How South African miners were x-rayed after shifts following the discovery of diamonds in 1860s

Vanessa Calys-Tagoe October 25, 2022
Image via Wikimedia Commons/James St. John

Blink Klippe was what they thought it was when they first discovered it without knowing what it was and how valuable it was, but soon, they would discover that the bright shiny stone found by little Erasmus as he played on a regular day was worth its weight in monetary and aesthetical value.

When diamonds were first discovered in South Africa, the indigenes did not know what the stones were. A diamond was found on the land of a poor Boer farmer, Daniel Jacobs, in 1867, but they did not recognize the gleaming stone as a diamond. No one expected the nation to contain diamonds or to search for precious stones because Brazil had been the prime source of diamonds for at least 150 years.

When Jacob’s son Erasmus obtained beautiful stones that he and other children used in games, his mother noticed the pebble and showed it to a neighboring farmer, Schalk van Niekerk, who was captivated by its looks and offered to acquire it. The woman chuckled at this thought and handed him the pebble, but if only she had known the wealth she just gave away graciously.

The 15-year-old boy had no idea he had made a discovery that would set his country apart from the rest of Africa and would grow to become one of the country’s main exports. Niekerk showed the stone to a few people to see if it was valuable. It soon ended up in the hands of W.G. Atherstone, a healthcare professional and amateur geologist who determined it to be a 21.25-carat diamond. When the governor of Cape Colony paid £500 for the diamond, word spread throughout the region, and prospectors began to assemble in the hope of striking it rich. 

Cecil J. Rhodes and Barney Barnato, two Englishmen, opted to purchase the mines in the area. They merged their holdings in 1888 to form De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited, with a command center in Kimberley.

By 1919, one mine had devised a foolproof method for determining whether its miners were funneling out raw diamonds. The miners were given a radiation-laden scan at the end of each shift. They would have to go through the x-ray machine for inspection at the end of each shift. To escape this, some miners would swallow diamonds or conceal them in self-inflicted cuts on their legs. The Englishmen, however, made sure that even the smallest diamond, which a would-be thief might try to sneak out of the mine in his belly, can be easily identified by a trained radiologist.

In 1954, that practice had become standard and South African mine workers were being x-rayed by radiologists at the end of every shift before they left the De Beers diamond mines in Kimberley.

The irony of the x-ray of miners is in the innocence of their discovery; South Africans were gate-kept out of their Blink Klippe (shiny stones) until the apartheid was over.

History says that the first diamond discoveries in South Africa were alluvial. By 1869, the stones were found far from any river or stream, first in yellow earth, then in the blue ground, which was later called kimberlite after the mining town of Kimberley. Production continued until 1932, when it began in January 1916, but diamond mining operations ceased due to the slump of the diamond industry. Work resumed in 1945.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: October 26, 2022


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