The story of Barney Barnato is South Africa's original rags to riches tale. He set the example for a generation of European fortune seekers, eking out an existence in colonial South Africa. One of Johannesburg's founding fathers, his rapid rise, raffish character and mysterious demise has left an indelible impression on South African history.

The Early Years

Born Barnett Isaacs, the son of a religious, East End second hand clothing seller in 1852. He lived above their shop and shared a bed with his brother Harry in Cobbs Court - an area known as Petticoat Lane.

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."

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.

The Diamond Rush

Working the theatre and doing their rounds buying and selling anything they could turn a profit on, the Barnatos soon realised they were not making any real money at all. Their cousin David Harris, heard about the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley, persuaded his mom to hand over her life savings of £150 and departed for the Cape to seek his fortune. Harris knew nothing about diamonds and suffered at first. He learnt as much as he could as quickly as possible working as a kopje-walloper , the lowest form of independent diamond buyer. Soon enough Harry joined him in Kimberley, calling himself 'Signor Barnato. The Greatest Wizard Ever Known'. Perhaps making things disappear was not the wisest choice of careers in a mining boom town where diamond theft was endemic. Harry's career as a diamond buyer was doomed to failure and his savings steadily diminished leaving him impoverished until David Harris managed to persuade a diamond buyer by the name of Van Praagh to employ Harry. In his letters home, Harry spoke only of his great prosperity.

Barney was circumspect until one day David Harris returned to London unexpectedly. Apparently, down on his luck, David went into a Kimberley saloon where the owner offered free drinks to anyone who gambled there. In order not to appear to be scrounging a free drink, which was his intention, David put down a coin on a number. In a second he was £1400 richer. He immediately left the bar and booked himself a passage back to London, where he repaid his mother the £150 and resolved to return to Kimberley and use the rest to set himself up as a diamond buyer. Barney got caught up in the bright lights of the dream. He saved up £30 and his brother in-law Joel Joel gave him forty boxes of dodgy cigars.

When he arrived in Cape Town rumours abounded that there were no more diamonds left and the boom was over. Despite this wave of pessimism Barney headed for Kimberley, about 900km from Cape Town. He found a driver taking an ox wagon North who agreed, for £5, to take Barney's luggage the whole way. Barney walked alongside the wagon. It took 6 weeks.

He found his brother Harry, sick with fever and living in a tent. Although things looked bad, the Barnato brothers were well trained for the adversity they faced. They had much experience in buying and selling, they were enthusiastic, hard working, theatrical, innovative and tended towards optimism in difficult circumstances.

Barney set about making friends and influencing people. He worked as a kopje-walloper and general entrepreneur as well as a boxer and theatrical performer. Soon enough Barney met Louis Cohen and the two started a diamond buying and selling business. Louis put £60 into the partnership and Barney brought his £30 and what was left of the dodgy cigars. Louis was not so sure about these cigars and complained that after attempting to smoke one he felt ill, to which Barney replied that he obviously was not used to smoking such high quality Havana cigars, which were an acquired taste.

Barney toured the diamond fields, like many other kopje-wallopers , but he was always cheerful and carried a bottle of brandy, a hit of which was used to seal any deal he had negotiated. Eventually they hired a small corrugated office next door to a pub, near Kimberley's rapidly deepening big hole. Rather than visiting the diggers, this arrangement allowed the diggers to visit them.

Enthusiastic and sociable, Barney was out on the town most nights, drinking, playing cards and more importantly gathering information. Louis Cohen objected to this behaviour and decided to terminate the partnership. As Leasor put it, Barney sold him the office and squared without even bothering to check the books, saying: "If you'd wanted to rob me you had plenty of time to do it. We've trusted each other. Give me what you reckon is my due."

The Turning Point

After another failed partnership, in which Barney's partner did, in fact, try to screw him, he went into business with his brother. Harry took full control of all the money Barney brought in from his daily rounds. As the mine got to the bottom of what was known as the 'yellow ground' diamonds were becoming scarcer. Living and working conditions in Kimberley were deteriorating fast, as it became more difficult to mine. Dr Atherstone, the geologist who had identified the Eureka, the first diamond discovered in South Africa, returned to Kimberley to see the situation for himself. From him, Barney learned how diamonds had formed, and how they had been forced up to the surface in volcanic eruptions, causing diamond pipes, like a funnel growing steadily smaller the deeper it went. Barney, like Atherstone, figured there must be more diamonds in a smaller area, the deeper one dug down the diamond pipe. The easier 'yellow ground' had been dug out. Below lay the hard 'blue ground'. Explosives and more expensive mining methods would be needed to extract the rock, which may or may not yield more diamonds.

