As Germany Acknowledges Its Colonial-Era Genocide in Namibia, the Brutal Legacy of Diamond Mining Still Needs a Reckoning - Steven Press

Photo for Steven Press Article

An abandoned diamond mine in the Restricted Diamond Area in Namibia in 2011.

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Between 1904 and 1908, Germany’s military and leadership oversaw the killing of at least 80,000 Africans in what is now the independent country of Namibia. On May 28, Germany apologized. Declaring his country’s past violence in Namibia “genocidal,” Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also pledged $1.3 billion in aid to Namibians, whose capital, Windhoek, still has a prominent street named after Otto von Bismarck.


The German apology is a commendable step and important precedent. But its parameters are inadequate, and one reason why may be embedded in your family’s heirloom engagement ring.

Millions of carats in diamonds have been exported from Namibia since 1908. These same sparkling stones have a dirty history tied to German colonial rule. Right now, official statements about Germany’s debt to Namibia do not account for those gemstones at all. The debt Germany owes is construed as limited to the recognized period of genocide—even though the real money that Germans made and controlled in Namibia came after 1908, and the process of making that money implicated many parts of the world in a deadly, brutal colonial process. We cannot really assess what Germany and the world “owe” Namibia until we consider this economic dimension of the past.

For much of modern history diamonds were rare, at least outside of India and Brazil. In the 1870s, the situation changed because of giant open-pit mines in and around Kimberley, South Africa. Nowhere was this development more welcome than in the United States, which in the late 19th century became by far the biggest consumer of diamonds in the world.

Given the ubiquity of advertising for jewelry today, one might assume that Americans always had a passion for diamond engagement rings. In fact, the custom of giving such rings became widespread only after the diamond boom in Southern Africa. Even among the rich in places like New York City, a diamond was only one of several stones that a fiancé might choose, if he even gave anything ornamental. There was not yet a standard for “engagement” rings, let alone a thought that every bride could or should possess them. But one thing about diamonds was already true: they held extraordinary profit potential, with the “value” of a stone multiplying several times between extraction in Africa and arrival in a retail case at an American jeweler’s shop.