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Barnato was born Barnett Isaacs (1851-97) who started his working life at 14 in his father’s shop in Petticoat Lane. London. Barnato was a stage name. He was intelligent but ill-educated; he was adventurous and possessed physical courage.

Barney Barnato …

Who Was for Sometime One of the World’s Wealthiest Men

“Diamonds are Forever”

South Africa’s history is replete with rags-to-riches stories, but few so incredible as that of Barney Barnato, who possessed diamonds, gold and a lightning combination punch to the midriff. His vibrant character stood in contrast to the dourer mien of his rival on the Kimberley diamond fields, Cecil John Rhodes. Barney Barnato, who sold his diamond empire to Cecil John Rhodes for more than 5-million Pounds Stirling (making him a billionaire by any modern-day standards), had to walk from Cape Town to Kimberley when he arrived from London he was so poor (a distance of about 1000km), and began his working life in Kimberley as a boxing jack of all trades.

When Payne’s Travelling Circus came to Kimberley in the mid-1870s, their main drawcard was The Champion of Angola, a behemoth of a boxer who took on all comers for a gold medal.

The relatively tiny Barnato climbed into the ring fully dressed – he even kept his little round spectacles on his nose. Barney literally pummelled the giant about the midriff and finally finished him with a blow to the solar plexus.

He then entertained the roaring crowd by juggling his bowler hat and three bottles and finished off by quoting a soliloquy from Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

That was the nature of the most colourful character on the Kimberley diamond fields, a bustling dynamo who believed in the true wealth that lay below in the so-called ‘blue ground’, the rock now known as kimberlite. Barney Barnato, born Barnett Isaacs Barnato, arrived in South Africa from England at the age of 20. He arrived in South Africa penniless, but within 10 years he was a millionaire.

In the late 1800′s and more than 8,000 miles away from America in the backdrop of a burgeoning diamond industry, people were travelling to South Africa in search of opportunity and wealth. Most of them were English, including the two that emerged as the dominant figures: Barney Barnato and Cecil Rhodes. They were competitors, friends and bitter rivals.

South Africa has had its share of colourful characters, many of whom have been associated with the mining industry. Usually the person whose name first comes to mind is Cecil Rhodes, one of the founders of diamond giant De Beers, but what other man who founded De Beers – Barney Barnato. One of the unusual things about him is that he still enjoys a good reputation even though he has been dead for over a hundred years. This is in contrast to Rhodes, whose reputation is mixed at best.

Barney Barnato was born on the 4th July 1852 in the Whitechapel slum of London. Barney was the son of a small shopkeeper off Petticoat Lane, one of the best-known streets in London’s East End, Barnato was in every respect the complete antithesis of Rhodes. Barnato was an extrovert, imbued with Jewish-Cockney wit and humour. After leaving school at fourteen, he obtained a number of odd jobs including being a ‘bouncer’ at a public house and appearing on stage at a music hall.

His family was poor – his father a seller of second-hand clothing. Barney and Harry went to the local Hebrew Free School in Bell Lane until they were 14, before they were co-opted to help the family business, selling clothes from a wheelbarrow. It was evident that Barney was a natural salesman with a lightning mouth and the incredible ability to sell anything and persuade people that they were getting a bargain. “I’m not here today and gone tomorrow.” He would shout. “I’m here today and gone today.”

He soon became infatuated with the theatre and would spend spare hours outside theatres in the West End, scrounging tickets from people who left at intermission. Which he sold. He rarely got to see a show

Barneys sister Kate married Joel Joel, the landlord of the local pub, the King of Prussia. Harry got a job behind the bar, which was frequented by some actors. Barney managed to get in with them too – and was soon watching theatre from the wings. He believed that he was as talented as any other actor. Soon brother Harry learnt to juggle and do sleight of hand tricks. Barney’s talent was in acrobatics. The two worked out a show and started performing. Among other legends, the audience preferred Harry and gave him loud applause at which the theatre manager would shout: ‘And Barney Too!’

The brothers, not wanting to associate their family name with clowning about on stage, decided that this had a good ring to it, sounding almost Italian. Thus ‘Barney too’, became ‘Barnato’ and the Barnato Brothers were born.

Their father also taught them how to box, and Barney fancied himself as a good boxer and fought a number of times, probably for money.

Twice a week, old man Isaacs would clear out his shop, or the yard if it wasn’t raining and section off a boxing ring. Then Barnett, his brother Harry and their cousin David Harris would take turns boxing each other. Old Isaac insisted they hit hard and fight fair. He wanted them to be able to look after themselves and grow up strong. This was about the best thing Isaac could offer his children, and it stood Barney in good stead throughout his life. He often repeated the words his old man had taught him in the ring:

“Never let a man put his hand on you without giving him what for – and always ‘it ‘im first.”

