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The Last Empire: De Beers, Diamonds and the World [Paperback]

Stefan Kanfer
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

1 Jan 1999
De Beers Consolidated Mines is fighting for its life. The most powerful and secretive cartel in the world faces diamond smuggling in Angola, disruption in Russia, and a world-wide recession. But this is not the first emergency De Beers has confronted in its long history of struggle and survival. In The Last Empire, Stefan Kanfer chronicles the nineteenth-century diamond rush that transformed Johannes De Beer's humble South African farmstead into an exotic Klondike. With a scholar's precision and a novelist's eye, he recounts the rise of wild frontier towns like New Rush (now Kimberley) and Johannesburg, and their roisterous mix of plutocrats and prostitutes, gamblers and politicians. Kanfer shows the roots of the racial crisis in the developing land: the misery of black miners and the fortunes of white prospectors; the defeat of the African emperor Lobengula and the rise of his legendary adversary, Cecil Rhodes, who would rule both the Cape Colony and De Beers. In the twentieth century, the cartel comes under the control of the Oppenheimers, a German-Jewish dynasty that builds De Beers and its gold-mining twin, the Anglo American Corporation, into an empire of unmatched global reach, and creates a shadow government more flexible and powerful than South Africa's official leadership. Kanfer documents the Oppenheimers' dealings on and under the table: their condemnation of apartheid even as they exploit cheap black labor, their quiet takeover of Salomon Brothers, their monopoly on diamonds and their grip on gold maintained at all costs and by any means. And he uncovers the passionate inside story of the billionaire family whose empire, he argues, will survive well into the twenty-firstcentury.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 409 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc; Reprint edition (1 Jan 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 2243035243
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374524265
  • ASIN: 0374524262
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 15 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,069,011 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Siriam TOP 1000 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback
I bought this book when travelling in Asia and then left it on the shelf for many years before opening its covers. Which is a pity on my part as the book is a good if slightly over colorful history of how the discovery of diamonds in the latter part of the 19th century led to the "Wild West" antics that dominated the Rand area in South Africa as every adventurer in the world (many from the UK) descended in search of quick profits and fortunes.

The tracing through the inevitable consolidation of so many small initial and uneconomic claims by early settlers under the more brutal exploitations of Cecil Rhodes initially and then by the Oppenheimer family is well explained especially the tightrope walked under the Afrikaaner party and apartheid systems and global marketing of their products. That this in turn led to the current domination by Be Beers and Anglo American of all mining not only in the home country but in other parts of the world by persistently controlling the routes to market is covered but while the book finishes at the release of Mandela, it is pretty lightweight on what happened across that time.

Where the book falls down most is that Kanfer displays more of the journalistic story view throughout than a deep historical analysis and could probably have benefitted from a better understanding of the financial aspects and economics of the industry, though his explanation of what happened with the US government in WW2 and since and the showdown with Israeli diamond cutters are exceptions.

Overall a good overview of a little covered area of history, not least as a result of the wall of De Beers endless secrecy across the decades in their home country.
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  13 reviews
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Does not live up to its title 2 Mar 2005
By Louie2 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book's title describes it as one about "De Beers, Diamonds, and the World." Instead, a more accurate title would have described the book as telling of "Political Inequality Between the Races in South Africa." True, the book discusses De Beers quite a bit, but the discussions seem incidental to the author's focus on the plight of South African blacks throughout history. The description of De Beers's diversification is less than cursory; the book often omits major business decisions completely but then later assumes knowledge of them by the reader. For instance, the book leaves out any mention of *how* De Beers came to own an interest in copper mining, but still mentions such mining interest a couple of times toward the end. Further, complex business relationships, such as that between Anglo-American, Consolidated, and De Beers, need much more explanation than they get. The author spends considerably more time discussing how "Anglo-American" was chosen as the company's name than what its exact corporate form is and how it its relationship to De Beers works out in practice. Last, I take issue with the writing style itself. The prose is heavy and dry; even interesting characters' stories are flaccid and dull. Overall, this book is a good complement to other South African history books, but as a book about diamonds and the workings of De Beers (the book it puts itself out to be), "Last Empire" falls utterly flat.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars *A Big Thanks to Mr. Stefan Kanfer* 13 Mar 2003
By "jazzy_baby" - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Thank you Mr. Stefan Kanfer for tackling the project on the diamond empire. The subject matter is not easy to write, but Mr. Kanfer managed to tell a story in a way that portrays a business biography in an academic yet exciting tone. "The Last Empire" is a very thoroughly researched and extremely well written book. I've learnt so much about the history of the most powerful diamond organization in the world (The DeBeers), its operation, structures, system, human interaction and the people behind the industry. Lots of great pictures and the stories of old Africa is filled with romantic images it makes reading a pleasure. Truly inspiring!
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 125 Years of the History, Politics, & Achievements of De Beers Diamond Empire. 25 April 2007
By mirasreviews - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"The Last Empire" is a history of De Beers Consolidated Mines from the discovery in 1867 of diamonds in South Africa until 1993. Author Stefan Kanfer chronicles the diamond rush in late 19th century South Africa, with its colorful, unscrupulous speculator-magnates, black diggers, and illegal diamond traffic. He recounts 3 generations of diamond men, starting with De Beers founder Cecil Rhodes and other plutocrat-statesmen of the first generation who operated amidst tensions between British, Boer, and black populations. Ernest Oppenheimer, founder of Anglo-American gold mining, brought De Beers into the 20th century and created the diamond syndicate that we know today through the turmoil of 2 world wars, the Great Depression, labor revolts, and racial strife. His son Harry Oppenheimer, the third generation of De Beers royalty, expanded the company and ruthlessly consolidated its power while he embraced progressive politics at home.

The history of De Beers is no less than the history of South Africa itself: complicated, controversial, predatory, violent, and idealistic. South Africa was built on the diamond business. The author points out that De Beers fits the dictionary definition of "empire" better than any other commercial entity. "The Last Empire" leaves the reader in awe of that empire, intrigued by the adventurers and swindlers that created fortunes from big holes in the ground, and at the same time taken aback by the inescapable power of De Beers. Stefan Kanfer clearly admires the Oppenheimers' accomplishments, though he also illustrates their hypocrisies. He does not express an opinion as to the benefits or downside of De Beers' price controls, but Kanfer does detail De Beers' more ruthless campaigns to prevent devaluation by controlling supply in the 1970s and 1980s. I would have liked more information about the market for industrial diamonds, but this is absorbing, essential reading for anyone curious about the history or economics of diamonds.

A lot has changed since 1993, when "The Last Empire" was published. Then, the wholesale market for diamonds was oversaturated due to recessions in the West and Japan, De Beers controlled nearly 90% of the world's diamonds, its companies constituted 54% of the listings on South Africa's stock exchange and accounted for 25% of the nation's wealth. This book was written with De Beers in the midst of a diamond glut crisis but with a firm hold on its dominant position. Now the recession, and apartheid, are over, South Africa's economy is growing, but De Beers controls no more than 50% of the world's diamonds. The value of gold is through the roof, however, and De Beers sister company Anglo-American is the largest gold producer in the West. The Empire still stands even if the cartel falters. "The Last Empire" is a fine introduction to the tumultuous and exotic history of South Africa and an impressively researched account of how the diamond industry came to be what it is today.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent History - Captivating Story 19 Oct 1998
By John C. Borgquist - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I thought this book was very informative and one of the easiest reading non-fiction books out there. I was surprised to find out just how many different people were involved with the diamond trade in South Africa: Cecil Rhodes (the only person to have a country named directly after him), Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill...the list goes on. This book is one I had to add to my own shelf.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best in its field 27 Sep 2004
By Bob Manson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Of the books I've recently read on the subject of diamonds, "The Last Empire" is without peer. It's more a history of the diamond fields during the early years than a study of the diamond industry as a whole, but it offers many captivating stories of those times and Kanfer's writing brings them alive. I won't use the usual "I couldn't put it down" cliche (it's a bit big to read at one sitting) but I couldn't wait to start reading it again.

It explains in great detail the convoluted shenanigans of those early "pioneers", how greed made South Africa into a land of woe and strife, and how one man managed to gain a diamond monopoly and turn it into a huge industry. I learned quite a bit from reading it, and I only wish an updated edition were available.
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