In the twilight of 1908, Zacherias Lewala, a railway worker in Namibia, toiled to clear sand-draped railway tracks when an arresting glimmer in the dim light caught his eye. It was the gleam of diamonds, and thus began the tale of Kolmanskop, a town built upon the allure of these precious gems. This serendipitous discovery, however, failed to bring riches to Lewala, as he received no reward for his find. Instead, it set into motion a diamond rush that would transform the desolate desert landscape.
Kolmanskop sprouted into existence by 1912, producing a staggering million carats of diamonds annually, contributing 11.7 percent of the world’s total diamond production. In this barren desert, it emerged as a haven of opulence and urbanity. The town boasted a butcher, a baker, a post office, and even an ice factory, while fresh water was transported via the railway. The European opera troupes graced Kolmanskop’s residents with their performances, and a sense of eccentricity reigned, with one family keeping a pet ostrich that both terrorized the townspeople and pulled a sleigh at Christmas. However, beneath this façade of extravagance lay a darker history—a legacy of colonial violence.
A mere four years before the diamond discovery, the Herero people of Namibia had rebelled against German colonizers, prompting a ferocious and genocidal response that claimed the lives of over 60,000 Herero. Yet, despite its apparent wealth and luxury, Kolmanskop was inexorably tied to this legacy of brutality. As the prospectors of Kolmanskop unearthed diamonds from the desert floor, German authorities tightened their grip on these riches. They declared a significant portion of Namibia a “Sperrgebiet” or restricted zone, excluding ordinary people and granting exclusive prospecting rights to a single Berlin-based company. Those displaced by the zone’s construction were frequently conscripted as laborers in diamond mines, forced to dwell in cramped, barracks-like compounds for extended periods.
However, Kolmanskop’s prosperity proved ephemeral. By the 1930s, intense mining operations had depleted the area, and in 1928, the discovery of even richer diamond fields on the southern beach terraces spelled doom for the town. The residents left in droves, leaving their homes and possessions behind. By 1956, Kolmanskop was utterly abandoned, with dunes replacing the town’s streets and homes.