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It Ain't de Diamonds, it's de Beers

de Beers has long been a criminal organization

Sankoh is captured
Sankoh is captured

The leader of the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, Foday Sankoh, was captured on Wednesday, 17 May 2000. In a tradition all too neglected in recent centuries, the captured leader was stripped naked and paraded through town. For those of you too interested in the NBA playoffs to notice, Sankoh and his merry men have been trying to topple Sierra Leone's democratically-elected president for the better part of eight years.[1] Sierra Leone is a diamond-producing West African nation; residents in search of quick riches have been known to dig up roads and unseat the foundations of government buildings. Not being stupid, the RUF itself has been occupying some of Sierra Leone's more diamond-rich towns and plundering them.

Among the more interesting revelations surrounding Sankoh's capture is the discovery of documents suggesting the RUF was trying to negotiate, or maybe had already negotiated, an exchange of cash or arms for diamonds with several "well-known" international companies. This is likely to make those certain "well-known" companies look bad, mostly because the RUF's modus operandi is to chop off the hands and poke out the eyes of people who have nothing to do whatever with the government. We're not professional insurgents or anything, but we figure the cause might be helped by leaning on the people who might actually affect policy.

They Could Sell You Pet Rocks, Too

It's hard to use the phrase "well-known" in conjunction with international diamond companies and not think about De Beers. De Beers, founded in 1888, currently controls about 70% of the world's diamond supply. Trying not to associate itself with a terrorist element, the company declared back in March that it would sell only "rebel-free" diamonds. However, the De Beers chief diamond buyer was seen going to Sierra Leone that week anyway, probably because he forgot his favorite loafers at the hotel or something.

Other than little mistakes like this, De Beers has a lot of momentum going for it in the public relations department. It started working closely in 1938 with A. W. Ayers, an advertising firm, and never really let up. Ayers singlehandedly managed to convince pretty much everyone in the Western Hemisphere that a big honking diamond ring is to be exchanged as part of the marriage vow, as compared to, say, an actual lifetime of devotion. One is also supposed to keep it forever rather than reselling it, neatly solving any competition problems De Beers might have, and the company has managed to do this with fostering almost no resentment on the part of consumers: people will rail continuously about the monopolies enjoyed by various utilities such as electricity and telephone service, then turn around and sink three grand into a blob of carbon without question.

A Coup Without the PR Part

However, this success in the public eye is not to argue that De Beers has a clean nose in the morals department. The company's founder, Cecil Rhodes, ran a bloodthirsty company that shot and killed union leaders, forced its black workers to regularly endure two full days of alimentary canal purging (can't have the help secreting diamonds in any nook or cranny!), and invaded the tribal nation of Matabeleland, slaughtering thousands. The British learned that the locals pointed their gunsights higher than usual, in the belief that such an angle made the bullets go faster. Needless to say, the slugs whizzed over the heads of the Europeans, who marched forward, mowed everybody down, and plundered the booty geologic. The spot of land was merged with another conquered territory and renamed Rhodesia, after Rhodes himself. For European imperialistic pomposity, the feat goes unequalled: he was not a famous sovereign or explorer or general, but a mere company president and still managed to get an entire country named after him.

Like that corporate-founded nation of Rhodesia, diamonds seem to have granted the RUF a certain veneer of political credibility. Rev. Jesse Jackson, President Bill Clinton's Special Envoy for the Promotion of Democracy in Africa, claimed that RUF leader Sankoh's voice "would be a very positive one" in Sierra Leonean politics. The Reverend quickly retracted his remarks, but it is clear that somehow the group managed to impress, despite its proclivity towards maiming innocent people. Clearly, to finance this operation the RUF must have some diamond company cooperation, especially since the rebels only seem to occupy diamond mining towns. So, which company is it? The company that controls 70% of the diamond market and has a century of oppression and slaughter under its belt, or, er, someone else?

Footnotes

  1. Interestingly, Sierra Leone is also where the rebellious Africans on the slave ship Amistad came from. The story was subsequently retold in a mediocre Steven Spielberg movie, and the boat rebuilt in Mystic, Connecticut.

 
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