Barren Lands by Kevin Krajick

If you’re an American, you probably don’t know squat about geography in the US, much less Canada. Ever look at a map of North America? Well it turns out that it’s not just trees in Canada that suddenly turn into icebergs as you get farther north. Up at the northern reaches are an incredibly deserted place called the Barren Lands. The place looks like the moon or Mars, with no vegetation, and flat rocks as far as the eye can see. There’s nothing up there.

Well, almost nothing. Turns out it’s got the largest source of diamonds in North America. And copper, and gold, etc…

Barren Lands chronicles the unrelenting pursuit of many men, over many hundreds of years, to find a source for diamonds outside of South Africa. In modern history there have really been two big sources of diamonds, India and Southern Africa, South Africa to be exact. The Indian diamond mines dried up from years of work, and the DeBeers corporation ended up owning or controlling all African production through a lot of business savviness and muscle.
It was this utter and complete control of the diamond market from production to retail that drove people to seek a source outside of South Africa for diamonds. (The promise of enriching oneself probably didn’t hurt either)

Initially, though, what put explorers into the Barren Lands in the 1500’s was a hunt for a passage to Asia from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Enough explorers started to hear natives talk about copper, gold, and other minerals, and finally diamonds, that they started to hunt high and low for it, often ending up dead beacuse they weren’t prepared for the harsh climate.

Modern day explorers are better prepared, but they still occasionally fall victim to their prospecting obsession. Kevin Krajick’s book follows several of them on their quest over the last 300 years to find the source of diamonds in North America, and by turn, the history of diamond prospecting.

Although I’ve read a lot about the history of diamonds, this one was an absolute page-turner. You can’t truly appreciate the quantity of espionage involved in the diamond prospecting business until you’ve crawled inside the heads of the most paranoid, persistant, and brilliant prospectors with Krajick. The lengths people go to to hide their tracks, and the smallness of the diamond hunting community make it a story that couldn’t be fictionalized and be made any more interesting.

Pick up Barren Lands if you have a chance, you won’t regret it. And when you’re done, read this interview with the author.