On a deserted beach in the restricted mining town along South Africa’s Diamond Coast, Matthew Gavin Frank approaches a 13-year-old miner/diamond smuggler named Msizi. In the boy’s palms coos his co-conspirator: a pigeon named Bartholomew, who, in the smuggling sense, is actually a mule. When the time is right—that is, when the security detail for the diamond conglomerate De Beers turns their backs—Msizi will cinch diamond-filled bags to his bird’s feet and wings, then send him soaring over the X-ray machines and the security gates in the direction of his home. It’s a risky operation; boys have been brutalized for such crimes—
Msizi’s lame pinky serves as proof. As for the pigeons, they are hardly so lucky. Whether smuggling or not, they are often shot from the skies, their bodies bursting like confetti.
“They’d probably kill me for talking to you,” Msizi tells Frank on the beach that day. “They’d probably kill you also, for talking to me.”
Under these inauspicious conditions Matthew Gavin Frank’s Flight of the Diamond Smugglers: A Tale of Pigeons, Obsession, and Greed along Coastal South Africa begins its journey, plunging deep into dual sagas of the region’s exploitative diamond mining industry, as well as the smugglers’ desperate attempts to steal their way toward a better life. That this book defies a simpler summary is perhaps its greatest strength—proof of a complexity worthy of the excavations undertaken by the author. Sure, it’s a book about birds and diamonds, but it’s also a book about place: in particular, South Africa’s stripped and ravaged western coast. For centuries, colonial powers profited on the backs of exploited labor, the problem only worsening in 1888, when the De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd. began amassing its diamond monopoly. In the years that followed, the land, too, became a victim—all but decimated by the conglomerate’s gluttonous pursuit of diamonds. Once the terrain was reduced to rubble, De Beers turned its attention toward the coastal waters, where today, a ship drills deep into the seabed, “sucking up the sediment with a dredge pump into the bowels of the boat… wherein 60-odd boys and men sort through the slurry for diamonds.”
The cruel irony is that all of this pain is self-inflicted. A diamond’s worth is set by us. No one understands the “virtues” of supply-side economics better than De Beers. As Frank explains, in their 1899 annual report, the conglomerate noted its “moral obligation” to control the supply. “[S]hould the field be thrown open to everyone, the market could be flooded with diamonds, rendering them worthless…” the report noted. “[We must] take measures to prevent such a disaster.”
Emerging from this milieu of diamonds, and pigeons, and smuggling, and scarcity, comes a more personal excavation as well. Following their sixth miscarriage, Frank and his partner, Louisa, traveled to South Africa to take comfort with Louisa’s family. While seeking solace, he found the diamond smuggling story, as well.
“It may sound moony,” Frank writes, “but I became interested in the notion of carriage itself, and the language we lend to it; the act of loading and sometimes overloading a pigeon with cargo we deem valuable, and the benefits and consequences thereof; the ways in which the labors of the carrier pigeon connect, however lyrically and ephemerally, to problems with the act of caring, to miscarriage.”
To my ear, it doesn’t sound moony at all. Rather, it sounds like a person grappling with the inexplicable in the ways we often do—by seeking order amid the chaos, and mining for metaphor wherever we can.
Though the book was inspired by this personal pain, it soon ripples outward to include the horrors experienced throughout the region. What are we to make of a place where boys must risk their lives burrowing into impossibly tight mines in order to eat? A place, too, where the best hope of survival arrives on pigeon wings?
Frank often navigates these moral questions by way of the ancients, calling upon a grand parade including Orpheus, Bacchus, Odysseus, and Sisyphus, among others. Such a strange chorus seems an unlikely point of departure, yet it makes perfect sense in the author’s hands. Their wisdom (and folly) provides poignant parallels to Frank’s present-day story, though by his own admission, “we are not entombed in myth to the point at which evolution ceases.”
Which is to say: the past cannot protect us from the present. And myths can only ever take us so far.
“We can better bear our burden by affixing it to something exterior—” Frank continues, “the feet of the birds we’ve so judiciously complicated—and setting it into the air, the upper world, where things are free to love one another and to tear one another apart…”
The book’s primary tension inhabits this “upper world”: somewhere between love and death, risk and reward, abundance and scarcity. Even when we are ostensibly reading about pigeons and diamonds, one understands that we are reading about so much more. Of a world both morally and ecologically on fire, for instance, and one that grows ever more inhospitable by the day. We’ve heard such stories before, but Frank’s tale is different. Because, in addition to recounting the plundering of our planet, it is the story of the people whose dire financial situations leave them little choice but to carry it out. What are we to make of a species that risks the lives of every living creature in pursuit of a mineral? How beautiful must that mineral be to reveal such depravity?