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Barnett Isaacs (‘Barney’) Barnato (1852 - 1897) was a key figure in the early development of the mining industry in South Africa, and became first a competitor and then a close associate of Cecil Rhodes. Barnato was born in England but, drawn by tales from the newly opened diamond fields around Kimberley, travelled to South Africa in 1873. There he joined his brother Harry at Kimberley and the two quickly became involved in diamond dealing, setting up the partnership of Barnato Brothers. By 1876 the brothers were able to diversify into mining and bought a small block of claims, which proved profitable and enabled them to expand further still. In the same year Barnato was elected a member of the Kimberley municipal council, with allegations of bribery (Newbury 2004).
In 1887 Barnato Brothers agreed to an amalgamation with Cecil Rhodes’s De Beers Company. Barnato agreed to transfer his shares to Rhodes in exchange for, amongst other things, a quota of diamond sales to Barnato Brothers, a lifetime governorship of the new De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited, and also electoral support. The latter enabled Barnato to enter the Cape assembly in November 1888 as a member for Kimberley, although he was not especially politically active as MP. Later after the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand, Barnato shifted his attention to the gold mining industry. In 1887 he set up the Johannesburg Waterworks Company as a profitable monopoly.
Unlike many other of the so-called ‘randlords’, Barnato was not a member of the Transvaal National Union which agitated for greater franchise rights for the ‘uitlanders’ (‘foreigners’ living and working in the Transvaal), and he was not involved in the conspiracy culminating in the Jameson Raid of 1895 either. Instead he was known for his lavish, opulent lifestyle and his at-times thuggish behaviour; he had been known to brawl openly in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, for example. In the period after the Jameson Raid, Barnato’s health and mental stability deteriorated and he sailed to England in June 1897. He jumped overboard en route and drowned. His body was retrieved and the coroner at Southampton recorded a verdict of suicide.
For further information see:
Stanley Jackson (1970) The Great Barnato London: Heinemann
James Leasor (1997) Rhodes & Barnato: The Premier and the Prancer London: Leo Cooper
Colin Newbury (2004) ‘Barnato, Barnett Isaacs (1852-1897)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/1464
Brian Roberts (1972) The Diamond Magnates London: Hamilton
Geoffrey Wheatcroft (1985) The Randlords: The Men who Made South Africa London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
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