Today Great Britain is little England but there will always be a history to remind one of those pith-helmeted days when Britannia was busy exploring, civilizing, and exploiting distant lands, carting off everything from raw materials to jasmine tea to Greek history to -- the subject here -- South African diamonds. From the moment when the ""Eureka"" stone was found in 1867 and two years later the magnificent ""Star of South Africa,"" Englishmen dominated the diamond fields, coming as young adventurers, establishing claims, creating the tent towns which were to become, as in the case of Kimberley, centers of wealth, stupendous legal battles, political cabals and counterplots, and great personal friendships and feuds. Roberts openly ignores the day-to-day mining operation and the life of the ordinary toiler (""Stories told by old South African diggers are tame compared with those of their counterparts on the California goldfields""), centering entirely on the entrepreneurs who succeeded devilishly well -- the famed colonizer Cecil Rhodes, the bad-tempered J. B. Robinson, the insecure Barnato brothers Barney and Harry, Rhodes' loyal friend Alfred Beit. Their interlocked aspirations and intrigues and final departures are related without undue sensationalism or disregard for conflicting evidence; that all died ""disillusioned, basically unhappy"" does not detract from the colorful lives these merchants of Empire led. Popular, people-centered history, keenly researched and bloody readable.