A rich romantic history spiced with
all the drama of the
Diamond Rush, and sprinkled with tales of the Anglo Boer War,
surrounds the quiet little village of Hopetown on the banks of the
mighty Orange River.
The first diamond discovered in South Africa was found at Hopetown. It was the 23,25 carat Eureka, and soon after its discovery the 83,5 carat Star of Africa was found nearby. It was the discovery of this second diamond which started the South African diamond rush.
Most people imagine that it was the hope of striking it rich that resulted in this little village being called "Hopetown", but according to local legend, this is not so.
The locals say that the first owner of the farm "Duivenaarsfontein", on which Hope town was established was the Widow Van Niekerk, who wore a small silver anchor on a chain around her neck. Her servants had never seen such a device and asked her what it was.
She explained it was the symbol of hope. One of the servants was so impressed that he fashioned an anchor from wood and tin and in acknowledgement of his efforts she mounted this above the farmhouse door. Many years later, when the house was demolished, the anchor was carefully removed and attached to another house, and later still to another. In time it became the symbol of the town.
There is, however, no doubt that diamonds created Hopetown, but when the boom ended, it almost killed the town. It declined into insignificance and almost vanished.
Hopetown lies at the edge of the Great Karoo on an arid slope leading down to the Orange River, named by the great explorer Colonel Robert Gordon in honour of William Prince of Orange. The Bushmen called this The Great River, "Nu Gariep", as it carries 23 per cent of the total water run -off of South Africa to the sea.
Hopetown came into being in 1850 when Sir Harry Smith extended the northern frontier of the Cape to this mighty river. A handful of settlers claimed ground and by 1854 a rough frontier town had mushroomed up and a church had been built.
Hopetown was a quiet farming area until 18658 when Schalk van Niekerk, a young farmer went to visit a neighbour, Daniel Jacobs on the farm, De Kalk. As he rode towards the homestead he noticed the neighbour's 15-year old son playing with an interesting looking "glittering" white pebble.
Van Niekerk was no prospector, but he was so taken with the stone that Mrs Erasmus induced her son to give it to him. He kept it for a while, but then gave it to John O'Reilly who took it to Colesberg in 1867 and showed it to the magistrate, Lourenzo Boyes. He scratched "DP" on the window of his office, stepped back in amazement and incredulously declared: "I do believe this is a diamond."
The stone was then sent to Grahamstown to Dr W A Atherstone and his tests proved it to be a 23,25-carat diamond. It became known as the "Eureka". It was bought for five hundred pounds sterling by the Governor of the Cape, Sir Philip Wodehouse.
No-one knew exactly where it came from. It was thought to be an isolated specimen carried to the area in the crop of a wild ostrich. But, then, in 1868, a Griqua witch doctor, Booi, picked up a similar stone on the farm Zandfontein. When it was tested it was found to be an 83,5-carat diamond. Again Van Niekerk acquired it and sold it to the Lilienfeld Brothers for eleven thousand pounds. They in turn sold it to the Earl of Dudley for thirty thousand pounds and the Diamond Rush to South Africa started.
Suddenly Hopetown lived up to its name. Fortune hunters poured down the Diamond Way and into the little village. But they did not simply stop there as it seemed almost every day new finds were happening resulting in a tremendous Diamond Fever. The trail led steadily northwards and ended at Colesberg Koppie in Kimberley. Once news of this koppie spread the New Rush started and the Big Hole was created.
Hopetown boomed. It became a vital stop and supplier to the Diamond Fields and local people were gainfully employed as transport riders. Then came the rail and horsemen could not compete with these iron steeds which could much better serve the diamond fields. The need for accommodation and fodder dwindled - Hopetown sank into the doldrums.
Then, in 1897, a disgruntled local farmer decided "to blow some life back into the town." He claimed magnificent new finds on his farm and within three weeks 10 000 men "maddened by diamond fever" rushed back to Hopetown. This second boom was a flash in the pan. His sham was soon uncovered, Rooidam was a fraud, he had salted his lands with diamondiferous ground. All he had managed to do was create "The Great Sucker Rush".
Hopetown saw some action during the Anglo Boer War. A skirmish took place near the town at Houtkraal. There is virtually nothing to see on this farm today. Also, the old wagon route passed just north of town and the first bridge across the Orange River was built along this route in 1871 to carry traffic to the Diamond Fields. The Bridge was destroyed by the Boers in 1901. There is also a blockhouse on the banks of the Orange River.