Barney buoyed by Atherstone's theory, and his own intuition, believed implicitly that the biggest diamonds were yet to be found. In 1876 the Barnatos managed to secure four adjoining claims in the Kimberley mine for £3000. This was virtually all of their capital. Teetering precariously close to bankruptcy, the Barnatos began working the 'blue ground'. It was an enormous gamble against the weight of public opinion. For weeks they hauled up buckets of the hard 'blue ground' with very few diamonds. Then the buckets started to unearth some major rocks. Diamonds of great value spilled forth. In one week they paid off the claim. In one hour the following week, as the legend goes, Barney found more than 30 diamonds and sold them for £10 000, half of their real worth. Soon the Barnatos claims were yielding £2000 a week, by the end of the year they had sold around £100 000 worth of diamonds. They were stinking rich!

Due to their incredible success in the Kimberley mine, rumours soon followed that the Barnato's were dealing in stolen diamonds. It was a smear that stuck, but was never proven. A mixture of spite, envy and a touch of anti-semitism fuelled the gossip of less successful diamond diggers. They whispered that the Barnato's output was too great, and of too high a quality to be lawful.

Being a self-made multl-millionaire from an impoverished background; the connection with Illicit Diamond Buying (IDB) cut Barney deep.

The Big Buy-out

Cecil John Rhodes needed control of the South African diamond industry - to finance his imperial ambitions into Africa. To do this he needed to control the Kimberley Central Mine, which set him on a collision course with Barnato who owned the majority of the Kimberley hole. This competition sparked a bidding war, as Rhodes and Barnato bought up whatever spare claims existed in the mine. Rhodes and Barnato went into battle over the Compagnie Francaise des Mines de Diamants du Cap , simply known as the French Company. Rhodes received financial backing from the Rothschild family bought out the French company and offered it to Barnato for a nominal fee and a one fifth holding in Barnato's Kimberley Central. Barnato begrudgingly agreed and then realised his mistake. Now that Rhodes had a foothold in his company a massive financial battle ensued as Rhodes attempted to buy out more of Barnato's company. As the bidding intensified, the price of the shares rocketed. In March 1888, after a series of tireless negotiations Rhodes and Barnato agreed to merge the Kimberley Central Mine with Rhodes' De Beers Mining Company.

The real-politik of the deal lay in Rhodes' understanding of Barnato's character. He knew the chink in Barnato's armour was his perception of himself. What Barnato craved more than anything was to 'social acceptance'. Despite his obvious wealth, in the class and race obsessed 19 th century, he had been repeatedly snubbed for membership by the Kimberley Club. On his behalf Rhodes challenged this and the committee relented.

'We'll make a gentleman of you yet,' Rhodes was said to have teased.

Barney's other ambition was to be a member of parliament in Cape Town. Rhodes put Barney forward as a candidate for election on the ticket that he spoke for the diggers and understood the diamond fields and their associated politics better than most. Barney won the seat for Kimberley. Soon after he agreed to merge companies with Rhodes. Barney was made a life governor of De Beers Consolidated Mines.

Slow road to Jozi

A few years earlier David Harris had travelled up to the Transvaal to investigate the discovery of gold. Barney, again, was circumspect of the enterprise, despite Harris' meticulous research and approval. Only after the De Beers deal did Barnato express any real interest in gold mining and Johannesburg. He became more enthusiastic after realising how successful other 'randlords' Rhodes, Alfred Beit and JG Robinson had been.

In 1889 Barney started Johannesburg Consolidated Investments or JCI. Johannesburg became the stomping ground for the diversification of Barney's portfolio. He and Solly Joel surveyed areas still available for mining. He did very well in gold, but it was not his only interest. They invested heavily in property, banking on the belief that Johannesburg would expand with the boom in gold. He bought a share in a syndicate that was to become the city's Waterworks - at a time when the whole region was facing a prolonged drought. He invested further in a printing company, booze company, building materials and transport.