Several of his relatives left for South Africa after hearing of the discovery of diamonds there. When they heard about the diamonds discovered in 1866, Harry and his cousin David Harris went off to make their fortunes. His only capital on arrival at the diamond fields consisted of a box of cigars – of doubtful quality – which he hoped to sell to the diggers.

Barnato moved from taking small risks to making calculated investment decisions with long term consequences. His success depended on both luck and astute judgement. Barnato was the first to understand the diamond finding prospects of the blue ground.

The Tiffany Yellow Diamond

Barnato travelled by steamship arriving in Cape Town from London after 27 days, and then walked 621 miles for 2 months to the diamond fields. He described this part of the journey as “one of the jolliest times I have ever had. The accommodations consisted of permission to walk alongside a wagon when it moved, and to sleep under it when it stopped. I made my fieriest acquaintance with mealy porridge and biltong (corn cakes and sundered antelope) and have a keen relish for both still. I have not been very well or bright for some months before leaving England, but the wagon journey, or rather tramp over the veld, put me right…”

Barnato was to become one of the most colourful people in Kimberly; much of his success lay in the fact that he was such a character and people simply enjoyed doing business with him.  Barnato was perhaps one of the greatest South African legends. He found his fortune and fame as a young man in the quest for the diamonds of Africa.

He was short, noisy, brash, near-sighted, and quick-witted. While he was building a reputation for himself as a kopje-wallpaper (small time diamond buyer), he took up boxing gigs with Payne’s Traveling Circus and other companies to subsidize his income. Barney was very proud of his boxing skills. He also acted a bit, and not very well, including the works of Shakespeare. Some audience members were so amused by a 5’3 man with a cockney accent playing Othello or Hamlet that they would laugh out loud, and in one instance Barney jumped off stage, knocked the man out and returned to the stage to carry on with his performance.

Barnato had several fits and starts of the same business model of buying diamonds from diggers at the lowest possible price (sealing all transactions with a cheap, stale cigar) and selling at the highest possible price. This effort was mostly unsuccessful. He first collaborated with his brother and then with Louis Cohen, who Barney met a bar in Kimberley after a fly landed on Louis’ nose and in an attempt to swat at it he scattered his bowl of soup across the bar. In these early days Barney made mistakes. He was largely unfamiliar with uncut diamonds or their value. One plan that paid off for a short while was the purchase of an old horse from another kopje-walloper leaving South Africa. The horse followed the route of his previous owner, allowing for new locations and introductions purchase cheap diamonds. His business dealings progressed and failed in undulation and it wasn’t long before Barney realized there needed to be a central body controlling the price of diamonds.

By 1876 Barney purchased four claims at the Kimberly mine, the maximum allotment at the time was 10. It seemed a terrible time to making new purchases because most of the yellow ground was gone.  (Yellow ground is limonite, an iron-rich rock that’s also the host rock of turquoise.) Kimberley natives believed the diamonds were only scattered in yellow ground so when it started running out many claim holders gave up their claims. While it was geologically unknown at the time, Barnato believed the bulk of the diamonds lay below yellow ground in blue ground, an igneous rock now known as kimberlite. Year after year Barnato purchased more claims until in 1887 he owned 40% of the Kimberley mine.

Enter Cecil Rhodes. His friends called him the Colossus which is no doubt in reference to the enormous statue of the Greek sun-god Helios on the island of Rhodos, also known as the Colossus of Rhodes which stood for about 60 years (280-226 BC) at almost 100′ before being destroyed by an earthquake. In fact Cecil felt he was a god and he was described by political theorist, Hannah Arendt as someone who could “do nothing wrong, what he did became right.” Because there is so much written about Cecil Rhodes’ I’ll only mention the highlights which are that he was one of 12 children born to a poor English vicar, he arrived in South Africa at age 17 in 1870 and within 2 years he was financially independent. He returned to England for an education at Oxford, founded the De Beers Consolidated Mining Ltd., years later he was elected Prime Minister to South Africa. He died at 48 years old and left the bulk of his money in an endowment to Oxford to fund scholarships in his name, The Rhodes Scholarships.

