Review: Diamond: The History Of A Cold-Blooded Love Affair By Matthew Hart Essay, Research Paper
No stone unturned Diamond: The History of a Cold-Blooded Love Affair
287pp, Fourth Estate The story of diamonds has often been told, and with good reason: the mining and selling of the sparkling gems provides an exciting caricature of the extremes of capitalism. The exploration and digging in remote corners of the world; the huge investment in equipment and labour; the global networks of the diamond business De Beers; the advertising of diamonds as the key to a woman’s heart – they all provide adventure stories that are also fables about men’s courage, pertinacity and greed. But over the last decade diamonds have acquired a more sinister dimension, as the means by which rebellious groups in Africa can buy weaponry and finance civil wars; and it is that which gives this book a special topicality and opportunity to show expertise. Matthew Hart, a Canadian journalist-novelist, is the editor of the trade paper Rapaport Diamond Report, and thus has unusual access to insiders. He knows how to tell a good yarn, in a brisk, gripping style; but he can also write confidently enough about carats, cutters and cleaving to give his book more authority than most previous histories. He cannot add very much to the most familiar and fundamental story, of the ruthless battles to control the diamond fields in Kimberley that led to the domination first of Cecil Rhodes and then of the Oppenheimer family, who have maintained their personal control of De Beers to this day. But he tells his tales well, with only a few lapses into purple prose (”malfeasance rustles in the background of the diamond world like a snake in dry grass”). He describes the more recent discoveries with much new information and with racy details of both the characters and the gems. His opening chapter about Brazilian diggers who discover an outsized diamond and set about marketing it through successive middle-men gives a fascinating insight into the complexities of the global business. The chapter on the young woman explorer Eira Thomas, who discovered a huge diamond field in the Canadian Arctic and thus finally broke De Beers’s steely grip on the trade, could provide the material for a thrilling epic movie. But it is his account of the diamond wars in Sierra Leone and Angola that provides his most useful contribution to historians and readers who are interested in the dangerous frontier between big business and the developing world. These civil wars show how easily rebel leaders can exploit the ambitions of multinational business in order to undermine a legitimate government, and how precious stones can reduce a fragile state to a condition of anarchy and perpetual civil war. A diamond, with its extreme portability, provides the most convenient means to turn plunder into wealth, and hence into weapons and war. In Sierra Leone the diamond fields are far from the capital; they can sustain mercenary armies that make central government almost impossible. In Angola, the corrupt government in Luanda has control of the offshore oilfields, while the rebel army of Joseph Savimbi uses diamonds to arm its murderous guerrillas. This huge country, potentially one of the richest in Africa, is at the mercy of rival armies financed by western consumers, whose payments do not benefit the impoverished population. It is a new version of the 19th-century “scramble for Africa”, with black leaders now joined with western corporations to take out the mineral wealth of the continent without interference from the African people. The trade in “blood diamonds” or “conflict diamonds” provides an extreme case of the ruination of developing countries by the depredations of commerce and greed. No search for peace in Africa will succeed without effectively controlling the commercial interests which have helped to tear its young nations apart. Hart, with his closeness to the diamond trade and its ingenious entrepreneurs, provides many useful insights into this deadly transformation of gems into financiers of warfare. He shows how for years De Beers was the willing beneficiary of the blood diamonds, and how it boasted of its skill in exploiting the gems whose potential it well knew to be lethal. He quotes a 1992 De Beers report that describes with cold-blooded zeal its profits from the ill-gotten wealth: “That we should have been able to buy some two-thirds of the increased supply from Angola is testimony not only to our financial strength but to the infrastructure and experienced personnel we have in place.” And he dramatically describes the successful efforts of a small crusading group in north London, Global Witness, to expose the role of De Beers, which eventually compelled it to take steps against illicit diamond-selling and to try to exclude conflict diamonds from its international marketing system. Perhaps, as the editor of a trade paper, Hart has his own inhibitions about revealing the full skulduggery of the business. He pays tribute to his own paper and its owner, the diamantaire Martin Rapaport, for revealing the secrets of De Beers; but he deals cautiously with the smooth masterminds of the corporation, including its former chairman, Julian Ogilvie Thompson, and his successor, Nicky Oppenheimer, the third generation of the billionaire family which built up the monopoly. It would be interesting to know more about the many intermediaries between the diamond-diggers in the fields of Angola and Sierra Leone and the grandiose offices of De Beers in London, where the spoils of war have been cleansed to provide huge profits for share holders and elegant sparklers for innocent brides. And there is certainly more to be said about the intricate financial deal by which the Oppenheimer family will now retain effective control of the global giant, while loosening dependence on South Africa and its black government. Hart seems convinced that De Beers is now totally determined to stamp out the trade in smuggled diamonds, and to identify them in the marketplace through new technological devices. But the relations between De Beers and the mercenary armies remain shrouded in mystery; and De Beers is still one of the least transparent of the big corporations. Many diamonds in rings or necklaces have played a part in financing massacres and chaos which neither their wearers nor their suppliers care to investigate too closely. The full story of the illicit trade is still to emerge. But this book provides a highly readable and well-informed guide for those who want to know more about the underside of this outwardly glamorous business. Anyone who looks at the glittering window displays of jewellery shops will think rather differently after reading it.