Review: Flight of the Diamond Smugglers, by Matthew Gavin Frank

Frank explores a truth stranger than fiction along Africa's Diamond Coast.

Literature Review


Flight of the Diamond Smugglers_Matthew Gavin Frank
Flight of the Diamond Smugglers: A Tale of Pigeons, Obsession, and Greed Along Coastal South Africa,  by Matthew Gavin Frank. Available via Bookshop.


Historically seen as a mark of status and prosperity, diamonds have been marketed as a symbol of eternal and transcendental love with the slogan “Diamonds are forever” etched into public memory. However, few are aware of the extent of the carnage and strife that affects its demand and supply.


Matthew Gavin Frank’s Flight of the Diamond Smugglers: A Tale of Pigeons, Obsession, and Greed Along Coastal South Africa  sheds light on this issue with a narrative rooted in the author’s personal grief, echoed in the myriad tragedies embodied in Kimberley’s Big Hole, South Africa, an open-pit diamond mine. Closed off in 1914 for eight years and opened to the public only in 2007, it was instrumental in giving the De Beers company a monopoly in a deeply unethical industry that has been an ongoing source of human and environmental devastation.


The practice of training pigeons to smuggle diamonds out of the mines is an open secret with dire consequences for those who engage in the illegal practice. Through Msizi, a thirteen-year mineworker, and his pigeon Bartholomew, Frank investigates the lives of those who disappeared, and those who still dare to smuggle as their only means of escape from poverty.  


The book’s structure is a miscellany of myths, history, anthropology, anatomy, and investigative journalism into the history of diamond mining. Through it, the humble pigeon, gains a sense of grandeur as the author evokes a plethora of classical, mythical, and scientific accounts to paint a fascinating portrait of this commonplace species. The pigeon’s latest role is carrying smuggled diamonds for people whose dreams have been dashed. Readers also learn the history of diamonds and the accursed nature of the famous Koh-i-Noor, or the Mountain of Light.  


Frank’s book is an attempt to capture and remember the collective tragedies and horror of the diamond mining industry. We see a community struggling with the closure of mines, a lack of alternative economic opportunities, and the hope invested in the ancient carrier for deliverance from their oppression. It also shows the complicity between the state and the industry, in which DeBeers is a controlling entity. Furthermore, existing issues of racial injustice are compounded by the lack of anti-child labor laws and human rights protections, offering locals very little chance of bettering their condition.


Trust is a rare commodity as surveillance is a part of daily life in the community, and smugglers regularly disappear. Frank captures the Orwellian atmosphere in the mining communities with the elusive and frightening figure of Mr. Lester looming large.


The diamond market is driven by luxury. Its demand is a product of artificial scarcity and consumption-based marketing. The most romanticized stone’s inextricably intertwined association with financing wars, coups, and terrorism is well documented. Resource-rich African nations are a site for neocolonial experiments. These conflicts create instability and adversely impact the lives of the people for generations. Frank’s book examines the helplessness of the people who are trapped in this quagmire where hierarchies of race and class push them into making perilous decisions.


Msizi is the human face of an inter-generational misery borne of an exploitative industry. The resilience of these individuals who live a truth stranger than fiction makes us hope for a world that is less brutal. A world in which people do not disappear, children are not robbed of their childhood, and birds can fly as nature intended them to.



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Literature, Review, Nonfiction, Africa, Capitalism, Child Welfare, Nature, Crime