4

"Centre of Important Interests"

Julius had just missed the visit of the famous author Anthony Trollope. But then he was not likely to have been a reader of the Barchester novels... Trollope had found Kimberley, still almost entirely corrugated-iron shacks, unimaginably ugly. Its population, he noted, if Dutoitspan and Bultfontein were included, was about 18,000, thus making it the second largest town in South Africa. About 10,000 of its inhabitants were black. As he peered into the "vast bowl" of the Kimberley Mine, he immediately felt that it was the "largest and most complete hole ever built by human hands". This sinister scene of so many horrible deaths and shattered hopes was then twelve acres overall and 260 feet deep, crisscrossed by the aerial tramways.

Yet he thought that Kimberley was one of the most interesting places on the face of the earth, and this was because of the speed with which "savages" from the heart of Africa were so quickly adapting themselves to the habits and even laws of Europeans. And would not these habits lead them eventually to Christianity? "I have looked down into the Kimberley mine and seen there three or four thousand of them at work, -although each of them would willingly have stolen a diamond if occasion came- I have felt I was looking at three or four thousand Christians." And at least no employer was allowed now to flog his men at his own pleasure. His comments on causes of friction between the races, which included IDB, the illegal sale of guns, and whether or not people of colour should be allowed the vote, were all the more relevant in view of Griqua tribal uprisings the following year. These last were due to disputes over land ownership and the denial of the rights of chiefs to deal with their own subjects; they were mainly sporadic and directed against isolated white communities. Nevertheless there were fears in Kimberley that there might be links with the Transvaal's troubles with the Zulus. All this took place in a time of great drought and thus affected the price of food.

More alarming was the outbreak of tribal wars some hundred of miles away in the eastern Cape. There was an appeal for volunteers tojoin the Diamond Fields Horse. Loftus Rolleston, J. B. Robinson and Barnato's colleague Louis Cohen, an amusing and scandalous chatterbox, were among the volunteers. Originally this jolly unit had been the Dutoitspan Hussars. Julius had been asked to join in view of his experience in the Franco-Prussian War, but had declined; after all he was a German. Local casualties were few, but soon Julius reported that in the eastern Cape a thousand blacks had been killed to only seven whites. The blacks had good guns but were short of ammunition, so had to rely on their own weapons, which were only of use in close fighting. Meanwhile the arming of colonists continued.

"Without a telegraph", Julius said, "we are dancing on a volcano." Business was "monstrously bad", because of uncertainty and the scarcity of workers. For months he had not earned enough to "pay for a breakfast". He blamed the troubles on the "all too humane treatment on the part of the English". "Instead of treating half-savages like children, they gave them all sorts of freedom, which of course the Kaffirs do not know how to make use of." The approach of winter would be an advantage, as fires at night would betray the camps of the enemy.

All the same there was no lack of activity for him, and profits returned when the new steam haulage and washing gear was put in working order. He now employed two hundred people; on occasion, three hundred. The acquisition of good new claims began to "throw off a good profit"; presumably this was made easier while rivals were away at the wars. He did not mention the rumble of resentment against him and his like that was growing among the smaller claim holders. For Julius was now a director of the Mining Board, quite an honour. The Board had the responsibility of removing fallen debris from the mines, which had developed into a very serious problem. Cash was limited and there were complaints that "capitalists" like Julius were receiving priorities, and were thus enabled to "swallow up" claims of lesser fry who had become hopelessly burdened by debt through having to cease operations altogether.

Large firms were now attempting to counter reef falls by sinking perpendicular shafts with tunnels for entering the mines. Trollope had gone down one of these shafts, but had not enjoyed the experience, what with clambering over rubble and the terrific heat.

