Barney Barnato circa 1890
21 February 1851
|Died||14 June 1897
At sea, near the island of Madeira
|Occupation||diamond and gold mining entrepreneur|
Barney Barnato (21 February 1851 – 14 June 1897), born Barnet Isaacs, was a British Randlord, one of the entrepreneurs who gained control of diamond mining, and later gold mining, in South Africa from the 1870s. He is perhaps best remembered as being a rival of Cecil Rhodes.
Barney Barnato claimed he had the same birthday as Cecil Rhodes (5 July 1853). Most biographies give his date of birth as 5 July 1852. However, his birth certificate (supported by census data) shows he was born Barnet Isaacs in Aldgate, London on 21 February 1851, the son of Isaac and Leah Isaacs. He was educated by Moses Angel at the Jews' Free School. He had a hard life, and is reputed to have begged pass-outs from theatre-leavers at the Garrick Theatre in Leman Street, to sell them on to others for a halfpenny. For a while he became a prizefighter and music-hall turn. Barney grew up in Whitechapel, the very poor East End of London in an area that was predominantly a Jewish neighborhood. The Isaacs family lived in the area for nearly one hundred years. Isaac Isaacs, Barney’s father made a living from selling second hand clothing and fabric remnants. When Barney and his older brother Harry reached fourteen, they left school and entered the business. Their mother Leah died when Barney was seven. Kate the oldest of the siblings, helped bring up the boys and two sisters Sarah and Lizzie.
When they were in their teens, Barney and Harry liked to perform on stage in the Music Halls of the area, of which there were many. For the longest time Harry was introduced as the Great Henry Isaacs. Barney was added as “and Barnett too” so he suggested to Harry that they call themselves Bar-na-to, the Barnato Brothers. From that time onwards, they were known by that name on the Music Hall stages.
Barney had a talent for boxing. In his day, the Marquis of Queensbury rules were rarely used in his amateur boxing bouts. Winning was the all that mattered. He made money from his bouts, mainly by placing bets with the bookies. He was not scared of anyone. The bigger they came, the better he liked it.
Barney joined his brother Harry in the Cape Colony in 1873 during the diamond rush which accompanied the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley. His brother had gone out in 1871. Barney saved up enough money to pay for his steerage passage. He left England and when he arrived in South Africa, he could not afford the coach to get to where the diamonds had been found. He ended up walking all the way with a bullock cart that was delivering supplies to the miners. It took him three months to walk there.
Barney arrived in Kimberley to find that Harry was not doing very well. In fact he wasn’t making money from diamonds at all, but from performances on stage and doing odd jobs.
Barney spent his first year learning about diamonds, buying a stone here or there and selling at a small profit and then buying more. It was a slow process and one that frustrated him. He wanted his own claim, he wanted to dig his own stones out of the ground, not purchase each stone one by one. Barney had a good head for figures and was a fast learner. He was shrewd, always able to calculate the odds.
Eventually, the opportunity to buy a claim came to Barney and Harry. In fact four adjacent claims were offered to them in Kimberley. The brothers barely had enough money to buy the claims, but somehow they managed to do it.
Barnato Diamond Mining Company
Barney conceived the idea of controlling the amount of diamonds entering the market. Keeping sales as close to demand as possible, or even less than demand. He postulated that it was possible to maintain diamond prices by stockpiling during the years when the world markets were down. As the markets moved upwards and demand increased, the stockpiles could be sold at higher prices. Of course it was necessary to gain control first.
Overproduction was only one of the problems that all the diamond miners faced. Huge problems arose where adjacent claims were being mined at different rates and the levels. This was problematic because cave-ins became ever more frequent, especially where they were undercutting the adjacent claims. It was far worse in the winter when the rains came and flooded the lower levels, often drowning miners and burying equipment.
Consolidation became Barney’s goal. Cecil Rhodes, working the De Beers mine, had the same idea and became a major competitor in the race to consolidate. Initially there were more than three thousand, six hundred claims being mined at Kimberley. In time this number dropped to less than one hundred, and the Barnato Brothers were one of them. They used this name from the time Barney arrived in Kimberley, completely dropping the Isaacs name. As the Barnato Brothers made more money, they plowed it back into buying up more claims. Barney’s goal and obsession was the complete consolidation of the Kimberley mine. There were plenty of other players with similar goals, so it was not an easy task to achieve.
A ‘battle royal’ ensued between Barney and Cecil Rhodes. The French Rothschild Bank was involved with Rhodes, as were a number of other wealthy men. All were experienced. All wanted control of the diamond mining interests of either Kimberley or De Beers.
De Beers mine was the first to be consolidated. Not by Barney, but by Rhodes, much to Barney’s ire.
