Barney Barnato

Barney Barnato (Barnett Isaacs 1852 – 1897) was the son of a small shopkeeper off Petticoat Lane in London’s East End (England).
After leaving school at fourteen, he obtained a number of odd jobs including being a ‘bouncer’ at a public inn and appearing on stage in music hall.
Several of his relatives left for South Africa after hearing of the discovery of diamonds in what is now Kimberley in the Northern Cape. His brother Harry had gone out in 1871 and had been working as a comedian and conjurer.
Barnato followed them, joining his brother on the small stage in 1873, where he would call out, ‘…and Barnett too!’. This often repeated phrase evolved to the point that he changed his name to Barnato.
Barnato’s granddaughter, Diana Barnato Walker in 2003 recalls, ‘The reason he went was because his brother Harry had gone out and he wrote back with these glowing stories that the streets of Kimberley were paved with gold, and the diamonds were there for picking up. Barney got enthused about this, and his uncle, who kept the King of Prussia public house in the Mile End Road gave him four boxes of bad cigars as capital. When he got there he found his brother living in a tent with his toes sticking out of his socks.’
Barnato became an itinerant buyer of diamonds, his genial personality proving a useful asset. In time, he bought four claims in the centre of the Kimberley Mine and prospered so that he was able to form the Barnato Diamond Mining Company.
He kept on buying up claims and in 1885 he merged his Barnato Diamond Mining Company with that of Baring-Gould’s to form the Kimberley Central Mining Company.
Cecil Rhodes was actively buying up claims at the same time, but since his company was going so well, Barnato saw no reason to join any scheme of Rhodes’ for amalgamation.
However, one obstacle lay in the path of the Kimberley Central, namely the Compagnie Français de Diamant du Cap known locally as the French Company. By virtue of its position within the Kimberley mine and the policy it pursued, the French Company impeded any success of future operations by Barnato’s Kimberley Central.
Consequently Barnato made proposals to the French – but Cecil Rhodes had already done likewise and had succeeded in raising the finance necessary for the purchase of the French Company in Paris.
Cecil Rhodes then laid a trap for his rival. He told Barnato that he could acquire the French Company if he wanted it and would not ask for cash in payment, only the equivalent in Kimberley Central’s recently issued shares. By this means Rhodes was able to secure a foothold in the form of one-fifth of Kimberley Central’s capital.
The stage was now set for a titanic battle for the remainder of Kimberley Central’s shares. Both Cecil Rhodes and Barnato bought recklessly, and at a time when the price of diamonds barely covered the cost of production, the company’s shares soared from £14 to £49 within a few months.
Eventually Rhodes and his associates could claim to own three-fifths of Kimberley Central’s shares and Barnato realized he had been beaten.
Lekker Links
The Tiffany Yellow diamond Legend has it that Cecil Rhodes, after a weary twenty-eight hours of negotiation, suddenly produced a bucket heaped with diamonds. ‘Sign, Barney, and it’s all yours,’ Rhodes is purported to have said. ‘You can’t win me with bribes’, Barnato replied, ‘but you have your fancy, as other men have theirs, and I see that I shall have to give you the means to go North.’
Stockdale Street, Kimberley
Originally the headquarters of Barney Barnato’s Kimberley Central Diamond Mining Company, it has been in use since 1888 as the  De Beers headquarters.
In March 1888 Barnato surrendered his control of the Kimberley Central Mining Company, accepting the terms which gave Cecil Rhodes the control he had sought. However, some of Kimberley Central’s shareholders disapproved of Barnato selling out to Rhodes and challenged the merger in the Courts.
It was the judge who told them that if Barnato agreed to put Kimberley Central into voluntary liquidation, the De Beers Mining Company could simply purchase its assets. Cecil Rhodes gained Barnato’s support to amalgamate the two companies and on 13th March 1888 De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited was formerly incorporated.
As part of the deal Cecil Rhodes made Barnato one of the four life-governors, arranged for him to be elected as Kimberley’s member of Parliament in the Cape Assembly and procured him membership to the exclusive Kimberley Club.
Rhodes wrote out a cheque for £5,338,650 for the assets of Kimberley Central, which in those days was the largest sum of money ever covered in a single cheque, four million pounds of which went into the pockets of the Barnato Brothers.
The new De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited took over assets which represented the whole of the De Beers Mining Company, three-quarters of the Kimberley Central Mining Company and a controlling interest in the Bultfontein and Dutoitspan Mines.
Barnato remained member of parliament for Kimberley from 1889 until his untimely death in 1897.
Barnato’s granddaughter, Diana Barnato Walker recalls in 2003 that her grandfather was influential in obtaining the release of Dr Leander Starr Jameson from the 1896 Boer government in the Transvaal, ‘There is a lovely photograph somewhere with Barney sitting with Oom Paul Kruger on the stoep of his house in Pretoria, with Oom Paul in a very tall top hat. It was Barney who negotiated with Oom Paul to get all his pals out after the Jameson Raid.’
In 1897 Barney Barnato died unexpectedly, reportedly committing suicide by jumping into the ocean and drowning from a ship taking him to England. His body was recovered and buried in Willesden Jewish Cemetery, London, England.

Latest posts

  • Johnny Clegg

    Jonathan (Johnny) Clegg was born June 7, 1953 in Rochdale near Manchester in England. Already in his youth, Johnny Clegg, a white, English-speaking person with what he called a ‘secular Jewish’ upbringing in Britain, Israel, Zimbabwe and South Africa, became interested in Zulu street music and took part in traditional Zulu dance competitions. As a […]

    Read more

  • Wessels

    Away fro city life… I met a European couple (the guy from the Netherlands and the girl from UK) in Australia a couple of years ago. They are now planning to come visit South Africa later this year and I thought it may be useful for European travellers to hear a South African’s opinion of […]

    Read more

  • how many months income do you need for a mortgage in south africa

    It is a common misconception that you need a large deposit to get a mortgage in South Africa. You can actually get a mortgage with a deposit of as little as 3% of the purchase price. However, the size of your deposit will affect the interest rate you are offered and the amount you will […]

    Read more