Mining a Photograph for a Deeper Understanding

Title:  Kimberley Mine, Southern Africa, 1872

About the image: The Kimberley Mine photographed in 1872, one year after Dutch colonists discovered an 83-carat diamond here.  Once known as the Colesburg Kopje (hill) the mine was already on its way to becoming “The Big Hole.”

Why does Stacey Greer, Program Coordinator at the History Project at U.C. Davis find this image interesting?

“This photograph displays the enormity of the diamond-mining project at the Kimberley Mine in a way that would be impossible to grasp by just reading about it. This picture engages me, with many details to observe that reveal how European colonists procured valuable raw materials in the late nineteenth century. The rows of endlessly-deep ditches spread for an undetermined distance to the hills in the background and extend beyond each side, making the rows appear indefinite. I want to know the lengths, widths, and depths of the mines. Additionally, this image captures the limits of the technological developments by this time. There are no cranes or big machinery. Instead laborers, mostly Africans, work with cables (held by precariously-rigged wooden beams), horses, and carts. They walk above the maze-like mine on hazardously constructed footbridges. Looking closely, I can see a multitude of workers, yet they are difficult to count and it is unclear how many labor below the surface. I can imagine the many dangers they faced just moving about, as well as while digging for and transporting the diamonds. At the same time, I am struck that the European managers appear to be completely relaxed, only barely concerned with the hard, dangerous work underway to bring the immensely valuable gems to them. Finally, this image demonstrates the environmental destruction of the earth required to gather these diamonds. Yet, it is only the beginning of the changes to this area in what would become known as the Big Hole.”

Related Topics/Themed Collections: Imperialism

Lessons in the Marchand Collection:

Resources Available in the Marchand Collection:

  • Leonard Thompson, A History of South Africa
  • A. Adu Boahen ed., General History of Africa VII: Africa under Colonial Domination 1880-1935

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