Flight of the diamond smugglers A tale of pigeons, obsession, and greed along coastal South Africa

Matthew Gavin Frank

Book - 2021

"Blending elements of reportage, memoir, and incantation, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers is a stunning investigation into the role of carrier pigeons in South African diamond smuggling. Nearly every town along South Africa's infamous diamond coast has been deemed "overmined." Before the area fully becomes a series of abandoned outposts, journalist Matthew Gavin Frank drives from Oranjemund, Namibia to the De Beers mining towns of Alexander Bay, Porth Nolloth, and Kleinzee. What begins as an attempt to peer behind the curtain cloaking the global diamond trade soon becomes a tale of obsession, as Frank learns about the various and ingenious methods used in illicit diamond smuggling-particularly, the sneaking of carrier pi...geons onto mine property, affixing diamonds to them, and sending them into the air to fly home. So rampant is this method that a law in 1998 made it illegal to not shoot a pigeon on sight. Frank juxtaposes the endangered lives of local diamond diggers (whose average lifespan is 37 years) who raise pigeons in secret with the corporate boardrooms of De Beers, while also synthesizing myths across histories and cultures in which diamonds and gems intersect. As he speaks with miners, former heads of security, environmental managers, and more, he gets ever-closer to the elusive Mr. Lester-a tall-tale villain meant to frighten would-be smugglers, and the only person who can answer Frank's questions, if he is indeed real. Written in atmospheric and lyrical prose, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers becomes an urgent portrait of labor, greed, and our penchant for ownership"--

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Location Call Number   Status
2nd Floor 364.1336/Frank Checked In
True crime stories
New York : Liveright Publishing Corporation [2021]
Main Author
Matthew Gavin Frank (author)
First edition
Physical Description
208 pages : map ; 22 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 198-208).
  • Map
  • Author's Note
  • Prologue
  • Chapter 1. Msizi and His Bird
  • Chapter 2. Isaac Newton & Co.
  • Bartholomew Variation #1
  • Chapter 3. Beyond the Pits of Alexander Bay
  • Chapter 4. Port Nolloth and the Halfway Desert
  • Bartholomew Variation #2
  • Chapter 5. Riding with the Faceless
  • Chapter 6. Driving to Kleinzee amid Shipwrecks and Snakes
  • Bartholomew Variation #3
  • Chapter 7. New Rush and Kimberley: The De Beers Origin Story
  • Chapter 8. Beyond the Boom Gate, Touring the Erasure
  • Bartholomew Variation #4
  • Chapter 9. Pilgrims and the Mountain of Light: A Link Between Myth and Human History
  • Chapter 10. Odyssey to Die Houthoop
  • Chapter 11. Champagne and Death at Dark: The Origins of a Pigeon Obsession
  • Bartholomew Variation #5
  • Chapter 12. This Security Thing
  • Bartholomew Variation #6
  • Epilogue
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Sources
Review by Library Journal Review

Equal parts memoir and investigative reporting, the latest from Frank (creative writing, Northern Michigan Univ.; Preparing the Ghost) is a page-turning tale of suspense. During a trip to his wife's native South Africa to spread their child's ashes at Big Hole, an underground mine turned tourist attraction, Frank decided to learn more about the history of the mine. This curiosity leads him to 13-year-old mineworker Msizi and his pigeon Bartholomew. Through Msizi, the author learns how mineworkers sneak trained carrier pigeons onto mine property, affix diamonds to their feet or wings, and send them into the air to fly to worker's homes. Frank quickly learns that not all pigeons survive--some are weighed down by diamonds while others are confiscated by mine security. With novelistic writing, Frank masterfully weaves a fast-paced history of South Africa's Diamond Coast, and the impact of De Beers controlling both the land and the government. His thorough reporting on mineworkers, their pigeons, and towns that have struggled in the wake of mine closures makes for compelling reading. The author excels in allowing people to speak for themselves, adding personal touches to a history of greed and trauma. VERDICT Frank writes a fascinating story of grief and history that will draw readers in from the first page. Must-read narrative nonfiction.--Stephanie Sendaula, Library Journal

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

Frank chronicles his trip to South Africa to conduct a "funeral ceremony of sorts" at a vast diamond mine. As he did in Preparing the Ghost (2014), the author creates an intriguing and unusual blend of genres. Here he mixes natural history with anthropology and a twist of true crime in a tale of small-scale theft. Along the Diamond Coast, he met Msizi, a young man who works belowground to harvest diamonds--and who smuggles in a pigeon to whose legs he ties tiny bits of the precious stone in an act of "quiet--but punishable--piracy." Msizi's thefts are tiny given a diamond harvest that, Frank notes, can be more than 176 million carats per year. A small army of men monitor the workers, who have devised many clever ways to sneak out diamond fragments, including using catapults to "shoot hollowed-out steel bolts, packed with diamonds" into the surrounding desert. Getting caught can mean torture and death. The army is led by Mr. Lester, a would-be chemist who instead joined the South African army and then went into security work; by Frank's account, he's a thoughtful but dangerous man. The pages are stuffed with notes on how pigeons live their lives, drinking with their heads down and carrying complex maps in their minds that enable them to locate their homes. The author's prose is mannered, with a hint of the MFA workshop to it, as when he writes, "Perhaps it's not God who has the answers to our seemingly unanswerable questions about ourselves--as Newton may have believed--but the loaded-up pigeons, some of whom, in a crisis of weight, will unexpectedly land and offer us a clue into the circulatory map of all the things we wish to hide from the rest of our species." A little of this overwriting goes a long way, and there's a lot of it. The overall story, however, is interesting. Not without merits, but it might have worked better as a long-form magazine piece. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.