Socially, Julius was leading a very quiet life. In the hot weather he hardly ever went out in the evenings except to the Levys, where he was almost a "child of the house". Mrs Levy would be going to Germany soon. She was the "happiest, drollest soul you could imagine, if a little sentimental...you will like her very much." Once again he was having to cope with the tedium of his mother's worries about when he would marry. She had decided that a young cousin, Anna Weidenbusch, would be a suitable match, and had obviously been fanning Anna's hopes. Julius and Anna had been corresponding a little, but any "significance" had been "far fetched", just brotherly affection. He had found Anna's letters written in an "atoning Magdalen style", which he said had often made him laugh out

. He had to be firm when his sister Emilie wrote: "Mother told me in tears that she hoped you have not given up your idea about Anna yet." There had never, he replied, been any question of a declaration of love in his letters. He quoted Schiller: "He who binds himself for ever should find out whether the heart wants the heart. The madness is short, the repentance is long." He said he would probably end up an old bachelor. To his relief, within six months Anna had been "driven into the arms of a parson". Julius did not reveal that he was having something of a flirtation with a girl called Louisa, the daughter of Mrs Stonestreet.

At least Frau Wernher was to approve of Mrs Levy, "not a bit like a Jewess". Julius replied: "Julia Levy is so good and free, in spite of having been in Africa for years, that everyone loves her. If only she could master this groundless excitement all the time. Her husband is an indescribably good old animal, with whom I am always quarrelling, but we cannot live without one another."

The "Kaffir war" in Griqualand dragged on. On 30 July 1878 he wrote: "Today good news. Our people, mostly volunteers from town here, killed two hundred and took three thousand oxen, three thousand sheep, two hundred and eighty wagons. How long the affair will last cannot be foreseen as one can never depend on the words of these beasts." And early in the following year: "Whilst in our Province peace has been restored more or less with relatively few sacrifices, the war has broken out in our sister Colony, Natal. There have been quite dreadful results right from the beginning. An English Corps consisting mostly of line regiments was cut off by a terrific number of Zulus and slaughtered. Fifty-four officers, among them several I know, personally, and about six hundred men, were killed all in one day." This was the battle of Isandhlwana, fought on 22 January 1879, when a British regiment was annihilated. The casualties, including black troops, in fact amounted to more than 1,000 killed. Julius put the great defeat down to the commanders' lack of caution, and an underestimation of the 'brave and manly and well trained Zulu people. "The excitement is very great", he added, "especially as one fears the moral effect on certain chiefs whose neutrality will probably end now."

Massacres on both sides continued. The "inept" British leadership was faced with "unbounded courage and great masses". The death in battle of the Prince Imperial of France was due to "terrific carelessness". Then, at long last, the Zulus were crushed at Ulundi. Their chief Cetewayo fled but was captured.

In Kimberley these events of 1878-9 had the effect of stricter segregation, or the "localization of natives". The war depressed business, and Julius was so full of gloom that he had decided to leave Africa for good in 1880. "I love work for its own sake", he wrote on 4 May 1879, "and if I am frightened of anything it is that I shall not find such unbounded activity in Europe. My whole position here is very important and influential, and without stepping outside the bounds of modesty I might say that nothing of importance is done here, at least in the business line, without my being consulted - and my opinion usually has the decisive influence. Yet I seriously want to get out next year to be near you again".

All his plans for return had to be postponed because of dramatic new developments, namely Porgès's imminent formation in Paris of the Compagnie Française des Mines de Diamants du Cap de Bonne Espérance, with a capital of 560,000. It took place in 1880 and was the first Kimberley-based joint-stock company to be floated in Europe.

