A journey back in time
I have never visited Namibia, so this is not strictly a travel blog, but a ‘time-travel’ blog.
A Ghost Town.
Today, Kolmanskop, half-buried by the relentless, shifting, desert sands, is a ghost town visited only by tourists. They travel there on day-trips from Lüderitzbucht ('Luderitz Bay), a few kilometres west of it on the Atlantic coast of Namibia.
Almost 100 years ago, some of my family, including my great-grandfather, Franz Ginsberg (1860-1936) helped to build this now deserted town to exploit the rich diamond field that surrounded it. Here is the story of his involvement.
A Desolate Corner of Africa
The foundation of a settlement in 1883 by the tobacco merchant Adolf Lüderitz in a desolate territory that is now known as Namibia marked an important step in Germany’s belated attempt to join the ‘club’ of imperialist European nations. Between about 1893 and 1908, the indigenous, African inhabitants of German South West Africa (now known as ‘Namibia’) were in armed conflict with the German invaders in what would now be called a ‘liberation struggle’. This struggle resulted in the loss of many lives, mostly African, and consolidated German rule in the area.
Franz Ginsberg was born in the Prussian city of Beuthen (now ‘Bytom’ in Poland). By 1908, he was a highly respected, and a leading, figure in King Williams Town (south Africa) where he had arrived as a teenager from Prussia in 1880. There, he made his fortune as an industrialist – principally involved in the manufacture of matches, soaps and candles. He was prominent in the civic and political life of the town (he was a town councillor for many years, and had been Mayor at least twice, and was a Member of the Cape Parliament). He became involved with diamonds in South West Africa (now ‘Namibia’) in about 1908.
Diamonds at Lüderitzbucht.
In April 1908, Zacharias Lewala was shovelling away sand that had drifted on to the branch line that leads from Kolmans Kop to the Lüderitz-Keetmanshoop railway. Whilst he was doing this, Lewala, an African labourer who had formerly worked in the Kimberley diamond fields, found a stone that he thought might be a diamond. He showed this to his German foreman August Stauch (1978-1947) who, also suspecting that it might be a diamond, sent it to Swakopmund for analysis. Stauch’s suspicions were confirmed. Thus, Lewala became the discoverer of the first diamond in German South West Africa – a territory that is today one of the world’s major producers of diamonds. Lewala did not profit from his discovery. In contrast, Stauch did well from the discovery made by his observant worker. He resigned from the railways and, before announcing ‘his’ discovery to the rest of the world, he acquired mining concessions (rights) in the area.
News Travels Fast.
The discovery of alluvial diamonds near Lüderitzbucht was briefly noted across Africa in the Eastern Cape in King Williams Town’s Cape Mercury newspaper on August 24th, 1908. A few months later, the Mercury carried a detailed report about the extremely rich alluvial diamond field discovered in the immediate vicinity of Angra Pequena (Lüderitzbucht). The diamonds were extremely accessible, lying just beneath the surface of the dust on the floor of the desert. The writer of the article expressed surprise that this remarkable discovery had not been made earlier, as, “… it is understood that during the recent struggle between the German Troops and the Hereros, detachments of troops camped in the immediate vicinity, if not even upon the actual ground where the stones are now being picked…”.
Ginsberg Buys a Diamond Mine.
On the 20th November 1908, the Mercury published a long article, in which my great grandfatherFranz Ginsberg described his recent visits to Lüderitzbucht. He went there in order to see for himself the new diamond fields that had been discovered. The town of Lüderitz, between 38 and 48 hours voyage by sea from Cape town, was located in a concession of the southern part of the German South West Africa obtained from “ ...native chiefs, particularly from the Hereros”, and was, by 1908, administered by the German Colonial Company.
Ginsberg informed the paper’s readers that at the end of July 1908 a large number of prospecting licences had been issued, and ultimately the holders of the licences had combined into three companies which, as a consequence, owned most of the diamondiferous territory. The three companies in order of decreasing size were: Kolman’s Kop Diamond Mining Company, Stauch Company, and the much smaller Weiss de Meillon Company. Ginsberg continued by describing that the diamonds were to be found in a layer of sand and gravel to a depth of a foot or more.
