Jules Verne had an extraordinary visionary ability. “From the Earth to the Moon” anticipated the arrival on our satellite, while “Robur the Conqueror” prophesied Man’s conquest of the air, and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” depicted the electric submarine, among other astonishing literary prophecies.

The one narrated in L’Étoile du sud (“The Southern Star” or “The Vanished Diamond”) was the most daring because it came true while he was still alive, albeit just two months before his death: in his novel, he described a huge diamond that mysteriously disappeared, and it turned out that in January 1905, the largest diamond in history was discovered. It was named the Cullinan.

We will return to talk about the French writer later because, as will be seen, a beautiful posthumous homage was paid to him at the expense of the diamond. But first, let’s find out how it was found and its subsequent journey, which is truly interesting. The gem formed billions of years ago in the Earth’s mantle, taking all that time to travel the hundreds of kilometers that separated it from the surface, carried by the rock containing it through magma.

The Discovery

It was on January 26, 1905, when Frederick Wells, the surface manager of the Premier Diamond Mining Company, a mining excavation in Transvaal, a colony that the British wrested from the Boers after the second war they fought with them between 1899 and 1902, found it.

The Cullinan diamond uncut
The Cullinan diamond uncut. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

That conflict had different causes than the previous one, fought twenty years earlier, as now it was not so much about dominating or consolidating the presence of the Union Jack in South African territory but about taking control of a region rich in gold deposits, as Paul Kruger predicted. The ironic thing is that diamonds would become the protagonists, something that should not be surprising considering that very close by, on the banks of the Orange River, these gems had been extracted since their first discovery in 1866.

The traces of that activity left by the thousands of miners who came in search of fortune remain today in the form of scars on the earth (The Big Hole) or a newly minted city (Kimberley).

Until the 18th century, diamonds had only been found in India, in the alluvial deposits of the south generated by the Penner, Godavari, and Krishna rivers. From there came the specimens mentioned in Roman literary sources from the 1st century AD, and it was the maharajas who owned the most spectacular pieces. The most obvious example is the Koh-i-Noor (Mountain of Light), which, coming from Andhra Pradesh, first belonged to the Kakatiya kings and then to the Mughal emperors before passing into the hands of Ranjit Singh, the Sikh maharaja of Punjab, who was plundered by the British East India Company; the criticisms received for this forced the company to give it to Queen Victoria to set it in the crown for her proclamation as Empress of India.

The Koh-i-Noor in the central cross of Queen Mary's crown
The Koh-i-Noor in the central cross of Queen Mary’s crown. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

The Koh-i-Noor, with its 108 carats, was for a long time the largest diamond in the world, but the Excelsior, found in 1893 in the South African mine of Jagersfontein, far surpassed it with 972 carats. However, the discovery of the Cullinan diamond shattered all records, as it was three times larger, with no less than 3,106.75 carats – over half a kilogram – measuring 10.1 centimeters long by 6.35 wide and 5.9 thick. And on top of that, half of its faces were smooth, indicating that it was only a detached part of a larger gem.

News Caused Sensation

The news caused a sensation, and journalists began to talk about the “Cullinan diamond” – referring to Sir Thomas Cullinan, president of the mining company – so the name stuck. The excitement was such that when it was taken to Johannesburg, it had to be exhibited to the public at the Standard Bank, and thousands of curious people visited it.

In April, it was transported to England amidst security measures so uncommon that they included depositing it in the safe of a steamship guarded 24 hours a day by detectives. Or so it was believed at the time, as it all turned out to be a ruse with a fake stone as a distraction, while the real diamond was sent in a simple box by certified mail.

King Edward VII was the first to see it, as it was shown to him at Buckingham Palace as soon as it was disembarked and transported to London. In fact, the premier of Transvaal, Louis Botha, had suggested giving it to the monarch as a “demonstration of the loyalty and attachment of the people of Transvaal to the throne and person of His Majesty”.

Southern Africa in the late 19th century
Southern Africa in the late 19th century

Botha’s goal was not disinterested: a hero of the two wars that ravaged the region and in which he fought alongside the Boers (he was the one who captured Winston Churchill), he later collaborated with his adversaries to the point of founding the South African Party, which advocated for the country to become a British dominion.

Parliament voted on the proposal, with 42 votes in favor and 19 against. Prime Minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman recommended that Edward VII decline the offer, but the colonial undersecretary, who was none other than Churchill, convinced him to accept, perhaps also out of strategic interest (to ensure the loyalty of Transvaal).

Then, on October 17, 1907, the colonial government acquired the diamond, paying £150,000 for it (estimated to be worth over £15 million today), and officially presented it to the king the following month, on the occasion of his 66th birthday. It was at a lavish reception held at Sandringham House, attended by numerous distinguished guests; among them was, by the way, Victoria Eugenia of Battenberg, the sovereign’s cousin and queen consort of Spain, having married Alfonso XIII the previous year.

