The first indication of the vast mineral wealth of South Africa was the diamond picked up in 1867 by the Jacobs children south of the Orange River, close to where Hopetown stands today. The word soon spread and by 1870 more than 10 000 diggers of all colours and nations were busily engaged along the banks of the Vaal River searching for the precious little stones. But the wealth in the river was as nothing compared to the treasure underground. The diamonds found on the farm of the brothers De Beer proved to be the tip of a diamond iceberg that eventually became the Kimberley ‘Big Hole’.
To whom did these diamonds belong? The answer at first seemed obvious. The De Beers were Free Staters and the diamond fields, a mere 160 kilometres from Bloemfontein, lay between the rivers that formed the natural boundaries of the Free State. Great Britain and its Cape Colony had no presence and no claim in their own right. British interests therefore concealed themselves behind the somewhat dubious claims of Nicolaas Waterboer, the chief of Griquatown many kilometres away. The charade was fronted by a clever lawyer named David Arnot, himself almost a Griqua, but the real decisions were taken behind the scenes, and when the lieutenant-governor of Natal was appointed as mediator, the result was a foregone conclusion. The Keate Award of 1871 confirmed the claims of Waterboer.