Smuggling diamonds on the wing
Northern Michigan University professor pens book
MARQUETTE — Using carrier pigeons to smuggle diamonds out of a region sounds like an implausible movie plot, but it really does take place.
If you want to know more, read “Flight of the Diamond Smugglers: A Tale of Pigeons, Obsession, and Greed Along Coastal South Africa” written by Matthew Gavin Frank, who teaches in the Department of English at Northern Michigan University.
“You would never think of birds being accomplices to diamond smuggling,” he said.
Frank, who started writing the book in 2015, visited what’s known as the Diamond Coast with his wife, Louisa, to look into an illicit trade that supplies a global market. He became interested in the creative ways smuggling takes places, especially the illegal act of sneaking carrier pigeons onto mine property, affixing diamonds to their feet and sending them airborne.
Frank, the author of “Preparing the Ghost,” “The Mad Feast” and other books, specifically visited the northwest area of South Africa by the Namibia border.
“It’s an area that’s kind of colloquially known as the Diamond Coast because so much of the landscape there is still dominated by De Beers control, diamond mines and the diamond towns,” Frank said.
The area, he said, was closed off to the general public from 1925 to 2007. When De Beers started downscaling its interest in the area because the company over-mined, the region then became more accessible.
“As I writer, I was just incredibly curious to just go see what those places were like,” Frank said. “I never thought that it would lead to a book. It just began with an innate curiosity, but then, of course, I just tumbled down the rabbit hole.”
The book jacket goes into some detail about his early experiences when he arrived in Die Sperrgebiet, or “The Forbidden Zone,” but people were eager to speak with him. He met Msizi, a young diamond digger, and his pigeon, Bartholomew, who helps him steal diamonds.
“It’s a deadly game; pigeons are shot on sight by mine security, and Msizi knows of smugglers who have disappeared because of their crimes,” the jacket reads.
On the back of the jacket are testimonials from authors, one of whom is Lauren Redniss, writer of “Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West.”
“From the depths of diamond pits where miners toil for starvation wages, to the skies aove the South African coast where pigeons glide, Matthew Gavin Frank’s riveting expose casts light on a little-known world that ensnares humans and animals alike in the pitiless pursuit of treasure and profit,” Redniss wrote.
Frank said he hopes readers are curious to read an expose on a part of the world that nobody really “burrowed into” and wrote about because it was closed to the public.
“I hope that people are curious to kind of discover this very particular adventure and to learn about this really strange practice of these diamond smuggling rings using trained carrier pigeons to smuggle diamonds out of mines in that area,” he said. “I also hope it gives people insight to some of the atrocities that were perpetuated by the De Beers corporation in the area.”
These atrocities, Frank said, include human rights violations, worker exploitation, corporate colonialism and “extractive” capitalism.
The book brings to light more facts about a lot of these smuggling rings that he said are so “demonized” by De Beers.
“A lot of these people had to engage in the ancillary industry of diamond smuggling in order to feed their families because they were being exploited by the corporation,” Frank said.
Some smuggling rings, he acknowledged, are more violent than others, but the people with whom he spoke were just “regular folks” who train and use pigeons to smuggle diamonds by a creative means to afford food and housing.
That smuggling was a way, he said, to “pay themselves back” for De Beers making money off their labor, destroying their homeland and then leaving.
“Flight of the Diamond Smugglers” can be purchased at Snowbound Books in Marquette, which has signed copies, and on Amazon.
Frank recommends online shoppers visit bookshop.com, which gives a percentage of sales to independent bookstores.
Frank, who plans to write more books, will talk about his “Fight of the Diamond Smugglers” during the Peter White Public Library’s Authors Reading Virtually series at 7 p.m. Wednesday via Zoom at https://us02web.zoom.us/j/84445645465?pwd=ek5nYVh6UHl1TmpJMXRzY0pFU0xnUT09. The meeting ID is 844 4564 5465, and the passcode is 648355.
Christie Mastric can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal .net