The German Diamond Trade in Colonial Africa

by Ellen Harper

On February 18, the Institute of European Studies welcomed Dr. Steven Press, Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University and an affiliate of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, the Center for African Studies, and Stanford Law School’s Center for Law and History. In his lecture titled “Revisiting the Economics of German Overseas Imperialism, 1884-1918,” Press challenged the conventional perception of the economics of German colonialism in the former colony of German South West Africa (present-day Namibia), arguing that its diamond mining industry can be seen as a microcosm of the reality of German imperialism.

Press began the lecture with a description of Sperrgebiet, Namibia--literally “Prohibited Area” in German--once the center of the nation’s German diamond mining. Press argued that the common perception that Germany’s colonies were not economically viable did not take into consideration the lucrative diamond trade that characteristically lacked transparency. The economic viability of German imperialism in South West Africa can be viewed through the lens of Hobson’s or Lenin’s theories of imperialism, Press claimed, which point out imperialism’s ability to enrich the connected few without benefiting the state. He estimated that the Namibian diamond trade - which was plagued by smuggling - was extremely profitable despite its miniscule contribution to Germany’s official exports. The diamond trade also boasted the image of German overseas imperialism and contributed to the grandeur of the German colonial illusion. Though German colonialism in Africa is long over, there are still many contemporary ramifications, particularly the deleterious effects on indigenous populations, whose labor and land were exploited. Furthermore, names of places and statues in Southwest Africa still show echoes of a colonial past.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A with the audience of 25, in which Press discussed where the money from the diamond industry went and contextualised the diamond bubble in a global framework. He also addressed circumstances in other German colonies in this time period, particularly the Maji Maji Rebellion happening in German East Africa, and how this influenced German colonial control. Press underscored that these local rebellions pushed Germany to better manage its colonies and improve its image, and it was the lucrative profits from diamonds in Namibia that provided the most benefit.