The various manoeuvres and manipulations around this period were neatly summarized in that matter-of-fact document written by Julius in the third person, "Notes on the Diamond Fields", in which he recorded :

Orders for suitable machinery, were given [in 1877], more purchases increased the various blocks [of claims] to a very workable concern, and a limited liability Company was formed in England under the title of the Griqualand West Diamond Company. Profitable work resulted, and it soon became apparent that even now the blocks were hardly big enough and would be too small for future underground working. This led eventually to amalgamation with neighbouring holders, especially the firms of Lewis and Marks, and the various concerns were merged into a Company having its seat in Paris ... a Company which held the largest blocks of claims in Kimberley Mine. The holdings were at first in different and divided blocks, but all the strategical points were quickly secured, connecting all the principal blocks and placing the Company in such a position that no combination of other holdings could injure it seriously. At that time a great deal of jealousy existed between the various large holders, and in their short-sightedness they overlooked their true interest which was to combine together. The management of the Compagnie Française devolved upon Mr Wernher, as Messrs I. Lewis and s. Marks soon retired from active participation to devote their energies elsewhere. Following above amalgamations several other important combinations took place, such as the Central Diamond Mining Company [Baring-Gould], the Standard Company [J. B. Robinson], all working in rivalry and trying to kill one another, working without method or plan.

The formation of the French Company, as it was generally known, did indeed precipitate cut-throat competition, not only in the Kimberley Mine. At De Beers, where in April 1880 Cecil Rhodes floated his De Beers Mining Company, the firm of Lippert emerged for a while as the largest claimholder. Barney Barnato and his brother went to London to form Barnato Brothers, and on their return launched four new companies.

When Julius said that Isaac Lewis and Sammy Marks "retired", he meant that they were squeezed out of the French Company. But they did, as he said, "devote their energies elsewhere with notorious success" - in the 1890s in Johannesburg they switched to producing cheap liquor. Lewis and Marks were originally from Lithuania, and had come to South Africa as pedlars. After Porgès's spending spree in 1877 they had invested 20,000 on acquiring claims in Kimberley Mine, and almost immediately had combined their holdings with those of Paddon Brothers to form the Kimberley Mining Company, and it was this that in turn was amalgamated with the French Company.

Mrs Levy returned from Europe in June 1879, and for some reason had to stay a month or two in Julius's house, "which I do not like, for in spite of the veneration in which I hold her she is much too excitable for daily intercourse". The house was admittedly larger than the one Julius had bought in 1873, but even so it must have been cramped, for he was sharing it with three other bachelors.

Almost at once she embarrassingly began to confide in him that her husband did not return her love sufficiently. Worse, she transformed the house into a "dovecot" for the ladies of Kimberley, all anxious for a peep into this establishment, "a perfect specimen of order and cleanliness" where a German cook "cursed and shouted like a trooper from the kitchen". Obviously primed by Frau Wernher, Julia Levy nagged him about not being married yet, and he retorted that he was rich enough not to have to bother. As it happened, that August, his "flame", "whose eyes had looked very sympathetically into mine"', Louisa Stonestreet, married none other than Loftus Rolleston, greeted by all as a hero back from the wars. As Julius wrote later: "The fault was mine. Had she spoken German all might have been different." There may have been more to it than that, for Louisa was known to have a hot temper.

The three who shared Julius's house were Charles Rube, the young man whom Porgès had brought out in 1876, Martin van Beek, and Alfred Beit, "a joyous, lusty fellow of extraordinary goodness of heart and very great business ability, compared to whom we are Philistines". Beit was not only to become Julius's closest friend but his partner in a firm of world renown that bore their names. Three years younger than Julius, he had been born in Hamburg and, like Porgès, was of Portuguese Sephardic descent. His father imported silk from France. Because of the "ugly monster of anti-Semitism rearing its head" in Germany, his parents had converted to Lutheranism, to give their children a better chance in life. He had gone to Amsterdam to learn about diamond cutting, had reached Kimberley in 1875 as a representative of his cousins' firm, W. & A. Lippert, and soon afterwards had shared Julius's house at Old De Beers. In 1878 he had returned to Hamburg for a while.

