There’s a supercut on YouTube called ‘All James Bond Cat Close-Ups in Chronological Order’, which strings together every scene in which Blofeld’s feathery white Persian takes centre stage. It’s shorter than you might think: just three and a half minutes, beginning with the cat’s debut appearance in From Russia with Love (1963), glaring into the middle distance while her master strokes her ears with both hands, and ending with her brief turn in Spectre (2015), wriggling out of Christoph Waltz’s grasp. In most of the clips she is passive, sitting on Blofeld’s lap or being hoisted into the air in a way that reminds you that cats have armpits, her paws sticking out stiffly in front of her. It’s only when she shuffles into the opening credits of Diamonds Are Forever (1971) that she comes into her own, an urbane and wealthy creature, wearing a thick diamond collar and blinking almost in time to the music, padding around against a backdrop of naked girls in silhouette and diamonds rotating in the air or pincered between elegant fingers. Diamond necklaces, diamond rings, diamond pendants, diamond chokers, the cat’s diamond collar peeping out from beneath a woman’s gracefully bent leg, Shirley Bassey singing about how diamonds satisfy her in every way, including sexually.
It’s a great opening, weirder and funnier than I remembered. The scene that follows it is weird too. Bond and M are in the marbled office of the chairman of the Diamond Syndicate – the sales and distribution arm of De Beers – drinking sherry and hearing about the company’s troubles. As the chairman begins his lecture on diamond smuggling, the location shifts from London to a mine shaft somewhere in South Africa, where sweating Black miners in filthy hard hats are drilling into the rock. In a voiceover, the chairman says that 80 per cent of the world’s diamonds come from South Africa, most of them dug out of shafts of diamond-bearing clay at depths of three thousand feet. ‘The whole process,’ he says, ‘operates under an airtight security system. It’s an essential precaution, even though the industry prides itself on the loyalty and devotion of its workers.’ While he speaks, a miner kneels down in the clammy darkness and drops a diamond into his shoe. Another places one under his tongue as the chairman explains that it’s the severity of the security measures that ‘tend to ensure that loyalty, as do the extensive amenities and social services we provide’. The next scene shows a dead-eyed dentist rummaging around in a miner’s mouth with pliers before pulling out a diamond like it’s a rotten tooth. As one miner walks out with a fifty-rand note in his pocket, another walks in and bares his teeth at the camera. Just in case anyone didn’t get the point the chairman says it again, the bit about the industry priding itself on the loyalty and devotion of its workers.
It’s hard to know whose side you’re meant to be on. If the scene is supposed to illustrate the inherent disloyalty and untrustworthiness of the miners, then why draw attention to the terrible working conditions, the brutal security, the concession that the industry can only extract obedience through force? If it’s meant to draw attention to white capital’s systematic exploitation of Black labour in South Africa, then let’s remember that this is a James Bond film from 1971. But perhaps this is the wrong way of looking at it. It could simply be that once the filmmakers got onto the subject of diamonds, they found it difficult to stop. Everyone loves a diamond story, especially one that highlights the contrast between the pure white sparkle around the cat’s little neck and the dirty business of extracting the stones from the earth.
The film takes its name from Ian Fleming’s 1956 novel, which in turn took its name from De Beers’s famously successful advertising campaign of 1947. The ads are worth seeking out: since antitrust laws prevented the cartel from doing business in the US, they couldn’t promote De Beers directly, so what you end up with are surreal meditations on the relationship between diamonds and courtship. They’re commercials for romance itself, with paintings of girls holding roses above dense text explaining that hers is a love forged in the very core of the earth, symbolised by the eternal white flame of a glittering etc.
If you were going to tell the story of that campaign, you might go back ten years earlier, to when De Beers’s chairman, Harry Oppenheimer, first met with representatives of a New York-based ad agency to discuss how best to market diamonds to the American public, given the Depression’s effect on sales. You could describe the agency’s strategies, which included sponsoring lectures at selected high schools about the glamorous history of diamonds, making sure that they were worn by the kind of women ‘who can make the grocer’s wife and the mechanic’s sweetheart say “I wish I had what she has,”’ and in general doing whatever it took to persuade Americans that a diamond engagement ring was ‘a psychological necessity’.
As everyone knows, it worked. Before the Second World War, something like 20 per cent of engagement rings had a diamond in them; by the end of the century, it was closer to 80 per cent. In 1978, apparently high on its ability to establish imagined traditions, De Beers signed off on a campaign that helpfully defined exactly how much a proposal should cost. One ad showed a young woman with her chin in her hand, big blue eyes and big shiny diamond all sparkling for the camera. The text underneath said: ‘You can’t look at Jane and tell me she’s not worth two months’ salary. I mean just look at her.’ The two months rule is often described as a myth, or sometimes even as a lie, as if the answer to the question of how many days’ pay a ring should cost is out there somewhere, a fact independent of market forces.