A French mining company, Compagnie Française des Mines de Diamants du Cap de Bonne Espérance, held a large block of claims that split Kimberley mine in two. A wealthy Parisian diamond dealer, a Mr. Jules Porges, owned this company. Rhodes managed to secure substantial backing from Rothschild Bank to purchase this French Company. Barney got wind of the sale and telegraphed Porges asking for an opportunity to bid if a sale were immanent. Rhodes bid £1,400,000 to buy the company. Barney topped the offer by bidding £1,750,000.
Before getting a response from Porges, Rhodes telegraphed Barney and asked him to withdraw his offer. In return, Rhodes made Barney a tempting offer, one that he could not refuse.
In return for withdrawing the offer, Rhodes would buy the French Company at his original bid price and sell it to Barney for £300,000 plus a twenty per cent holding in the Barnato’s Kimberely Central Diamond Mining Company.
There is no doubt that this must have been a difficult decision to make. It would give him what he obsessed about, the control of the Kimberley Mine. Enabling him to convert it to underground mining. The dilemma was that he was giving up a large part of his company to a rival. They may have been competitors, but Rhodes and Barney actually liked each other and got on well, even though they came from diverse backgrounds and upbringing.
After several days consideration, Barney agreed to withdraw his offer and a month later the French Company was in his hands.
Rhodes undoubtedly calculated the odds well. He and his partners had been buying up shares in the open market in Kimberley Central DMC and may well have had ten to fifteen per cent of the shares at the time of the sale of the French Company. With the extra twenty per cent, they were well on their way to gaining control of Kimberley Central DMC. Barney tried to keep control of his own company, but Rhodes outsmarted him, finally gaining control of Kimberley Central DMC a few months later. The upside was that shares in Kimberlery Central DMC rose from £14 to £49 each because of the competition from both camps. The downside was that it was higher diamond production that was fueling the buying spree. Resulting in diamond prices hitting an all time low.
Rhodes proposed that they merge the De Beers DMC into Kimberley Central DMC, forming one new consolidated company; De Beers Consolidated Mines. The merger made sense, even though they both knew that the merger would upset some of the shareholders.
Barney emerged as the largest shareholder with 6,658 shares in the new company. Not all the investors were happy with this situation. A group of shareholders from Kimberley Central applied in the Supreme Court of the Cape to stop the merger. The judge ruled in favor of the applicants. The result was that Kimberley Central was liquidated and the De Beers Consolidated purchased the company.
The Barnato Brothers shares ultimately were bought out for the astronomical sum of £5,338,650 in 1889.
As part of their control of all diamond mining in the Cape Colony, De Beers Consolidated purchased two other mines in the area, Bultfontein and Dutiotspan. The yield on the latter was poor, but the quality of the diamonds found there was far superior to all the other mines. It was a gamble that underground mining could eventually make both of these mines productive.
Neither one of these was showing a return on investment, but they could not be allowed to pass into the hands of a competing company which might mean that at some point, they could undermine the prices, undoing the efforts made to stabilize prices. The most important thing that the merger produced was the 95% control of worldwide diamond production. Both Barney and Rhodes were in full agreement on this.
The purchase cheque, signed by Rhodes, is said to have been the largest such instrument ever presented for payment up to that time. Barnato subsequently became Kimberley's member of parliament in the Cape Parliament from 1889 until his death.
Rhodes and Barney planned to reduce the number of buyers for the rough diamonds to ten companies who would in turn sell to the diamond cutters and set up lines of distribution throughout the World. De Beers Consolidated duly carried out this plan and the ten companies became known as the syndicate. The syndicate included Barnato Brothers in London. Only these ten companies could buy production from De Beers Consolidated Mines.
Diamond prices leveled off and finally increased steadily in value. Regardless of production levels, supply was kept on or close to demand.
Barney turned his attention to the newly discovered gold area of the Witwatersrand or Rand as it became known. Gold in quartz is extremely difficult to separate. It was not like alluvial gold that can be panned in water. It took a great deal of machinery and was costly. This was money that most miners did not have.
The wealthy diamond dealers and owners of Kimberley understood what it would take. They were prepared to make the investment that was needed and went to the Rand where they bought up the most promising claims.
At the time of the initial discovery, Barney did not want to detract from his plan to take control of Kimberley Mine and rejected Harry and Woolf’s urging to invest in gold mining.
By 1888, after the consolidation of diamond mining had taken place, the Barnatos were late in coming to the mining town being called Johannesburg. Their big advantage was their coffers were full. And so began the start of a dozen gold mining companies floated on both the London Stock Exchange and the new Johannesburg exchange. These mining shares were given the nickname ‘kaffirs.’
Gold did not fluctuate, as did the price of diamonds, it was possible to calculate the exact amount of profit that could be made from a gold mine. The Bank of England backed its currency using a gold standard. The Americans were about to introduce a gold standard for their currency having had a silver standard for many years. Every ounce of gold that was mined could be sold to one government or another at a set price.
