The Incredible Barney Barnato

Barney Barnato was the other outstanding character of the diamond fields, if anything more colourful than Rhodes. He and Cecil Rhodes waged an epic fight for control of the de Beers diggings. We all know who won, but Barney was in no way a financial loser as a result.

Barney was born in 1851 into a dirt poor Jewish family in Whitechapel, the poorest slum in the East End of London. Conditions were dire. At the age of 14 Barnet Isaacs, as he was named, left school and began hustling for small change. By the age of 22 he had saved enough money to pay for a passage in steerage to Cape Town, to join his brother in the diamond fields. His working capital was a box of cheap cigars. On arrival in Cape Town Barney found he could not afford the coach fare to Kimberley so he walked, a journey that took him three months. Starting off with more small time hustling, boxing for prize money, doing music hall acts and dabbling in IDB (Illicit Diamond Buying) he built up a growing stake, and within 10 years he had made a million pounds.

Barnato’s death oddly has become a mystery over time, with speculation abounding as whether he committed suicide or was murdered. When his death occurred there was no mystery at all. Barney sailed for London in June 1897 on board the steamer RMS Scott, along with his wife and children. He was aged 46. The following report was published in the Pueblo Indicator of Colorado, as follows: “Funchal, Madeira, June 15. Barnato, who had been in ill health for some time past, seemed to improve after leaving Cape Town, but he was never left alone, and someone was constantly detailed to watch him. Yesterday, after lunch, between 2 and 3 ‘o clock he seemed in very good spirits and was walking up and down the deck on a passenger’s arm. Suddenly Barnato asked his companion to tell him the time. But before he received a reply he wrenched his arm away and jumped overboard. The fourth officer jumped over board after him immediately, but he failed to save the life of the South African speculator, as heavy seas were running, and the steamer was running at the rate of seventeen knots (an excellent sped for the time – Editor). As soon as possible the steamer was stopped, a lifeboat was lowered and pulled to the spot where the two men were last seen. The fourth officer was rescued in an exhausted condition, and later the body of Barnato was recovered, floating head down. His remains have been embalmed and will be taken to England on board the Scott.”

And there the story ends, short and simple. I am indebted to Annwen Bates whose knowledge of Google is clearly much better than my own, and who found this source for me.

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