Kimberley was born in the dust, dreams, and disappointments of a rudimentary mining camp that grew into a city of grace and sophistication in some quarters, still evident in many of its early buildings. Today Kimberley is a city of about 200,000 people spread out around its diamond mines—giant holes in the earth, like inverted koppies (hills). Kimberley has a host of comfortable guesthouses, a few good restaurants, and many historical attractions, making it a wonderful place to spend a few days. It's an easy trip of about 4 to 4½ hours from Johannesburg on a good highway, but is almost 13 hours on much worse roads from Cape Town. (In South Africa the term easy driving means driving on good roads—no potholes, gravel, or single lanes—not distances, which are sometimes vast.)
Kimberley's colonial beginnings date to 1869, when diamonds were first discovered in the area. Through the late 1860s alluvial diamonds were mined on the banks of the Vaal River near Barkly West, about 30 km (19 miles) away. These were all but forgotten after the finds in Kimberley of five pipes bearing the diamondiferous Kimberlite, or "blue ground," so called because of its color. In 1871 the richest pipe of all, the Kimberley Mine (now known as the Big Hole), was discovered. Diggers from around the world flocked to stake claims in the mine, which produced more than 14.5 million carats before its closure in 1914, making it one of the richest diamond mines in history. At times there were as many as 30,000 people working in the hole, burrowing like a giant colony of termites. The history of the diamond fields is dominated by eccentric personalities, like Barney Barnato, who came to South Africa with so little, he had to walk to the diamond fields, yet died a magnificently wealthy man. Then there was Cecil John Rhodes, the diamond magnate and colonizer who aspired to paint the map of Africa red for Britain and to build a railroad from Cape Town to Cairo.
Both Rhodes and Barnato were shrewd businessmen. They watched diggers toiling at their individual claims in Kimberley's five holes. When the miners met what they perceived to be bedrock, they would often give up and stop digging, but what they were actually hitting was unweathered, hard blue ground that was fabulously rich in diamonds. The two men then snapped up claims at bargain prices, all the time increasing their shares in the mines. Eventually Barnato and Rhodes merged their companies into the De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd. Today De Beers is the world's most powerful diamond-mining company. Its historic headquarters is still on Stockdale Street in Kimberley.
In addition to the allure of diamonds, another central part of Kimberley's history was its attack by the Boers during the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902). Kimberley's proximity to the border of the then Boer Republic of the Orange Free State and its international fame as a diamond town occupied by prominent British citizens (including Rhodes) made it an ideal siege target. For four months in the summer of 1899 the town's citizens suffered dwindling rations, disease, Boer shell fire, and other hardships. British efforts to relieve the town were thwarted by the Boers at the famous Battle of Magersfontein, but eventually a sustained cavalry charge led by Major-General John French broke through to the beleaguered town. Kimberley's part in the Anglo-Boer War is brought to life everywhere through monuments, buildings, and statues.