Stanford historian traces the colonial origins of conflict diamonds in Namibia

When Stanford historian Steven Press was trying to unearth hidden narratives about Germany’s colonial activities in Southwest Africa’s highly secretive diamond industry, he pursued that age-old maxim to “follow the money.”

Chasing that trail led to some disturbing discoveries about the full extent of Germany’s ruthlessness as it pursued its economic aspirations in the African country now known as Namibia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In his new book Blood and Diamonds (Harvard University Press, 2021), Press outlines how from 1884 to 1918, the German colonial government and its representatives perpetrated genocide against the indigenous Nama and Herero peoples while scouring the region for diamonds. According to Press, Germany’s ambition reshaped the global diamond market and continues to do so today.

“While exploring what was going on in these German colonies, I saw an economic dimension and also a worldwide thread that hadn’t been appreciated,” said Press, an assistant professor of history in the School of Humanities and Sciences. “Following the path of diamonds showed important connections to economic life in Europe and the United States, not to mention Africa, and that dynamic hadn’t really been examined.”

While German colonialism has been studied extensively before, it was generally thought to be an economic failure for the country, which left many scholars and politicians wondering why the German government kept pouring resources into its Southwest African colony. What Press found, however, is that German colonial diamonds provided more economic gain than had previously been recognized.