South Africa’s history is replete with rags-to-riches stories, but few so incredible as that of Barney Barnato, who possessed diamonds, gold and a lightning combination punch to the midriff. His vibrant character stood in contrast to the dourer mien of his rival on the Kimberley diamond fields, Cecil John Rhodes.

Did you know?

Barney Barnato built a huge mansion in Park Lane, London – but never lived in it.

Barney Barnato, who sold his diamond empire to Cecil John Rhodes for more than 5-million Pounds Stirling (making him a billionaire by any modern-day standards), had to walk from Cape Town to Kimberley when he arrived from London he was so poor (a distance of about 1000km), and began his working life in Kimberley as a boxing jack of all trades.

When Payne’s Travelling Circus came to Kimberley in the mid-1870s, their main drawcard was The Champion of Angola, a behemoth of a boxer who took on all comers for a gold medal.

The relatively tiny Barnato climbed into the ring fully dressed – he even kept his little round spectacles on his nose. Barney literally pummelled the giant about the midriff and finally finished him with a blow to the solar plexus.

He then entertained the roaring crowd by juggling his bowler hat and three bottles and finished off by quoting a soliloquy from Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

That was the nature of the most colourful character on the Kimberley diamond fields, a bustling dynamo who believed in the true wealth that lay below in the so-called ‘blue ground’, the rock now known as kimberlite.

Less than 15 years after that fight with the massive Angolan, Barnato and Rhodes controlled the diamond fields. After much haggling and finally getting Barney into the exclusive Kimberley Club (said to be the deal-clincher), Barnato took his millions and went north to Johannesburg.

He founded Johannesburg Consolidated Investments (JCI), prospered with gold and invested hugely in the City of Johannesburg.

It is said that when Transvaal President Paul Kruger sentenced various members of the Jameson Raid group to death for treason, Barney Barnato used his friendship with the old Boer leader to get the sentences commuted.

He often journeyed to London and back by ship. In 1897 he sailed to England on board the Scot with his family. He disappeared overboard into the sea and a later coroner’s report declared ‘death by drowning while temporarily insane’.

Needless to say, the suspicious circumstances of the little mogul’s death at sea are still a matter for conjecture today.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

The Big Hole Museum
Tel: +27 (0)53 830 4600

Kimberley Tourism
Tel: +27 (0)53 832 7298

How to get here

There is quite a bit of information on Barney Barnato at the Big Hole Museum in Kimberley, where his famous Boxing Academy now stands. It was transported as a whole unit from its orignal site in Pniel Road in Kimberley to the museum.

Around the area

Check the listed Kimberley website for activities in the area. There is lots to do - there are a number of museums in the city, as well as a nearby rock art site called Wildebeestkuil, Magersfontein, which is a famous battle site from the South African War (also known as the Anglo-Boer War), and several historic bars, among many other things.

Tours to do

You can tour the Big Hole yourself, but you might like to book a half-day or full-day historical tour in Kimberley. Contact Kimberley Tourism to organise a guide.

What will it cost

The Big Hole Museum: Adults: R75; Children R45. See the listed website for package deals.

Length of stay

For a thorough visit to the Big Hole Museum, set aside a full day.

Where to stay

Kimberley has good accommodation options to suit all budgets. See the Kimberley website.

Best buys

The Great Barnato by Stanley Jackson (William Heinemann, 1970)

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