So, Barnaby joined forces with a Louis Cohen, starting a small company. They would tour the diggings in and around the Big Hole, buying and selling stones. Barney always sealed a deal with both parties taking a swig from a brandy bottle he carried around. About this time, the flow of diamonds from the yellow sand started to dry up. But Barney had listened to a geologist, Dr. Atherstone, who told him how diamonds were formed and pushed to the surface in pipes. Barney basically bet all the company’s money on buying up some claims and started to dig the blue soil (Kimberlite) below the yellow. At first few diamonds were found, and then they flowed freely. By the end of the year they had sold £100 000 worth – a fortune at the time.

Of course, success brought notoriety – and people accused Barney of dealing in stolen stones. He always denied this, and no charges were ever laid.

This success brought him into conflict with Rhodes, who wanted the money from diamonds to finance his sweeping political ambitions in Southern Africa. After a battle lasting several months, in which the shares of Barney’s company soared as a result of take-over attempts, Rhodes out-manoeuvred Barney, forcing him to sell his share of the company in return for positions in De Beers – the company that resulted from the various mergers. Barney took home a cool £4,000 000. Some historians believe that Rhodes eventually clinched the deal by offering Barney membership in the prestigious Kimberley Club, something that Barney had wanted as proof of his acceptance in the community. He also became a member of the Cape parliament.

At this point in Barnato’s life it can’t be overstated how desperately he wanted to be taken seriously and accepted in local gentlemanly society, despite his youthful tomfoolery of walking in to the Savoy in London on is hands etc, and so Rhodes promised to secure Barnato a membership to the exclusive Kimberley Club. He did this knowing that Barnato couldn’t refuse such bait.

The Kimberley Diamond Mine (also known as the Big Hole) holds the (disputed) title of being the largest hand-dug hole in the world. Barnato wanted to mine diamonds, Rhodes wanted to conquer Africa, build a railway from Cape to Cairo and had an imperial dream and diamonds were simply the vehicle for success. For Barnato joining the snooty Kimberley Club and becoming the Kimberley member of the Cape Parliament lured him into the Rhodes orbit. Barnato emerged as a man who enjoyed his new found wealth, spent lavishly and put down roots in South Africa. His primary interests were in sports, money and horse racing. 

Two men created a company that would rule an industry and an age. They forged the image that “diamonds are forever” in order to promote the carefully constructed illusion of value. These two men are Barney Barnato and Cecil John Rhodes who together through their exploits in Africa created the diamond and mining company of De Beers Consolidated Mines.

From its very establishment, the Kimberley Club was an exclusive highly vetted gentlemen’s club.

When the club opened in 1881, membership was limited to just 250 men, which went some way towards illustrating the exclusiveness of the establishment and the high social standing of its members.

Membership was much desired by the men of ascending wealth and power as it revealed, to a certain degree, one’s respectability and standing within Kimberley’s diamond mining society. However, not all men of wealth and power were deemed worthy enough to be part of that exclusive circle.

One such man was Barney Barnato.

Barnato was plagued by a reputation as an illicit diamond dealer, besides some other unsavoury characteristics, and, thus, much of Kimberley’s high society considered him no more than a rogue who was not worthy enough to join an establishment as respectable as the Kimberley Club.

For many years, Barnato tried, unsuccessfully, to join the club. He could never find a member willing to forward his name, let alone another willing to second such a nomination. At the time he was seeking the rewards of social status, Barnato was actively establishing himself as one of the leading diamond mining magnates in Kimberley.

Between 1877 and 1887, he rose from being a small-time diamond trader with an initial capital of some £20 to the largest single holder of diamond scrip in Kimberley, personally owning 40% of the Kimberley mine. Although by 1887 Barnato was one of the wealthiest men in Kimberley and was certainly one of the most powerful mining magnates, he was still deemed ineligible to join the Kimberley Club.

inducements that Rhodes used to encourage Barnato to abandon his own scheme of amalgamation, which centred around Kimberley Central Mining Company, and to throw in his lot behind Rhodes and De Beers.

It is said that during the final stage of negotiations between Rhodes and Barnato to formalise the amalagamation of the mines and to establish the company that would control that diamond mining monopoly, Rhodes offered him all sorts of emoluments. Besides offering him a perpetual fortune as one of the major shareholders of the new De Beers Consolidated Mines, Rhodes also offered him a life directorship of that company, which would soon be “worth as much as the balance of Africa”.

Rhodes also promised to ensure that he would be elected to the Cape legislative assembly and, most importantly, Rhodes promised to help Barnato secure membership of the Kimberley Club, adding: “I propose to make a gentleman of you.”

It would be some four years later, in 1892, that Rhodes finally managed to convince another member to second the nomination and Barnato was admitted into that exclusive gentlemen’s circle.

Tiffany Yellow Diamond is one of the largest yellow diamonds ever discovered.