What is not mentioned in the article is how the diamonds were ‘harvested’ from the sand in those early days. Lines of native workers crawled along the desert floor on their hands and knees picking up stones that were likely to be diamonds. Their mouths were gagged to prevent furtive ingestion of diamonds. The stones that they collected were handed to their, usually German, supervisors. These were then washed and sieved. The diamonds were washed free of sand in containers filled with sea water brought in barrels from the coast.
In the same article, Ginsberg mentioned that one of these three companies was being floated as a limited liability company in Cape Town. However, there were obstacles to importing diamonds from the German colony into the British Cape Colony. These obstacles arose from the protectionism that favoured the diamond companies that exploited the diamond fields in Kimberley. Ginsberg felt that unless changes were made to the law, the lucrative diamond trade that could be developed in Cape Town as a consequence of the discoveries near Lüderitzbucht would be lost to the Cape Colony. This did not seem to deter my great-grandfather, as less than 40 days after this article was published, the following announcement appeared in the Mercury on the 28th December, 1908: “Attention is directed to the advertisement appearing in another column regarding the prospectus of the Kolmans-Kop Diamond Mines Ltd., near Luderitzbucht, German South West Africa … One of the directors is Mr Franz Ginsberg, MLA, with whom, some weeks back, we had an interesting interview … The venture deserves the serious attention of those who have money to invest”.
On the 9th of January, 1909, a journalist showered cold water on the ventures at Lüderitzbucht. The journey to that place was described as being “somewhat comfortless” and on arrival there, one discovered, “… a terror-striking, God-forsaken country – these being the words of someone inured to hard travelling, and who has seen lots of pioneering work.” In addition, the water used in the diamond fields came from condensed sea water, and was said to be very expensive by the time it reached the diamond fields. None of this discouraged my great grand-father. By the 15th of January 1909, he had become a director of a firm whose shares were rising in value.
A Diamond Company.
It was common knowledge in my family that Franz Ginsberg was involved in diamond mining and that he was somehow connected with Kolmans Kop, but there was a dearth of detail about this. I obtained from the National Archives of South Africa a copy of the file that described many details about Ginsberg’s company and its fate. This collection of papers contains a few contracts whose content gives some clues about the company’s history. The papers begin with a lengthy contract, drawn up in South West Africa, listing the conditions under which the “factory owner Franz Ginsberg” was allowed, on the 6th November 1908, to take over the “Diamond Prospecting and Mining Company, Colmanskop, mbh (limited)” from its former managing directors – the master baker, Franz Schuster, and the office manager Sali Kahn – both of Lüderitzbucht. The contract states that Ginsberg undertook to set up a company, named “Colmanskop Diamond Mines Ltd.”, based in the Cape Colony. In this way the new company acquired 44 diamond prospecting plots for a 50 year period. On the 16th of December, 12 days before the above-mentioned notice appeared in the Mercury, another contract was drawn up – this time in Cape Town - between Franz Ginsberg and Patrick Grant, an accountant in Adderley Street, Cape Town. In this contract, Grant is described as the “Trustee” of the company, and both Grant and Ginsberg, were listed amongst the 7 “subscribers” to this company. Although he remained a shareholder in the company, Franz Ginsberg seems to have relinquished managerial responsibility for it – after all, he had a lot ‘on his plate’ already: he was a Member of the Cape Legislative Assembly and a town councillor as well as being the director of a number of firms in King Williams Town.
An entry in a 1914 handbook for Lüderitzbucht describes the Kolmanskop Diamond Company in some detail. In 1914, Franz Ginsberg was listed as one of the three directors from the Cape (the other three were appointed by the Germans, in accordance with the contract by which Franz acquired the company). Six years after its acquisition by my great-grandfather, the company could boast of forty ‘white’ (i.e. European) employees, several electrically powered preparation plants, three sea water pumping stations, as well as office buildings, a vehicle fleet, and a central sick bay.