To explain how De Beers came to be in such a position, controlling the mining, distribution and marketing of 90 per cent of the world’s rough diamonds for most of the 20th century, it makes sense to begin with the arrival in 1870 of the teenage Cecil Rhodes in what was then called New Rush, a year after the discovery of the Star of South Africa. This sparkly rock, about the size of a walnut, just lying there on the ground for someone to pick up, drove people all over the world immediately insane. Tens of thousands descended on a notably desolate part of a pointless-seeming colony that had been acquired by Britain in a fit of apparent absentmindedness.
There is all kinds of material here to divert our attention. Take the reports, cited by Adrienne Munich in Empire of Diamonds, of diamonds being discovered in the walls of the old huts built with river mud that were dotted around Vooruitzict, the barren farm owned by two devoutly Christian brothers, Johannes and Diederik de Beer. Or the exuberant letters written by young American speculators to their families back in Albany:
I am well pleased with the place it has turned out better than I had hoped it would, there is 1001 ways of making money there is not a white man on the ‘Fields’ who cannot do well if he is steady … We have in all 23 Boys & good horses … I like the work very well, the only fault I find is there is not enough to do. White men get paid here for walking around.
There are the accounts, detailed by Tijl Vanneste in Blood, Sweat and Earth, of the illicit trade on the diamond fields: white-owned canteens masquerading as charitable enterprises, where meals were advertised as free but it was expected that the Black clientele would leave a diamond in the bottom of their bowls. There are oddly vivid newspaper reports, cited in Empire of Diamonds, about a swallowed diamond’s path through a digestive tract (‘it would not be incorrect to assume that many of the sparkling ornaments which at this moment adorn the neck of a beauty have been subjected to this procedure. If they could speak!’) and about the increasingly vicious efforts to clamp down on such criminal methods, the blame for which was always pinned on Black miners. Floggings, lynchings, humiliating strip searches, punishments that were described with relish in the journalistic dispatches of the period. In February 1873, ladies in New York opened an issue of Harper’s to read an account of a sjambok whipping: ‘The cat crossed his shoulders until his large eyes were bloodshot … his hands working in agony; but he kept silence until the thirtieth time the lash descended, when, with a deep groan, full of the misery of physical torture, he fainted.’
The ultimately unsuccessful attempts to eliminate diamond smuggling ran in tandem with the extraordinarily successful efforts to institute a system of racially segregated labour, first as policy and then as law. When Rhodes arrived in New Rush – the name was eventually changed to Kimberley in honour of a colonial secretary who couldn’t pronounce ‘Vooruitzict’ – Black miners were still allowed to hold digging licences, and were free to come and go as they wished. Not for long. By 1872, native ownership claims had been outlawed and, with the pass laws, Black labourers had to carry identity documents detailing the terms of their contracts, to be produced for whichever white person demanded to see them. A closed compound system was introduced – Vanneste describes it as ‘De Beers’s most visible contribution to the apartheid system’. By 1887, all ten thousand Black labourers in Kimberley were barracked in conditions indistinguishable from imprisonment, identified by numbered bracelets on their wrists and prevented by force from leaving until their contracts were up. Miners slept fifty to a room, some on stacked concrete bunk beds and some on the mud floors. About half of their wages would go on food they had to buy to supplement the inadequate and often rotten rations. The rest would be sent home. Women weren’t allowed in the compounds and there was no privacy. There was one heavily guarded gate at the front.
If you were committed to telling the story as efficiently as possible, you would say that Rhodes was in South Africa to watch all this happen. If you were unable to resist the pull of the glittery detail, however, you’d be obliged to point out that in fact he went back to England for a few years, where his time at Oxford overlapped with John Ruskin’s tenure as Slade Professor of Fine Art. Rhodes wasn’t there to hear Ruskin give his inaugural lecture – the one about England’s duty to ‘found colonies as fast and as far as she is able, formed of her most energetic and worthiest men; seizing every piece of fruitful waste ground she can set her foot on’ – but apparently he copied out the whole thing in longhand and carried it around with him for the rest of his life. Ruskin would have been in his coat pocket when, as prime minister of the Cape Colony, he stood up in Parliament to argue for the implementation of a ‘labour tax’ that would force Black South Africans off their communally owned lands and into the mines. Ruskin would have been in the valise when Rhodes went to Matabeleland to fight for total control of mining rights in the territory. The frontispiece of Olive Schreiner’s novella about the Matabeleland campaign, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (1897), carried a photograph of three Black men hanging from a tree, with white men in hats arrayed in a semicircle around the bodies. The dead men are naked. Some of the living men are dressed in what look like cricket whites. One has his leg propped up jauntily on a tree stump beside a dead body.
If you were worried that the narrative was getting bogged down with too many shiny distractions – did you know, for example, that Ruskin believed women should wear their diamonds uncut because they were more interesting that way, and have you come across the part in Ethics of the Dust (1866) where the old lecturer says that ‘the practical, immediate office of gold and diamonds is the multiplied destruction of souls … and the paralysis of wholesome human effort and thought on the face of God’s earth’ – you could just skip it all and move straight from Rhodes’s arrival in New Rush to the battle for commercial dominance of the South African diamond fields, which ended with the establishment of De Beers Consolidated Mines in 1888, with Rhodes as chairman. De Beers took full control of the distribution channels, setting prices and constraining supply to ensure that diamonds remained aspirationally expensive even as the astonishing output of the South African mines showed that they were not particularly rare. It would be a perfect story for explaining the concept of monopoly to a child.