A while later Barney was tempted by the gold that had been found in the Johannesburg area in 1886, and started the Johannesburg Consolidated Investment company (JCI), which also became very successful and profitable.
The gold rush caused great tensions between the miners, called uitlanders or foreigners, and the Boers in whose country the mines had been found. Soon the uitlanders outnumbered the locals, and President Kruger and his parliament changed the voting laws to make it difficult for the foreigners to get the vote. Obviously they were scared of being ousted. Rhodes saw this as an opportunity and encouraged a raid into the Transvaal by a small force led by a Dr. Jameson. It was a total fiasco, and some of the some of the supporters of the raid in Johannesburg were tried for treason and sentenced to death. Barney threatened President Kruger that he would pull all his businesses out of Johannesburg unless these death sentences were commuted. Eventually Kruger capitulated and the men were spared. At the time JCI employed 20,000 Whites and 100,000 Blacks on the mines.

Several months later and Barney started acting strangely. He became more eccentric, began drinking heavily and suffered bouts of depression. In 1897 he decided to return to England aboard the Scot, believing that a sea voyage would do him good. Traveling with his wife Fanny, his two children and Solly. Allegedly, Barney was on deck, taking a walk with Solly, after lunch. The two were deep in conversation, then, by Solly’s account, Barney inexplicably ran to the railing, climbed it and jumped overboard. The Scott’s fourth officer William Tarrant Clifford distinctly heard someone shout, ‘Murder!’ He turned to see Solly Joel hanging onto Barneys clothes as the man fell overboard. Clifford immediately dived in after Barnato but could not save him. Upon arrival in Madeira the coroner’s report declared ‘death by drowning while temporarily insane’. Barnato’s widow would never accept that her husband had taken his own life.

9 months later his nephew Woolf was killed by a German extortionist named Von Veltheim, This intriguingly left Solly Joel in command of the Barnato family fortune. Under the terms of Barneys will, after his family had been provided for, the sole survivor of the company took the rest.

Years later, according to historian James Leasor, Barney’s grand daughter Diana discussed Barney’s demise with her cousin Stanhope Joel – Solly’s son, who believed that his father had killed Barney. Herbert Valentine Falk, Diana’s grandfather had heard rumours of an argument between Solly and Barney before Barney’s death and decided to investigate. He eventually got permission to see the company’s books and found the relevant pages ripped out. After a court case to get access to the rest of the books, Mr Falk discovered that Solly had indeed swindled Barney out of £1 000 000. Which Solly then begrudgingly repaid to the family, with interest.

Alas, the mystery surrounding the death of Barney Barnato remains just that. At least old Barney was true to the theatrical maxim by which he lived:

“Always wind up with a good curtain, and bring it down before the public gets tired – or has had time to find you out.”

Solly became one of the world’s richest, yet most unhappy men. His eldest son was a failure at business, decided on fruit farming in Egypt and died, or was murdered, en route. Solly then cut himself off from his favourite daughter, Doris, when she married. The rest of his life he was known as uncharitable, miserly and miserable.

Throughout his life, Barney never forgot his roots and provided funds for various Jewish institutions in London, including his old school. Today there is a school and a suburb named after him in Johannesburg – Barnato Park.

The mystery surrounding Barney’s death remains just that.

Barney Barnato is buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Willesden, London.

From the family: It’s always upset the family,  history had portrayed Barney as a drunk who either fell or jumped overboard. We all know he was pushed! I’m not sure if it is urban myth or not, but I was always told that one of the reasons for Barney’s trip back to London was to disinherit Solly (his nephew) for his part in the botched Jaimeson raids. This would show the motive on Solly’s part.

Nancy du Tertre:  I discovered, by “accident,” that my great-grand uncle was Barney Barnato. My grandfather told me the “untold” story of his death. He also told me that his father, my great grandfather, used to receive raw diamonds from Barney in the mail and throw them away. He thought they were rocks!!!

Barney Barnato | South African History Online

Murder is Everywhere: Barney Barnato

Barney Barnato – Wikipedia

The story behind “Barney” Barnato – tokencoins.com

Barney Barnato | British financier | Britannica.com

Barney Barnato – South African Tourism

Rhodes and Barnato essays

Our History – De Beers Group

Barney Barnato, a social pariah – Mining Weekly

Jingo | Journalism | Mere Immortals | Barney Barnato

Famous People in the Diamond Industry | CT Diamond Museum

Barney Barnato 

One of the Earliest Biographies of Barney Barnato | The Heritage Portal

Cecil John Rhodes – Heritage History

BBC – Who Do You Think You Are? – Esther Rantzen – How we did it …

 


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