Two doctors, MacArthur and Forrest, invented a new process for extracting gold from the ore using cyanide. It was possible to extract ninety-six per cent of the gold from the ore, using this process. Barney ordered the necessary equipment to be shipped from England to set up a cyanide plant for each of his mines.
Investing in the Rand became the Barnatos highest priority. With the help of nephews Woolf and Solly, Barney went on a buying spree spending more than a million pounds in one year. Additionally, he invested in all manner of infrastructure that he knew would be needed for the future growth of Johannesburg. He purchased land in the new town to build offices, shops and market stalls, including a new stock exchange. Recognizing the need for somewhere to live in town, Barney purchased a farm in the Doornfontein section and completed the construction of a large house on Saratoga Avenue in a new exclusive suburb. Anything and everything that was needed to stimulate the growth of Johannesburg, was considered.
Early in 1889, Barney floated his first gold mining company on the London and Johannesburg stock exchanges. The New Primrose Gold Mining Company was a combination of a number of claims he had purchased on two adjacent properties. At the same time he floated the Johannesburg Estate Company, which had nothing directly to do with gold mining, only real estate and peripheral businesses in the town.
After the formation of his Johannesburg Consolidated Investment Company that year, he went on a major acquisition plan and invested in multiple businesses; building materials, transport, food wagons and liquor.
Barnato doubled his fortune in the boom in South African gold mining shares of 1894–95 before losing most of it in the 1896 share collapse. He built, but never lived in, a vast house on the corner of Park Lane and Stanhope Gate in Mayfair, London, which was bought after his death by the banker Sir Edward Sassoon.
Barney married Fanny Christina Bees. They had 3 children: Leah (Lily) Primrose, Isaac Henry (Jack) Barnato and Woolf (Babe) Barnato.
Barnato died in 1897 in mysterious circumstances; records state that he was lost overboard near the island of Madeira, whilst on a passage home to England. Although some have wondered if this were suicide and suggested that the Jameson Raid had had a major impact on him and left him severely depressed, his family vigorously rejected that theory, saying that it was totally out of character for a man who had been a pioneer in the rough-and-ready days of emerging Southern Africa. His body was recovered from the sea and is buried at Willesden Jewish Cemetery, London.
The theory regarding the suicide of Barnato has also been tied to sinister later events. One of his heirs, Woolf Joel was shot and killed in his business offices in Johannesburg by a con-man named Karl Frederick Kurtze who went away with the name of Ludwig von Veltheim in 1898. In the trial for murder, von Veltheim hinted that he was supposed to be orchestrating a plot to kidnap Paul Kruger, President of the Transvaal Boer Republic, that Barnato and Joel were backing. The murder stemmed from blackmail against Joel, but von Veltheim claimed he was only seeking his promised payment. As a result von Veltheim was able to get an acquittal from a Boer Jury (possibly due to anti-British and anti-Semitic feelings towards the deceased). It was suggested by Brian Roberts, in his book The Diamond Magnates, that Barnato may have been approached by von Veltheim too, and unsettled by his physical threats and the possibility of exposure.
His will divided up his considerable fortune between his family, amongst which was his sister Sarah and her husband Abraham Rantzen, great-grandparents of TV presenter Esther Rantzen. Another beneficiary was his son, Woolf Barnato, who used part of the multi-million pound fortune he inherited at the age of two, to become a pioneer racing driver in the 1920s, one of the so-called Bentley Boys.
- Joel family
- John Hays Hammond – A famous mining engineer, diplomat and philanthropist who Barnato brought to Africa.
- William D. Rubinstein; Michael Jolles; Hilary L. Rubinstein (15 March 2011). The Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 52–. ISBN 978-1-4039-3910-4.
- "Rhodes and Barnato" in Ian D. Colvin (1913). Cecil John Rhodes 1853–1902. London: T.C. & E.C. Jack. OCLC 3807946 Accessed 4 March 2007.
- Stephen Inwood (2005). City of cities: The birth of modern London. London: Pan Books. p. 33. ISBN 978-0-330-43457-7
- Who do you think you are? — Esther Rantzen on BBC.co.uk. Accessed 3 September 2008.
- Brian Roberts, The Diamond Magnates. London: Hamilton, 1972. pp. 232–244. OCLC 254654034
- Barney Barnato, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Accessed 28 April 2006
- Brief biography of Barney Barnato
- Rhodes and Barnato in Cecil Rhodes by Ian D. Colvin
- Leasor, James (1997, 2011). Rhodes & Barnato: The Premier & The Prancer. Leo Cooper, James Leasor Limited. ISBN 978-1-908291-28-8.
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