Like Julius, Alfred Beit had a "horror of publicity" and a reputation for honesty. He also had an amazing memory and an almost uncanny knack of spotting a good diamond. Physically they were quite different. Beit was small, delicate, with bulbous, mild blue eyes and a large head. He was also a bad horseman and bad at practical things; but he was tremendously energetic, walking over the roughest country without showing signs of fatigue. In the ballroom, again unlike Julius, he would invariably choose the tallest woman in the room, and dance round her in a wonderfully comic manner. Both men were shy. Julius was merely reserved, but Beit was highly strung, with a habit of fiddling with his tie and biting his handkerchief. He could never be persuaded to make a speech.

Beit brimmed over with enthusiasms. "You could not help loving the dear fellow." It was said that he attracted money like iron filings to a magnet. Borrowing from his family, he bought land at New Rush and erected a row of corrugated-iron sheds for use as shops and dwellings, which soon were earning him 1,800 a month in rents. Later he sold the land for 240,000. The Lippert business connection had not been much of a success and he Soon found that there was much more profit in dealing privately. "In those years of securing properties and organizing them", Julius wrote in his "Notes", succinct as ever, it was almost impossible to give full attention to the diamond business itself, hitherto the mainstay of the firm. "Mr Wernher therefore arranged with several younger men with a good knowledge of the article to operate on joint account, the firm supplying capital for shipment. One of the earliest connections of this kind was Mr Alfred Beit., And he added: "The account worked extremely well" - another of his little understatements. Meanwhile Beit - like Julius himself - continued to buy his own claims in the various mines, particularly in De Beers, where he came in contact with Cecil Rhodes, about whom Julius appeared to have personal reservations.

In October 1879 Julia Levy decided it was time for Julius to give a ball. Seventy people were invited. The German cook excelled herself, and there was champagne cup. The dancing ending at 4 a.m. "But the expense?", he imagined his mother complaining. "And you say business is bad." The answer was that he didn't care. The cost was as much as a family holiday on Lake Maggiore, and even six such balls would not ruin him. He told his parents that his personal interest in the Kimberley Mine was now worth 12,500.

He had another shock waiting for his parents. He had determined that on his return to Europe he would live in England. "In Germany business is a chain of intolerable nuisances. Liberal development is fettered [a reference to anti-Semitism], in a way that is terrible for anyone who has experienced the English way of life."

Two other bachelors, unnamed but very likely Hermann Eckstein and Rudolph Hinrichsen, came for meals at Julius's house, forming a mess of six. One of them was to remember how they would take turns in organizing the catering. "Interviews with the woman cook were never much cherished by any of us, and frequently Wernher would be called upon to appease her temper, and it was amusing to see how he could settle the trouble of the menu in no time." In the end she was so overbearing that she had to be sacked.

The six went on a spree over Christmas. "At half past nine at night on Christmas Eve we got on our horses and rode to a farm about twelve miles distant. The moonlight on the plain was beautiful. We slept at the farm, and were in the saddle again at half past three in the morning, in order to ride to a little village in the Orange Free State called Boshoff, another twenty miles. At that place there were several ladies we knew who were convalescing, and we spent a very high-spirited day. "Then it was back to Kimberley on Boxing Day, a five hours" ride, to be followed by a ball at Rothschild's. "In spite of the heat there was a lot of dancing. Mrs Levy forgot that she had sprained her ankle."

From the letter of 22 January 1880 in which Julius told his parents about the formation of the French Company, it is clear how much he had been the driving force: "Before I managed to get my friends [in Paris and London] so far as to realize the usefulness of this step, and in the end to accomplish it, I had to write reams of letters, and I only achieved my goal after the greatest difficulties." But he still had to contend with his parents' outrage over his remarks about Germany. In his reply he hinted at his own hurt feelings when an anonymous critic in Kimberley accused him of being a humbug and "relentless".

That one can be happy in Germany only as a German has not become a dogma yet, and at least there is evidence to the contrary. Even if I have changed through living abroad it does not mean that I have lost all sensitivity. If I had remained a little wheel in a huge machine in London it would have been easy to go back to Germany. But early in life I became independent and a moving force - I might say the centre of important interests - and I cannot now shake that off. Thus I belong in everything that means business on the grand scale, in everything that demands the power of man and the sharpness of intellect in a foreign land. It is not in my nature to boast of my position and to explain myself. Therefore rumours are being circulated here. Nevertheless I know that there are other people, some of them complete strangers, who have trusted me beyond bounds, and as I am not without honour or even ambition this trust gives me a higher point of view about my duties than is usual. If that is my crime so be it.