However, this handbook recorded the end of an era, as it was in the year of its publication that the First World War erupted. Franz Ginsberg, a naturalised British Subject of German origin, became the director of a company whose assets existed behind enemy lines.
War, then Peace.
The outbreak of war in 1914 may have been perceived as a disaster by the owners of diamond interests in German South West Africa. The reverse was true for major diamond entrepreneurs such as De Beers and Oppenheimer for whom the German diamond fields were beginning to pose a threat to their dominant position in the diamond market. On the 12th September, 1914, in response to a request from Great Britain to do so, South Africa, being part of the British Empire, attacked its German neighbour. Soon after the outbreak of war, the South African forces occupied, and then closed own production in, the diamond fields of the German Colony. An invasion force led by Captain CK De Meillon entered Lüderitzbucht, and by July 1915, the German administration of Namibia was ended by the Treaty of Khorab. This ought to have been a calamity for investors in the German diamond fields but was not. Oppenheimer acquired most, but not all, of the Namibian fields by offering their owners valuable shares in his Anglo-American Corporation by way of payment.
After the end of the First World War, most of the diamond concerns in South West Africa were divided amongst a group of 9 large companies including the Kolmanskop Diamond Mines Ltd. In 1920, Oppenheimer combined all except one of these former German companies into a company called Consolidated Diamond Mines. The exception was the Kolmanskop Diamond Mines Ltd which remained independent. It would appear from the documentation, which I have seen, that on the 3rd of February, 1920, “The Kolmanskop Diamond Mines Ltd.” bought one of Oppenheimer’s recently acquired companies, a company called “Diamanten Abbau Gesselschaft mbh.” from a company called “The German South West African Diamond Investment Company Ltd”. My great-grandfather’s name did not appear in the papers concerned with this deal.
Kolmanskop flourished as a diamond production centre in the 1920s and 1930s. The town was well equipped, and probably more up-to-date than many small towns in Germany. At some stage, the hospital at Kolmanskop obtained what is said to be the first x-ray machine to be installed in South Africa. Probably, this was used more for checking whether workers had concealed diamonds within their bodies than for medical purposes.
In November 1923, a document related that that the Kolmanskop Company was “wound up voluntarily”. That document may well have been drawn up when Kolmanskop Diamond Mines Ltd. was about to be amalgamated with Great Namaqua Diamonds (Pty.) Ltd. to form a new company: ‘Namaqua Diamonds Ltd.’ – this happened in 1924. The Kolmanskop diamond field remained productive until 1931 when the supply of diamonds was exhausted. Later, it became part of Oppenheimer’s ‘Consolidated’ company. To what extent my great grandfather was involved with Kolmanskop after 1914, I do not know.
Towns of Ghosts.
Today, Kolmanskop is merely a tourist attraction. One of its visitors was a second cousin of my mother, a relative of Hedwig Rieser. He told me that when he visited the place, as a tourist, he was gratified to find in one of the old buildings an old notice board on which Franz Ginsberg was listed as a company director.
That Franz Ginsberg is best remembered for his civic activities and his successes in the soap, match, and candle industries of South Africa is evidence that his activity in the diamond industry was not amongst his major achievements. Almost a century after his arrival at Kolmanskop, my great-grandfather - and his industrial empire in King Williams Town – are memories. Like Kolmanskop, Ginsberg’s factory still stands in a semi ruined state in the town he adopted as his home. His name lives on as that of a township that was named in his honour by his fellow council members in 1902: Ginsberg Township. This place is now better known for its associations with the activist Steve Biko who lived there, and whose supporters in King William’s Town still hold my great-grandfather’s name in high regard.
=====This article is based on more detailed material that appears in my biography of Franz Ginsberg “Soap to Senate: A German Jew at the dawn of apartheid” (available from Amazon and Bookdepository.com)=====
Many of the pictures were supplied by my cousins, also descendants of Franz Ginsberg