Thursday, March 18, 2021

Matthew Gavin Frank's "Flight of the Diamond Smugglers"

Matthew Gavin Frank’s new nonfiction book is Flight of the Diamond Smugglers: A Tale of Pigeons, Obsession, and Greed Along Coastal South Africa.

He is also the author of the nonfiction books, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food (2015), Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer (2014), Pot Farm (2012), and Barolo (2010); the poetry books, The Morrow Plots (2013), Warranty in Zulu (2010), and Sagittarius Agitprop (2009).

Frank applied the “Page 99 Test” to Flight of the Diamond Smugglers and reported the following:
From page 99:
“A vast heaving crater. A world of dust, drought, dysentery, and flies, disease and despair, where some dug up a fortune, and others dug their graves.”

In order to further demonstrate their loftiness here, and to deprive those who lived in this “vast heaving crater” of even the most meager of distractions, Rhodes and Barnato once kidnapped as many of the diggers’ pet pigeons as they could. With these abducted birds, they staged “gentlemen’s” shoots with visiting magnates on the muddy streets around the corner from Barnato’s boxing club (the restored heartwood floor of which still bears the silver crescents of many coin edges pressed between the slats, and, in one corner, an amoebic spread of white threads that appear to be the barbs of a 130-year-old pigeon feather, coffined in shellac). Rhodes and Barnato believed they’d live, if only in the corporate argot—like the diamonds themselves—forever.
Page 99 of Flight of the Diamond Smugglers is more wormhole than microcosm. Like the string of a tin can telephone, page 99 tethers the late 19th-century horrors that attended the founding of the De Beers corporation in the diamond fields of Kimberley, South Africa to the present-day consequences of those horrors. Here, we have De Beers co-magnates Cecil Rhodes and Barney Barnato aggressively carving out lives of luxury from the sludge of the diamond pits, oftentimes at the expense of the health and comfort of those workers who labored therein. Many of the workers trained and kept pet pigeons as a distraction from the working conditions, and the attendant despair.

But, in 1893, Rhodes felt that the birds could be used to smuggle diamonds out of the mine, and so his security officials, were given off-the-books, commission-based benefits for catching smugglers, which resulted in many a fabricated charge, which itself resulted in the beating or maiming of the falsely accused. Rhodes hired mercenaries to slaughter the Matabele peoples who lived along the South African-Zimbabwean border, clearing the land for his mining endeavors. Rhodes renamed Zimbabwe “Rhodesia,” after, of course, himself. Each mercenary was given a specific reward depending on the number of kills, beginning with two claims and nine square miles of personal property. Once the mines were established, some of these mercenaries stayed on as mine security.

And yet, still today, there stand lionizing statues of Rhodes throughout the UK and South Africa, (though, at the urging of protestors, some are slated for removal). Page 99, then, addresses history’s long wake, and influence on the present. It addresses various founding principles of the diamond industry. The “illicit” pigeons (who loom large in the book, of course) also make a doomed cameo appearance. If page 99 can’t be said to be representative of the entire book necessarily, it can be said that the page contains a sprinkling of many of the book’s ingredients.
Visit Matthew Gavin Frank's website.

--Marshal Zeringue