April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
The English cherish equally a stunning victory and a gallant defeat. We hear much of Trafalgar and Dunkirk, but a middling affair like Kimberley tends to be forgotten. At first glance this Boer War siege would seem to be the perfect material for an enduring legend: the richest diamond mine on earth at stake, a British garrison holding out for months inspired by the presence of the living personification of Empire, Cecil Rhodes, a relief column punching its way through at the last moment. But it turns out that Kimberley escaped direct assault, and Cecil Rhodes didn’t behave very well, and the relief column was shamefully tardy. And so the single hero to come out of the siege of Kimberley is not a soldier, is not even English; he is a Michigan boy who came to South Africa to build some stamp mills for De Beers.
George Labram was born in Detroit in 1859; his parents were poor and his education spotty, but his sister remembered that “his spare time was taken up with books on machinery and engineering.” As a very young man he went to work for a local machinery manufacturer. Before long he got a better job in Chicago, and then a better one still in charge of machinery at the Silver King Mining Company in Arizona. From there he took over a smelter for Anaconda copper. During the slack season of 1893 he ran a machinery exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair, and later that year De Beers Consolidated Mines hired him to build and operate a mill.
It was a big change for a man who, not long before, had been happy at the chance to supervise the building of a Dakota tin mill: by the turn of the century, De Beers was pulling from the Kimberley fields £5,000,000 worth of diamonds yearly—90 per cent of the world’s production. Labram had no experience with this kind of mining but within three years he had devised a new process for sorting the gems. De Beers quickly took in £47,000 in royalties on the young engineer’s discovery, and in 1898 Labram became the company’s chief mechanical engineer.
Sensitive to political developments in his adopted country, Labram recognized the inevitability of war between the British and Dutch colonists in time to send his wife and young son out of certain danger: Kimberley lay a scant five miles from the border of the Orange Free State and would be an obvious target for the Boers. It became an even more desirable one with the arrival of Cecil Rhodes, owner of De Beers, voice of British imperialism, and perhaps the richest man in the Western world. His presence was at least as daunting as that of the Boers to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Kekewich, who had command of the 564 regular troops with which he would have to defend a town of 45,000.
Both Rhodes and Kekewich soon found that they had something more than a good mining engineer in Labram. As Kekewich hastily improvised defenses, the American set up a series of searchlights to sweep the approaches of the town and built atop a shaft head a 155-foot-high watchtower, which he then connected with a scratchbuilt telephone to the forts surrounding the city. Kekewich was delighted. When the town finally came under siege on October 14, Labram took to joining the commander at his post in the dreary early morning watches. He “was a great favorite with all the soldiers,” said Walter O’Meara, Kekewich’s chief of staff, “...on account of his amiable disposition....Labram possessed many of the qualities of the best Americans; he was most discreet, and Kekewich felt that he could be trusted with our secrets.” This was important, for relations between the commander and the great imperialist rapidly deteriorated. Rhodes was possibly more used to having his own way than anyone else alive, and when Kekewich ignored his military advice, he flew into rages, called the colonel a “low, damned mean cur,” and took to sending private messages, by turns sulky and panicky, to the British high command in Capetown. George Labram alone was able to remain friendly with both men simultaneously and hence kept a measure of peace between them. Some in the town found this diplomacy a surer sign of his genius than was his incomparable mechanical ability.
At the outset of the siege, the Boers grabbed a crucial pumping station north of town. Faced with a water famine at the height of the devastating South African summer, Labram countered by improvising a way to hook up De Beers’s private water supply with the town’s system.
Ammunition, too, threatened to run out. The Boers did not dare press an assault over open ground, but daily their artillery shells arced down from the parched sky, while British shell supplies dwindled. In mid-November Labram spoke up at a staff meeting: Could he have a look at a shell? He handled one, squinted at it, and said, “I guess I can make things like these all right.” Working in the De Beers shops, he devised his own fuse, found a suitable mixture of industrial blasting powder and finegrained sporting gunpowder, and soon was turning out between sixty and seventy shells a day.
They worked amazingly well but, as one disgruntled citizen said, the British had only “a few seven-pound guns capable of hurling walnuts that cracked thousands of yards short of the Boer positions.” With this in mind, Rhodes asked Labram if he had ever built a cannon. Only as a boy, said the American, when he built one for the Fourth of July “to celebrate the time we licked the British.”
“Well,” said Rhodes, “build one now to celebrate the time you are to save the British.” Labram disappeared into the De Beers shops on Christmas eve; two days later work began. With stock metal, Labram and his men managed to forge in little more than three weeks a fine breech-loading rifled cannon with a four-inch bore capable of throwing a twenty-eight-pound shell. Christened Long Cecil, the gun went into action on January 19, with Labram himself in charge of a crew drawn from the men who had built it. The first target was the captured pumping station, a full eight thousand yards distant. Labram scored a hit. As the earth geysered around them, the Boers scattered, frightened and astonished.
By February 7 the Boers had brought up in retaliation one of their Long Toms, a six-inch Creusot gun manned by a team of French mercenaries which fired a ninety-six-pound shell. As this formidable weapon opened on the town, Labram replied with Long Cecil, shifting the gun from place to place, “his gaunt, quick-moving frame,” one De Beers official recalled, “and deliberate, nasal accents...as conspicuous as...his loose civilian dress among the dapper uniforms.”
The American civilian actually succeeded in checking to a degree the fire of Europe’s finest artillerists, but the fighting was beginning to tell on him. On the evening of February 9, a friend met Labram coming in from a trying day in the lines, his face pale with strain. “I’m no fighting man,” he said, “and this sort of thing is getting on my nerves. ” He went up to his hotel room to wash and change for dinner. He was still there when the last Boer shell of the day plunged through the roof and killed him instantly. Rhodes sent a tribute to the press, and Kekewich gave his unlikely ally a full military funeral. Long Cecil spoke out over Labram’s grave; the gun was still in action when Kimberley was relieved less than a week later.