Children might also like the one about the Premier Mine, initially owned by competitors of De Beers. The Premier Mine is where the Cullinan Diamond was discovered: a spectacular stone the size of a packet of rolling tobacco, pulled out of the clay and presented to Edward VII, who made it the star of the Crown Jewels. Premier’s output made the De Beers directors nervous. Legend has it that one of them, Alfred Beit, went on a tour of the mine to scope out the competition and had a heart attack on the spot. Premier, ultimately taken over by De Beers, has yielded more celebrity diamonds than any other mine in the world: the Taylor-Burton Diamond, blinking out at Princess Grace of Monaco from Elizabeth Taylor’s cleavage; the Golden Jubilee, described as a topaz in Thai state media so as not to burden the country with the knowledge that the king was buying diamonds the size of ping-pong balls during a financial crisis; the Centenary Diamond, the cutting of which took three years, a process described by the cutter as something like demonic possession: ‘From the moment I knew I was going to cut it, I became another man. A strange man. I was looking at the stone in the day, and the stone was looking at me at night.’ Earlier this month, a blue diamond recovered at Premier sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for $57 million, marginally less than the world record, for the Oppenheimer Blue, also recovered at Premier and auctioned by Christie’s in 2016.
These days, Premier is owned by Petra Diamonds, a London-based company that also owns Koffiefontein, one of the oldest mines in South Africa. A recent article about Petra’s attempts to sell off Koffiefontein carried the headline ‘You Can Buy a Diamond Mine in the Free State – But Will Have to Move a 130-Year-Old Mass Grave’. In 2002, the bodies of 38 miners were uncovered during the bulldozing of an old mine dump. According to the archaeologist who worked on the exhumations, typhoid had ripped through the closed compound in 1896, killing hundreds of men; most were buried in a nearby cemetery, but at the height of the epidemic the gravediggers couldn’t keep up – so a quicker way was found to dispose of the bodies. The men’s names have been lost, but the report on the excavation gives an idea of what their lives were like. It cites an account by a white draughtsman who was at Koffiefontein at the time: ‘In their efforts to save money to send home,’ he wrote, ‘the boys came near to starving themselves and there was consequently a great deal of sickness among them.’ The oldest of the men buried in the dump was perhaps sixty; the youngest was around fourteen.
Vanneste suggests that the ‘continuing human and environmental abuse that has surrounded diamond mining since the very beginning’ has in general been overlooked or ignored, coming to the attention of the public only in the 1990s, when stories about blood diamonds briefly illuminated the human cost of all that glitter. The rest of the time, he argues, the use of forced labour, political oppression and aggressive monopolisation have worked to ensure that the consumer market continues to view diamonds as precious and pure, ‘disregarding who actually mined them from the earth or how pretty they really were’. Munich also claims that Victorian stories about diamonds were designed to obscure where the stones came from, wiping ‘racialised fingerprints’ from them. Her argument, like Vanneste’s, is that diamonds were prized in spite of their sordid origins. It would be nice to think so, but the evidence presented in these books suggests otherwise. People obsess over diamonds precisely because of the human cost involved. We love a diamond story that emphasises the contrast between the starry white at the top of the queen’s sceptre and the pitch-black hell from which it was pulled.
In 1883, Ruskin received a parcel from a local jeweller’s shop. Inside was a stone the jeweller thought he might be interested in acquiring: an enormous yellow diamond from the De Beers mine. Ruskin bought it and donated it to the Natural History Museum, on condition that it be displayed with the inscription: ‘The Colenso Diamond, presented in 1887 by John Ruskin, in honour of his friend the loyal and patiently adamantine First Bishop of Natal.’ Bishop Colenso was a mathematician, theologian and advocate for the Zulu cause. After his death, his wife and daughters continued his work, providing significant support to the organisation that eventually became the African National Congress. Colenso’s granddaughter Sylvia plays the accompaniment on the earliest extant recording of ‘Nkosi Sikelel’i Afrika’, from 1923. The singer is Sol Plaatje, the first secretary general of the ANC, who had come to London to draw the British public’s attention to the injustice of the Natives Land Act of 1913, the template for which had been drawn up by Rhodes. In Native Life in South Africa (1916), written as part of the ultimately unsuccessful campaign against the act, Plaatje asked: ‘What have our people done to these colonists … that is so utterly unforgivable, that this law should be passed as an unavoidable reprisal? Have we not delved in their mines, and are not a quarter of a million of us still labouring for them in the depths of the earth?’ Plaatje’s thin voice on the recording doesn’t have any of the rousing or redemptive qualities usually associated with the song which became the anthem for the anti-apartheid movement. It just sounds hopelessly sad.
Due to a misunderstanding, the parcel Ruskin received was much bigger than he had anticipated – ten times as big. ‘I had nearly congealed into a diamond myself from fright when I opened the box,’ he wrote. ‘I thought in your first letter that 130 meant 13.5 carat! … I don’t tell anybody I’ve got such a thing in the house.’