In business as in life, Barney took no shit. One yarn describes how at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange he overheard one of the traders refer to him as a 'little Yid who should go back to the East End.' Barnato quickly crossed the floor and flattened him. The committee of the Stock Exchange declared they must both resign, to which Barney responded: 'How can I resign when I own the bloody place.' Which was quite true.

The Jameson Raid

As the gold rush boomed it posed a great problem for Oom Paul Kruger and his Transvaal Boer Republic. Already 'die Uitlanders', outnumbered the Boers 6 to 1 in Johannesbyurg. Kruger desperately needed the mining revenue for his economy. At the same time the British Empire looked on enviously, coveting Kruger's gold. In 1895 Cecil Rhodes devised a cunning plan to oust the Boers from power with the help of Johannesburg's 'Uitlanders' and a British backed militia from Rhodesia, led by Dr Leander Starr Jameson. The subsequent balls up became known as the Jameson raid. On his way to Johannesburg, he ordered his men to cut the telegraph line between Bloemfontein and Pretoria, but his men, reportedly still drunk from the night before, cut the line from Cape Town to Salisbury - which meant that he could not receive any news from Rhodes, while President Kruger was quickly alerted to their approach. It was a stupendous failure. Rhodes was forced to resign from his position as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and Jameson was taken away to stand trial in England. Supporters and organizers of the raid in Johannesburg, a group known as the Reform Committee were charged with treason, the leaders (including Rhodes' brother) were sentenced to death, while the lesser members got 2 years hard labour - including one Solly Joel.

Barney flew into a rage at the sentences handed down and went to visit Oom Paul Kruger, with whom he had cultivated a friendship over the years he spent in Johannesburg. He made the ultimatum that if Kruger did not commute the death sentences Barnato would pull all his business interests out of the Transvaal. This was no idle threat, Barney was at the height of his powers.

'I have 20 000 whites on my pay roll and 100 000 blacks. If I close down I will put more white men out of work than you have burghers in your entire state.

'My concerns also spend £50 000 every week, which will be lost to you. Already thanks to this political crisis my mines have lost £20 000 000 in production. Do you want to ruin your country for good and all?'

Two days later Kruger commuted the death sentences.


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."

If it makes you feel any better

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.


Barney Barnato vs Brett Kebble

Several newspaper pundits and amateur time travel conspiracy theorists will have you believe, that the many similarities between Barney Barnato and Brett Kebble are 'eerie'.

Admittedly there are several, but if you look into it, it's hard to compare a modern day business exec with a colonial Randlord, without aggrandizing one and diminishing the other. They were of completely different times and paradigms. The most obvious confluence between their two narratives is around JCI. The company Barnato started and Kebble came to run and later defraud. Both Kebble and Barnato died under extremely unnatural circumstances, in their mid 40s, with the dominant, hotly contested explanation being that they, 'committed suicide'.

Unlike Brett Kebble, Barney Barnato was a bonafide big fish, for his day. Kebble's JCI when compared with the Anglos, De Beers of the mining world, was small fry.

They say both had an interest and were active in politics. Kebble attempted to play politics for a greater share of power. Barnato gained power through his vast wealth and then became political. He wrangled with Cecil John Rhodes, represented the Cape Parliament as an elected official and blackmailed Paul Kruger. Kebble had to suffice with political minnows in the ANCYL and the ANC's Zuma faction.

Kebble was born into a wealthy family, he sponsored a now defunct art award, named after himself. His legacy is mired in fraud and political corruption.

Barnato was a self-made tycoon who won the praise of his and subsequent generations. His legacy can be likened to laying the cornerstone of the city of Johannesburg. As he said himself: 'I look forward to Johannesburg becoming the financial Gibraltar of South Africa.' Which is pretty good description of modern day Jozi.


Barney Barnato; from Whitechapel clown to diamond king,
by Richard Lewinsohn
Type: English : Book

Publisher: New York, E.P. Dutton ' Co. [1938]
Rough diamond
by Robert L Fish
Type: English : Book : Fiction

Publisher: Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday, 1981.
The great Barnato.
by Stanley Jackson
Type: English : Book

Publisher: London, Heinemann, 1970.
Rhodes & Barnato : the premier and the prancer
by James Leasor
Type: English : Book
Publisher: London : Leo Cooper, 1997.

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