Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Visiting Dr Williamson's grave

I've lived in Mwadui for fifteen months and hadn't yet seen Dr Williamson's grave.

For those readers who may not know, Dr Williamson established Mwadui Mine, where I live, way back in in 1940. Today the Williamson Diamond Mine (also known as the Mwadui mine) is a diamond mine south of Mwanza in Tanzania. This mine became well-known as the first significant diamond mine outside of  South Africa and has been continuous operation since 1940, making it one of the oldest continuously operating diamond mines in the world. Over its lifetime it has produced over 19 million carats (3,800 kg) of diamonds. The Williamson Diamond Mine,  was once owned by its namesake Dr. Williamson,  a Canadian geologist and later nationalized by the government of Tanzania. It's now majority owned by Petra Diamonds (75% ownership), with the government of Tanzania owning the remaining 25%.
 Dr John Williamson

Dr. John Williamson was born in 1907 in Montfort, Quebec. He attended McGill University, where he initially intended to study law but became interested in geology  after accompanying a friend on a summer field expedition to Labrador. He subsequently earned his Bachelors, Masters , and PhD degrees in geology, completing his studies between 1928 and 1933.

After completing his studies, Williamson traveled to  South Africa with one of his professors, where he eventually took a job with Loangwa Concessions, a De Beers Subsidiary,  in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). He then moved to Tanzania to work at the  Mabuki Diamond Mine which he purchased from the owners in 1936 when they had decided to shut the mine down. Williamson struggled to support himself with the operations of the Mabuki mine, while using it as a base for diamond prospecting in the region.

In 1940 he discovered the Mwadui kimberlite pipe; over the next several years he developed the mine, although he was hindered by difficulty in procuring equipment and raising funds due to  World War II. By the 1950s he had developed the Williamson Diamond Mine into the first significant diamond mine in Tanzania, with a labor force of several thousand. The mine was noted for technical innovations in diamond mining which were developed under Williamson's watch. Williamson closely managed the mine until his death in 1958 at the age of 50.

The mine produced many fine gems including the Williamson Pink, a pink diamond of 23.6 carats (4.7 g) presented to Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip on their wedding day in 1947. It became the centrepiece of the Williamson Diamond brooch made for the Queen in 1952. 

John Williamson never married. Upon his death, the mine was left to his three siblings, who promptly sold the mine for £4 million GBP to a partnership between De Beers and the government of Tanzania (then Tanganyika)
The life of John Williamson had been adapted into the  biographical works: The Diamond Seeker by John Gewaine (a pseudynome), which was published in 1967. The book depicts Williamson as quiet, almost secretive, yet something of a  womanizer. The book also hails him as the last of the great diamond prospectors, who were able to find meaningful deposits and establish significant, successful mines without outside resources or support. While the book is known to have taken some liberties with the facts, it is one of the few biograhical sources available. 

Dr Williamson was inducted into the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame on January 13, 2011.

On that particular Sunday in Mid-May, Grant and I met up with a friend, Fritz (who works for an independent mine on the outskirts of Mwadui) He jumped into our vehicle with us and as we drove to the old Mwadui cemetery about 3kms from town, he regaled us with many of the facts which I've written above. I'd also read a few accounts of Dr Williamson's life and legacy. Also,  living on the self-same mine today, I hear many a tale or legend from old-time workers, present-day expats and more.
The road to the cemetery through the African bush

 Fritz (whom I call Croc Dundee)  stands in front of the monument to Dr Williamson

 The plaque erected by the Williamson family

 The memorial and surrounding pillar structures are made from marble which was shipped from abroad to Dar Es Salaam and then transported more than 1000km by ox-wagon to Mwadui

Sadly, the whole place was redolent of severe neglect.  Adjacent to Dr Williamson's grave, were final resting places of many South Africans, ranging from very young children to several  elderly men.
Fritz and Grant looked down at a very overgrown grave

 An ornate, but crumbling angel is all that's visible on this grave

The weather-beaten, forgotten and overgrown grave of an erstwhile intrepid expat diamond miner

 Many of the people lying here were from Afrikaans stock. Above is Theunis Cobus Botha -  typical Afrikaans names and surname

The same grave with the cross which has been broken off. All the gravestones have been stripped of any "precious" ornaments and especially of their brass and copper plaques

Another cross ripped off another gravestone in order to get to the brass plaque underneath

Behind me you can see tha the brass frames around the name plaque have been stripped from Dr Williamson's memorial stone

Another legend is that, like an African chief, Dr Williamson was buried with great riches, ie a large bag of diamonds. Allegedly people have tried to dig under the memorial to get to the treasure! 

I hope you enjoyed the tour of my world today. I love living on Mwadui mine and personally am very grateful to Dr Williamson for establishing this mine.

For more on other people's worlds, please click here



  1. Interesting history about Dr. Williamson, Jo... Glad you saw his grave site... Who is in charge of the cemetery? Someone ought to form a committee and clean it up..

