The Big Hole

In the same year that Jesse James robbed his first bank, some younger boys on the other side of the world were playing alongside a river in South Africa. The year was 1866. The place the boys called home was not that different from the American West. They lived near Hopetown, a small community on the northern edge of the Karoo desert, near the Orange River.  It was a day like many others. On that particular day, one of the boys found a pebble with a yellowish tinge on the ground. He liked it and decided to keep it as a toy. Sometime later, 15-year-old Erasmus Jacobs handed it to a neighbouring farmer, who asked about it because he enjoyed collecting unusual stones. The farmer eventually passed it along to a wandering peddler. The traveller in turn sent the stone in an ordinary envelope to a man who knew something about gems and minerals in another town hundreds of kilometres away. It turned out to be a rather special find.  Dr. William Atherstone of Grahamstown identified the stone as a 21.25 carat diamond.  It was the first diamond found in South Africa...and what a diamond.


A large gem was cut from that original crystal and it was given the name of Eureka, for its historical significance.  A year later, it had achieved fame and was shown at the 1867 Paris Exhibition.

Back in Africa, Lady Luck seemed to be wandering around Hopetown in disguise. About three years after Erasmus Jacobs had given the pebble to his neighbour, that very same farmer, a man whose sharp eye for gems evidently had become even sharper, did not misread a second opportunity. He came across a young native shepherd who had found another stone. The farmer liked what he saw because he immediately turned his back on his own livelihood, trading practically all of his animals to the boy in exchange for the gem. In giving up five hundred sheep, ten oxen and a horse, Schalk van Niekerk made his fortune and changed the future of South Africa.

The shepherd had found a large crystal of 83.50 carats.  Van Niekerk sold it for $56,000.  It made its way to Europe and was fashioned into the spectacular 47.69 carat, pear-shaped Star of South Africa jewel.

It started a Southern diamond rush.

Birth of a mine

In a very short time, 800 claims were staked on the little hillock believed to sit atop vast diamond fields. The hill, "Colesberg Copje," stood on land owned by the DeBeers brothers.  Miners arrived in their thousands and, ant-like, started working their way down into the ground. The DeBeers company was founded at this time by Cecil Rhodes, who had arrived at the beginning of the rush and rented water pumps to the miners.

The hill soon vanished and the site became known as the Big Hole. From 1871 until 1914, many thousands of men, using just basic hand tools, picks and shovels and trowels, dug deeper and deeper, eventually removing more than 2,700 kilograms of diamonds.  The town of Kimberley sprang up at its edge.

The Big Hole is still there, 463 metres wide and 240 metres deep. It has since been filled by about 40 metres of water that accumulated over time.  The Hole is one of the largest hand-dug pits anywhere in the world. More sophisticated mining operations continued underground far beneath the hole for some time. Altogether, the mine shafts extended to a depth of over 1,000 metres.

As an immigrant living in South Africa, I visited Kimberley with my family back in the 1960s. Being a child at the time, I could identify with 15-year-old Erasmus Jacobs.

My dad snapped the photograph shown above.  The place is impressive. When you see it for the first time, your stomach churns.

For other giant wonders, including the Diavik diamond mine in Canada and another one in Russia, see Top 10 Strange Holes in the World

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