town. Southey believed
that German diamond merchants were the wire-pullers behind the rebellion,
which became known as the Black Flag Revolt. The maximum number
of claims holdings had been restricted to ten, which was frustrating
indeed for those who were convinced that the mines could continue
profitably only through consolidation. Nevertheless Julius -who
to the end of his life tried to keep out of politics -had stayed
very much in the background. In the end it seemed as though the
diggers had won. He summed up the event for his parents in a bland
and short description:
ringleaders were acquitted recently by a Jury. Thereupon the Governor
and his Secretary were recalled by the 26 Government. The Governor,
as such, was hopeless, but admired in his private life. I knew
him from his better side, and was very well acquainted with his
son and often went to their house. They were always very hospitable.
His post will be taken by an Administrator, as the Province is
too small to afford a Governor. Taxes are quite enormous here.
A white population of hardly more than five thousand souls has
to supply about £70,000, and that for an Administration that does
nothing, whose activity is only noticeable in the wrong way. No
wonder the situation became heated.
West was finally annexed to Cape Colony in 1881. The Black Flag
Revolt has been regarded as one of the key events in the history
of South African labour relations, even though "persons of
colour" continued to own property in Kimberley. It marked a
hardening of racial attitudes, and the abolition of the ten-claim
limit was the beginning of the period when the mines would be controlled
by organized capital.
About this time also, Julius proposed, because of the IDB "menace"
(no longer a "problem"), that all employees should be
searched when leaving mines. The theory was that no honest man would
object to this. The suggestion was not taken up, but when put into
practice some years later caused violent protests. Although it affected
both whites and blacks, historians have pointed out that it was
symptomatic of a growing attitude that all black workers were potential
Revolt also resulted in the gradual disappearance of the shareworking
system - shareworkers being diggers who received a percentage of
profits from owners of claims. Southey's complaint about wire-pullers
had in fact chiefly been directed against the Moderate Party, which
represented the interests of the diamond merchants, and whose committee
included the formidable J. B. Robinson, now a prominent diamond
buyer, and Julius's friend Rothschild. The huge sums of interest
demanded by moneylenders from diggers, some of whom were thereby
bankrupted, had been another element behind the Revolt. Rothschild
is recorded as having £5,000 invested in loans. Presumably Julius
to some extent was similarly involved, as he had picked up claims
for himself in the Dutoitspan and De Beers mines. At any rate 1875
had been a brilliant year for him, as he told his parents, "really
too brilliant". "Not one young man out of a hundred thousand
has earned what I have earned at the age of twenty-three."
before the lifting of the ten-claims limit he had been urging Porgès
to consider purchasing a major section of the Kimberley Mine (New
Rush), as a means to secure a regular supply of diamonds. In
1875 Porgès was the largest importer of Cape diamonds in
London and had £30,000 invested in the business. Delighted with
his protege, he first tried to make him accept a three-year contract,
and then announced that he would have to come to South Africa himself.
accepted the contract if he could have some leave in Europe in 1877.
Kimberley hostesses were becoming impressed by this extraordinarily
successful and good-looking though reserved young man, and Julius
mentioned that he had accepted several invitations to balls during
the cool season. At these entertainments he could sometimes be persuaded
to sing German folk songs, which a Mrs Stonestreet thought "passably
in tune, rather a joke".
spite of business being "as bad as ever", Julius's personal
fortunes continued to increase. Indeed he admitted to having "earned
terrifically again" thanks to his growing clientele, both for
the firm and privately. There were also new political problems.
Boers very stupidly have started a war with Zulu tribes on their
frontier, and at a decisive moment distinguished themselves by
such cowardice that they would have become the laughing stock
of the whole country, if the matter had not been too serious for
jesting. Up to now the Kaffirs are victorious everywhere but are
limiting themselves to the defensive. We are only suffering insofar
as a lot of Kaffirs have had to go back to their chiefs, and there
are not enough workers about.
"war" was more in the nature of a series of skirmishes.
The Transvaal Boers, who were also in financial difficulties, had
to appeal to the British for help, and, as a result, in April 1877,
duly found themselves annexed, part of the British Empire. The Zulus
on the other hand were to find that disputes over possession of
lands on the Transvaal border were by no means over
12 December 1876 Julius announced that "our visitor",
Porgès, had arrived. "I cannot imagine a more
agreeable event. In all questions we agree." He would be returning
to Europe with Porgès in the spring. Porgès
had therefore brought with him a clerk called Charles Rube, a German
from Darmstadt, "a little quiet but seemingly willing and diligent".
Charles Warren, who had travelled out on the same ship as Porgès,
the SS Danube, was to write of the "magnificent Porgès
who knows the value of money though he has plenty of it".
And photographs of Porgès do show an amiable face,
with a big moustache and hair parted down the middle. Elegantly
dressed always, a man of taste, he had sent Julius an exceedingly
expensive Christmas present, not at all suitable for the rough life
in Kimberley. This was a Louis XV "mechanical" travelling
cabinet. This rare piece is regarded as having inspired Julius on
his return to Europe to become a collector and is still owned by
was only in Kimberley for three months, and his visit was a sensation.
Under the circumstances Julius's brief account of this period for
the benefit of his parents is a nice understatement : "We have
made a not inconsiderable extension to our business in buying claims,
in other words buying part of amine, and I have had rather a lot
to do." Porgès formed a syndicate, mainly of
friends in London and Paris, including Mège, and spent no
less than £90,000 on buying claims at depressed prices in the Kimberley
Mine, ending with owning 10 per cent of the whole. The result was
that the market value of claims in general was driven up steeply.
Porgès also decided to invest in the newly invented,
and expensive, steam haulage and washing machines.
in April Julius accompanied him to London, where the syndicate claims
were put into a private company with a nominal capital of £400,000,
the Griqualand West Diamond Mining Company.
In August, after
visits in Germany, Julius was in Paris, still full of extravagant
praises for his employer: "Mr Porgès really is an
exception", he wrote, "resplendent in his happiness.
I drive with him in the Bois and am always being invited to dinner.
At the theatre I have the best seats. In short I am entirely the
Grand Seigneur, which does not really suit my simple nature and
the quiet life to which I am accustomed. As you realize, my work
is in London, where as nowhere else the proverb Time is Money is
better illustrated." He was back in Kimberley in November,
as a partner, with instructions to watch out for first-class bargains.