He was even contemplating setting up on his own in London. After all he was now aged thirty. Yet he was torn by his loyalty to Jules Porgès.

After such a resounding manifesto his mother could only suggest that maybe it would be better for his health to come back to Germany. But no: "Sometimes I laughed as a stupid boy, when Father was running up and down the station platform watch in hand and waiting for the last train. But I am just as bad, and the capital I have to administer is much greater than the late Taunus railway." He admitted that he had anxieties. For instance, there was the responsibility for the safety of his workers, "who through braving constant dangers become incredibly careless. Now that we are employing between five and seven hundred men there is a lot of trouble. Luckily I have a very cool head; someone with an excitable nature would be driven mad by my position."

For the next months he would be "utterly taken up" with the organization of the new company. Expenses, especially because of reef falls, had been greater than expected. "It causes me many a sleepless night, as you may imagine, with a concern that needs at present fourteen steam engines, nearly a hundred horses, and very many hundred hands. Our daily expenses are sufficient for you to live in Limburg for the whole year, so you can realize how many diamonds have to be found every day to do some good business." A shaft was being sunk, already two hundred feet deep, and the earth for the first seventy feet had been so loose that a "fantastic" amount of wood had to be used to shore it up. At present he did not know how deep the tunnel would have to be. The deepest claim in the mine was 320 feet. The company possessed about a hundred claims, and "we therefore have at least twenty-three million cubic feet before us, which at the present prices of diamonds and according to the experience of years is worth about three and two thirds million pounds sterling." A miner earned usually 9 a week, gunpowder cost two shillings a pound, and five hundred pounds might be used in a week.

No letter exists mentioning the rise of the Transvaalers against British rule, sometimes known as the first Anglo-Boer War, and their victory at Majuba Hill, which forced the British to give them back their independence. As the end of the year approached, he was admitting that he might even miss Kimberley.

I hope I shall have brought everything into sufficient order by the end of the year so that my successor will be able to work on the lines that I have laid down. If the worst happened, I might have to come back again next year, which I dread. The thought of being near you again is alone enough for me to give up Africa, in spite of years of quiet satisfaction, in spite of many dear friends...Even if as a merchant I am striving after possessions and affluence, yet I have no insatiable thirst for them... In spite of the many unusual chances that get offered to me, I am quite contented with what I have got.

One natural successor was Charles Rube. Paul Keil was selected to represent the firm for the shipping of diamonds. Porgès was trying to persuade Julius to stay on at least for a few more months, but he was determined to leave in November. Looking back over the past nine years, Julius said, he could not thank Fate enough for having led him to such a man as Porgès. The only differences of opinion had been not who should take the greatest part but who should take the smallest. Porgès had written to him: "As far as I am concerned I shall never leave you."

In the last weeks his head was "buzzing", he was so overloaded with work. He kept on thinking of new projects years ahead. In almost his last letter he wrote about the "very curious feeling" he had at leaving what had been a virgin wilderness, "where the activity and the creation of the individual is brought into relief much more than in the densely populated countries of Europe."

He went on:

I have always tried in spite of all my wealth to keep my needs as modest and small as possible; even if I am always aware of the vicissitudes of life, need or necessity could never be the touchstone of my honour. If tomorrow I lost everything, that indeed would not make me happier, but it would not disturb the peace of my soul. I am not proud of my riches, for I know how much is due to luck. That alone does not make me happy. I am happy because I am trusted, and changing fortune could not destroy that happiness.

On 30 November 1880 he sailed from Cape Town in the Dunrobin Castle, a rough and disagreeable voyage.