    Have a great day.

  2. Thanks, it's nice to know more of the history of the mine you live at. Too bad the cemetery is in such a neglected state. Looks like a lawn mower would help a lot.

    You are looking good. Have fun on your holiday.

  3. That's quite an interesting post. You never really know what someone went through before they became famous.

  4. I love to explore old grave yards like these and is always sad to see the neglect. Glad that there is a monument to him though.

  5. How interesting ... and I loved the photos. The pictures of the African veld took me straight back to our days in Africa. I too have been an expat wife. It's lovely to connect with you. (I blog over at ZigaZag).

  6. That was really very interesting. He must have had a lot of success with women not because of his "beauty" but because of his diamonds, as it's said :Diamonds are women's best friend" (not for me !) You look like a film star in front of the grave the only thing missing is a huge sparkling diamond ring on your finger !

  7. Interesting post!! Boom & Gary of the Vermilon River, Canada.

  8. Jo, thanks for sharing the history of the mine and more about Mr. Williamson. It is very interesting. Very sad to see how the cemetery has been vandalized. You are looking great there too, lovely photo!

  9. Being Canadian, I very much enjoyed this post about an eminent historical figure. It looks like the Williamson family went to significant expense to create a memorial to Dr. Williamson in a land that he obviously loved.

    I was interested too to read that Dr. Williamson was from Quebec as I've just recently passed through that province.

    Too bad there is no one to help maintain the gravesites of Dr. Williamson and the many Afrikaaners who died there.

  10. Dr. Williamson sounds like an ambitious, talented and hard-working man. It's a shame that people have stolen things from right off the gravestones.

  11. Hi Jo
    Good to see something I have not seen since 1958 when I lived in Hopley Ave, Mwadui. Sad to see the cemetery is in disrepair, especially Dr Williamson’s memorial. He was buried the day he died and for as long as I can remember there was an Askari at each corner of his grave to protect it from grave robbers. I have lots of memorabilia from Mwadui & Songwa, also a website dedicated to Mwadui in the fifties.

    Richard Hide

  12. So sad… i was born and grew up in mwadui, now i live in washington dc.

  13. Hello Jo,

    My family from Portsmouth UK went to the mine in 1956 where my dad Ken worked in the machinery workshop. Unfortunately my mum died there in march 1958 and I assume she was buried in the same cemetery. I have plans to visit the site in 2018 to try and find her grave, but I'm not confident of finding it, after seeing the condition of the place. It's very difficult to find out any information.

  14. I am going to visit the cemetery in March 2019 to locate my mothers grave, which has been located by the mine staff.

  15. All the best Tim, I was born in Mwadui 1975, still it was well look after we used to call it a little UK, my father was Police chief of Mwadui, I stil have memories of little morris cars, golf ground, songwa club, but now it really has been ruined and new mining company only after profit, i heard the airpoit has digged, and all well arranged residential areas turned to mining pits

  16. Well I did get there, to commemorate my mothers untimely death on March 2 1958 on March 2 2019. Williamson's memorial is unfortunately even more damaged. There is a myth that there are diamonds buried underneath. It was a moment of huge significance for me, to finally have closure, and I have to thank the mine staff and 3 local elderly gentlemen who helped locate my mothers grave. As boys they used to tend to the cemetery, and when they saw the recent damage were verbally furious.
    How do I put photos up here?

  17. Alan Maitland
    My father, mother and I lived in Mwadui in the 1950's through to 1965 (Hopley Avenue), my father worked as an engineer underground on mines before the open excavation and I remember the opening of the second shaft. I have quite a few photos of the early days of life on the mine. I remember going to school there, trips back to the UK (3 year contract in those days for my dad) sailing from the UK through Suez to Mombassa on the BISN Line and the SS Kenya,the train to Niarobi and the flight from Niarobi to back to Mwadui of course the golf course, the swimming pool and also the excitement when the cinema was first built and some of the first shows at the open air cinema at the clubhouse. The trip to the post office to to collect the mail from our post box and the clinic where Dr Nuric worked and indeed saved my dads eyesight after a he had sustained an injury while working at the mine. Very fond memories sadly my mother and father have now passed away but my memories live on and I still have my dads blazer badge and one or two items we brought back from on the mine. Such wonderful memories and I was so privileged to have had the opportunity to grow up there. I would love to share the pictures i have so if anyone can help please let me know.

  18. I to lived at Mwadui in the 1950’s returning to the U.K. in 1962 staying year before moving to South Africa for a number of years. I’m 70 now and yes I still have fond memories of that time. Perhaps we were at school at the same time. David Oates.

  19. That is a fascinating time and man, and to me, 50 is young to die. What a story he had. Sad to see the vandalized and unkempt cemetery, those are found everywhere, I imagine.


Thank you for visiting my blog and taking the time to leave a comment. I appreciate your feedback. Jo