Photographs by Chris Marais
The little southern Free State dorp of Jagersfontein might not bring a gleam to a tourist’s eye, but just mention the name to any geologist worth his shovel and he’ll do a jig on the spot.
That’s mainly because there are rocks around here that could be from 400 kilometres below the Earth’s surface, in the heart of the planet’s upper mantle.
De Beers closed their Jagers mine quite abruptly in 1971 – something of a tragedy for this formerly delightful little town.
The first air fatality in Africa occurred here, as did the South Africa’s most prestigious horse race meet of the late 1800s. King Edward VIII, then the Prince of Wales, spent three days in Jagers (as it’s affectionately known) during a 1925 Royal visit.
The Bigger Hole
Jagersfontein’s Big Hole (currently closed to the public) is even bigger than Kimberley’s – deeper and wider – much to the chagrin of tourism entrepreneurs in the better known town up in the Northern Cape.
And unlike many old diamond mining towns, the dumps here are thought to still contain billions of rands in diamonds. As recently as 1999, gardener Oom Piet Oerson found a 12 carat diamond in his employer’s flower bed. (After many anxious days, he was given a reward by De Beers – a third of the stone’s value.)
William le Barrow, photographer and scribe for Jagersfontein Mine during its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, records that the town was originally a Griqua farm, named for chieftain Jager Afrikaner. The farm was then bought for 30 pounds in 1856 by Cornelius Johannes Visser, a rough character by all accounts.
His favourite sport, according to Le Barrow, was to “hunt leopards on foot and dispatch them with half a pair of sheep shears secured to a stick”.
But Visser died before he ever benefited from the diamonds lying under the earth of his farm, although some say he did once pick up a shiny stone that proved to be a diamond after his death.
His widow Jacoba Magdelena Cecilia Visser inherited the farm, which just happened to be on the road to the diamond diggings along the Orange River at Pniel and Klipdrift in 1869.
The Rich Widow Visser
In those days, diamonds were always associated with rivercourses, but a certain Dr CW Neebe of nearby Fauresmith pointed out to the Widow Visser that there were olivines, garnets and rubies on her farm, stones usually associated with diamonds.
Her overseer, a man by the name of De Klerk, then began poking about in the gravel of a dry stream-bed where he saw some garnets, and in 1870, found a diamond of fifty carats.
A few diamonds more and a stream of hopeful diggers began arriving – trying their luck in the world’s first ‘dry’ diamond mine, a year before the diamond rush began in nearby Kimberley, 130 km west.
Each digger paid a royalty of two pounds a month to Mrs Visser for the privilege of working 20 square feet. For many years, some would say everything that happened in Jagersfontein “occurred by the grace of God and Mrs Visser”. In fact, it’s said that there is even an entry in the old records at the Magistrate’s Court with the very same words.
A Town of Many Bars
Where a digger goes, rowdiness inevitably follows. There were 34 bars and eventually, five hotels. Like all mining towns, Jagers has a few choice anecdotes from the rough early years.
Like the one about of the habitual drunkard who fell into the mine hole one night after a good few too many.
Fortunately he had the presence of mind to grab wildly at the root of a tree and save himself. For the rest of the night, he hung on, his fingers and whole body cramping and aching as he prayed.
“Please let me live, and I promise, so help me, that I will never drink another drop.”
As first light dawned, though, he saw that he hadn’t fallen down the mine hole at all, but a small excavation. The bottom was only six inches from his feet.
“That deserves a drink,” he declared.
One of the five hotels (long ago burnt down) had swing doors and a dinner gong suspended between two large elephant tusks. It was the scene of many a great party to celebrate the finding of yet another blue-white beauty.
Kimberley Rising, Jagers Falling
The environment was harsh too. The lack of water, difficult conditions and lack of expertise among the diggers meant that Kimberley flourished and became famous, while Jagersfontein stumbled.
Only the astounding quality of the occasional finds kept the miners interested. But in 1878 a number of experienced miners from Fauresmith and from the gold mines of Australia came to Jagersfontein. So grateful were the townsfolk that some of the streets of Jagersfontein are still named after them.
In 1880, the Australian Kerr brothers found a beautiful 115 carat diamond they named the Emma. And in the same year, the first steam gear engine was installed, making processing the diamond-bearing rock somewhat easier. It was named “The Pioneer”.
The year 1893, though, really put Jagersfontein on the map. That was the year the Excelsior diamond was discovered by a worker who was sweeping up gravel and loading it onto a truck. He hid the stone from the overseer and delivered it direct to the mine manager. For this he received a reward of 500 pounds, plus a horse with saddle and bridle. History, alas, does not record his name.
The Excelsior was the largest gem quality rough diamond to have been found in the world at the time.
What was exceptional about Jagersfontein diamonds – and what attracted the attentions of Elizabeth Taylor and Al Capone – was their sheer clarity. Diamonds of the first water, they were called. That was before the designation blue-white was coined, and Jagers stones set the standard.
In 1912, Jagersfontein became the second town in South Africa (and the first in the Orange Free State) to be given electricity and piped water. The water was supplied via a unique system of coin-operated water pumps on the street corners.
One water penny, as they were called, would yield precisely three gallons. Many of the hydrants, made by Stewarts and Lloyds with silver-painted lion heads, still stand. Sadly, like the town itself, they roar no more.