Barnato, Barnett Isaacs (DNB01)

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BARNATO, BARNETT ISAACS (1852–1897), South African financier, born in Aidgate, London, in 1852, was the second son of Isaac Isaacs and his wife Leah, who is said to have been related to Sir George Jessel [q. v.], the master of the rolls. His grandfather was a rabbi of the Jewish synagogue in Aldgate, but his father was a general dealer in a street leading out of Aldgate, now demolished. Barnett and his elder brother Henry were educated at the Jews' free school in Bell Lane, Spitalfields, under Moses Angel, a teacher of repute. They left school at the age of fourteen, and assisted in their father's business until 1871, when Henry went out to the diamond fields (now Kimberley) in South Africa as an amateur conjurer and entertainer; he soon got employment as a diamond dealer, and invited his brother to join him; for professional purposes he had assumed the additional name Barnato, by which the brothers were henceforth known.

Barnett sailed from England in July 1873 ; he possessed over fifty pounds when he reached Cape Town, and the story of his early destitution was merely one of the fictions with which Barnato loved to beguile interviewers and friends. On reaching Kimberley he began business as a dealer in diamonds, and by 1876, through unremitting industry, he had amassed three thousand pounds, with which he purchased his first claim in the Kimberley mine. His further success was mainly due to his recognition of the fact that the diamonds were not a surface deposit, but had been forced up by volcanic action ; hence, when many claims were sold under the erroneous impression that, the surface yellow soil having been worked out, the diamonds were exhausted, Barnato bought up the claims, and found, as he had expected, that the blue subsoil was richer in diamonds than the surface yellow. In 1880 he visited London and established there the firm of Barnato Brothers as dealers in diamonds and financiers. In 1881 he was able to float at Kimberley the Barnato Diamond Mining Company, and thenceforth he set himself to absorb the rival companies in Kimberley. A similar policy was followed by Mr. Cecil Rhodes, the moving spirit of the De Beers Company, and by 1887 the two companies had eliminated all their competitors except the French Diamond Company. A severe struggle ensued between Mr. Rhodes and Barnato for the control of this company; but Mr. Rhodes, backed up by the Rothschilds, was too strong for Barnato, and in 1888 the two companies ended the suicidal struggle by determining to amalgamate. The chief difficulty was Barnato's objection to Mr. Rhodes's demand that the funds of the company should be made available for the promotion of his policy of expansion towards the north ; but Mr. Rhodes carried his point, the company was known as De Beers, and Barnato became a life governor ; its capital in that year was valued at seventeen millions, of which Barnato owned a tenth.

In 1881 Barnato had declined an invitation to contest the representation of Kimberley in the Cape Assembly, but he was from 1880 an active member of the Kimberley divisional council, and in 1888 he stood for parliament. The struggle lay between the De Beers Company and the rest of Kimberley, Barnato was the nominee of the company, and on 14 Nov. was returned at the head of the poll. He was re-elected in 1891 in spite of some unpopularity, due to the De Beers policy of restricting the output of the mines in order to keep up prices ; but he had little aptitude for politics, was seldom present, and rarely spoke in the House of Assembly.

Meanwhile in 1888 Barnato turned his attention to the Rand in the Transvaal, the mineral wealth of which was not yet recognised ; he bought up many mining claims, and invested largely in real property in the neighbourhood of Johannesburg, where he floated the Johannesburg Waterworks and Exploration Company. The mines more particularly under his control were the New Primrose, New Croesus, Roodepoort, and Glencairn mines, but there were few in which he did not possess some interest. In London he founded the Barnato Bank, the least successful of his ventures, and in the summer of 1895 was the principal manipulator of the 'Kaffir boom.' In the reaction of the following October, due, Barnato afterwards suspected, to the preparations for the Jameson raid, he lost three millions ; but in recognition of his exertions in keeping up prices and preventing a panic he was entertained at the Mansion House by the lord mayor, Sir Joseph Renals, on 7 Nov. 1895, and about the same time he became a member of the Carlton club.

In Transvaal politics Barnato took little part ; he regarded the gold law as entirely satisfactory, and had little sympathy with the franchise agitation, declaring that personally he would never accept a privilege which involved the renunciation of his rights as a British subject. He was therefore regarded with some favour by President Kruger, and his persuasions were to some extent responsible for the president's consent to the extension of the Cape railway into the Transvaal; he failed, however, to induce the president to withdraw his support from the Netherlands railway, or to grant municipal government to Johannesburg. He was naturally not initiated into the secret of the Jameson raid of December 1895, which he afterwards denounced in unmeasured terms; but his nephew, Mr. S. B. Joel, was one of the reform committee of Johannesburg, and after the raid Barnato went to Pretoria to plead on the prisoners' behalf; he also threatened to close down all his mines and throw twenty thousand whites and a hundred thousand Kaffirs out of employment unless the prisoners were released. When their release was effected Barnato presented to Mr. Kruger the two marble lions which guard the entrance to what was then the presidency at Pretoria.

Barnato's health began to fail in 1897, and on 14 June he threw himself overboard from the Scot, not far from Madeira, on his way from Cape Town to Southampton; the Cape legislature adjourned on hearing the news; his body was recovered and brought to Southampton, where, on the 18th, a coroner's jury returned a verdict of 'death by drowning while temporarily insane.' Barnato was buried on the 20th by the side of his father in Willesden cemetery; a portrait is prefixed to Raymond's 'Memoir.' He married in 1875 at Kimberley, and his widow, with two sons and one daughter, survived him.

Barnato possessed a wonderful financial aptitude, untiring industry, and a genius for stock exchange speculation. He retained his ignorance through life, read nothing, not even the newspapers, and amused himself with the drama of the lower sort, with prize-fighting, and horse-racing. He was, however, generous, good-natured, and free from snobbery. He did not live to complete the mansion he commenced building in 1895 at the corner of Park Lane and Stanhope Street. The management of his business affairs devolved upon his nephew, Woolf Joel, who was assassinated at Johannesburg in March 1898, and buried in Willesden cemetery on 19 April (see Times, 20 April 1898).

[Memoir by H. Raymond, 1897; Times, 16 and 21 June 1897; Cape Times, 16 June; Cape Argus and Johannesburg Star, 17 June; Cecil Rhodes, by Vindex, 1900, chap. vi.; Fitzpatrick's Transvaal from Within, 1899; J. McCall Theal's South Africa, ed. 1899.]

A. F. P.