In April 1883 Heinrich Vogelsang, under orders from Bremen merchant Adolf Lüderitz, entered into a treaty with Nama chief Joseph Fredericks and secured lands within an 8km radius of Angra Pequeña (Little Bay). Later that year Lüderitz made an appearance in Little Bay, and following his recommendation, the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck designated South Western Africa a protectorate of the German empire. Following the discovery of diamonds in the Sperrgebiet in 1908, the town of Lüderitz was officially founded, and quickly prospered from the gem trade.
Indeed, the history of diamond mining in Namibia parallels the history of Lüderitz. Although diamonds were discovered along the Orange River in South Africa, and among the guano workings on the offshore islands as early as 1866, it apparently didn’t occur to anyone that the desert sands might also harbour a bit of crystal carbon. In 1908, however, railway worker Zacharias Lewala found a shiny stone along the railway line near Grasplatz and gave it to his employer, August Stauch. Stauch took immediate interest and, to his elation, the state geologist confirmed that it was indeed a diamond. Stauch applied for a prospecting licence from the Deutsche Koloniale Gesellschaft (German Colonial Society) and set up his own mining company, the Deutsche Diamanten Gesellschaft (German Diamond Company), to begin exploiting the presumed windfall.
In the years that followed, hordes of prospectors descended upon the town of Lüderitz with dreams of finding wealth buried in the sands. Lüderitz became a boom town as service facilities sprang up to accommodate the growing population. By September 1908, however, diamond madness was threatening to escalate out of control, which influenced the German government to intervene by establishing the Sperrgebiet. This ‘Forbidden Zone’ extended from 26°S latitude southward to the Orange River mouth, and stretched inland for 100km. Independent prospecting was henceforth verboten, and those who’d already staked their claims were forced to form mining companies.
In February 1909 a diamond board was created to broker all diamond sales and thereby control prices. However, after WWI ended, the world diamond market was so depressed that in 1920, Ernst Oppenheimer of the Anglo-American Corporation was able to purchase Stauch’s company, along with eight other diamond-producing companies. This ambitious move led to the formation of Consolidated Diamond Mines (CDM), which was administered by De Beers South Africa and headquartered in Kolmanskop.
In 1928 rich diamond fields were discovered around the mouth of the Orange River, and in 1944 CDM decided to relocate to the purpose-built company town of Oranjemund. Kolmanskop’s last inhabitants left in 1956, and the sand dunes have been encroaching on the town ever since.
In 1994 CDM gave way to Namdeb Diamond Corporation Limited (Namdeb), which is owned in equal shares by the government of Namibia and the De Beers Group. De Beers is a Johannesburg- and London-based diamond-mining and trading corporation that has held a virtual monopoly over the diamond trade for much of its corporate history. Today, diamonds are still Lüderitz’ best friend, though it’s also home to several maritime industries, including the harvesting of crayfish, seaweed and seagrass, as well as experimental oyster, mussel and prawn farms.