The nine main diamonds obtained from the partition of the Cullinan
The nine main diamonds obtained from the partition of the Cullinan. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

The Crown Gets it All

Once owned by the British crown, it was time to cut the stone. The same ones who had already done so with the second largest diamond ever found, the aforementioned Excelsior, were designated for the task: the Dutch brothers Asscher, one of whom, Abraham, collected the Cullinan at the Colonial Office and traveled to Amsterdam by ferry and train, carrying it quietly in his pocket, while, as had been done before, a farce was organized in which a Royal Navy ship transported a decoy across the North Sea. Another brother, Joseph, was responsible for cutting the Cullinan into several parts, an operation that, after calculating the relevant figures and after an initial division in half with a single blow, took eight months.

The result was nine diamonds of just over a hundred carats each and 96 small brilliants of less than one carat. Except for the two largest – baptized with the names Cullinan I and Cullinan II – which were destined for the Royal Scepter in 1909, and the so-called Cullinan VI, which Edward VII bought to give to his wife, all the others remained in the Dutch capital as payment to the Asscher for their work.

Or so it was until 1910, when the South African government acquired them and donated them to Queen Mary, wife of George V (who that year succeeded his father on the throne), who set some of them in a platinum chain. Since Mary also inherited the aforementioned Cullinan VI, all the diamonds belong today to Charles III, forming part of the Crown Jewels.

Jules Verne Wrote it Before it Happened

Joseph Asscher during the carving of the Cullinan
Joseph Asscher during the carving of the Cullinan. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

And now let’s go back to Jules Verne. In 1880, he shared a publisher with André Laurie, the pseudonym of the writer Pascal Grousset. The latter had led such a colorful life (he dueled with Napoleon’s nephew, Pierre; was a member of the Paris Commune; escaped deportation to New Caledonia and ended up being a socialist deputy) that his literary work seemed inevitably destined for the then emerging science fiction. Thus, he signed several incredibly fantastic novels, with plots that had nothing to envy Verne’s.

For example, he is the author of “The Exiles of the Earth” (in which an international consortium tries to turn a mountain into a colossal electromagnet to bring our planet closer to the Moon and exploit its mineral resources), “From New York to Brest in Seven Hours” (where he narrates the excavation of a transatlantic tunnel that is to unite Europe and America), “Atlantis” (about the existence of an ancient civilization at the bottom of the ocean, near the Azores, under a glass dome), or “The Ruby of the Great Lama” (in which a flying island appears), to name just a few.

However, one thing was the ingenuity to devise ideas and another was to develop them properly, and in this, he must not have been so effective, hence his fame was limited compared to Verne’s. To the latter, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, the publisher of both, gave a manuscript by Grousset to correct and improve with a view to releasing it within the “Extraordinary Voyages” collection. It was titled “L’Étoile du sud” and, curiously, its plot was not fantasy but adventure, unfolding in South Africa in the context of diamond exploitation in Griqualand (The Cape).

Original cover of L'Étoile du sud illustrated by Léon Benett
Original cover of L’Étoile du sud illustrated by Léon Benett. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

The story tells of Cyprien Méré, a French engineer who works in the diamond mines and, wanting to marry the owner’s daughter but lacking fortune, creates a large diamond from coal by chemical means, which he calls the Southern Star, giving it to what he hopes will be his future father-in-law.

During a party, the stone disappears, and Méré’s black servant is accused and flees. Then, the landowner offers his daughter’s hand to whoever recovers the Southern Star, and all the suitors go hunting, including the engineer but for nobler reasons, as he believes in his employee’s innocence. The solution to the mystery lies with an ostrich.

We will probably never know exactly how much of each writer is in it, but the fact is that in 1884 Verne published the novel in installments in the Magasin d’Éducation et de Récréation, the biweekly literary magazine in which Hetzel presented new books. It was not one of the author’s most successful works, but it was remembered when the Cullinan was found, and that is why the famous gem was also known as “The Southern Star”.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on August 7, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en La historia del Cullinan, el diamante más grande del mundo, cuyo hallazgo anticipó Julio Verne en su novela ‘La Estrella del Sur’


Eric Bruton, Diamantes | Juan Casabó, Joyería | The diamonds and their history (Royal Collection Trust) | Jewellery made from the world’s largest diamond is to go on display (Royal Collection Trust) | Jewellery made from the Cullinan Diamond (Royal Collection Trust) | Mohsen Manutchehr-Danai, Dictionary of gems and Gemology | Julio Verne, La Estrella del Sur | Wikipedia

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