Diamonds for every pocket

The mines on the border of Guinea are run on state-of-the-art machinery, writes Trilochan Singh Trewn

Diamonds & semi-precious gems smuggled out of Africa
Diamonds & semi-precious gems smuggled out of Africa

After a fortnight of staying in the harbour city of Cape Town, we were looking forward to a halt at Laspalmas in the Canary Islands of western Africa. It was a port where shopkeepers opened their shutters even at midnight to suit the timings of the visiting ships.

While heading towards Laspalmas from Cape Town we skirted the Sherbro islands off Sierra Leone coast. It was about midnight when two powerboats, with armed sea pirates, tried to board our ship from port waist. It so happened that one of the pirates slipped and fell over board, along with a small crate of uncut diamonds he was carrying. This resulted in the intruder abandoning the attempt. But our captain was adamant in reporting this episode to chief harbour master in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone. The Venice-born harbour chief Jossepe Sabatini suggested that our ship should move right into inside berth to facilitate investigation.

The women on board were excited, as they knew that Sierra Leone was the home of choicest uncut diamonds in the world.

Sabatini also revealed that the case was related to diamond smuggling from local diamond mines. Smugglers had used merchant ships as conduits for undercover smuggling of raw diamonds from Freetown and precious gemstones from adjoining Guinea to Europe. In such cases, ships bound for ocean were used for such nefarious tasks. The local police commissioner also invited us to visit one of the large diamond mines on the border of Guinea. It was an automatic plant with powerful pneumatic circular cutters slicing through diamond rocks without damaging the crystal layer. On the conveyor belt were heavy pieces resembling the lump of alum. As we tried to slightly scrape the skin, bright spots showed hidden light within. Most pieces weighed from two carats to 38 carats.

The word ‘diamond’ is derived from adamas, which means the unconquerable. Most diamonds range from plain, brilliant blue, black, glowing red and green. Some diamonds become phosphorescent in dark after being exposed to light for some time. The exhibition corner in the factory displayed how artificial diamonds were manufactured in Detroit, USA, by employing 1000 tonnes of hydraulic pressures utilised to compress carbon to 24000 tonnes per squinch exposed to 5000 F temperature.

The factory area was heavily guarded but beyond the fencing was the vast unguarded hill area. Here a small uncut rock diamond could be picked up by an unscrupulous person away from the prowling eyes of isolated police posts. Each handful, about 200 gm of lump of raw diamond rock, could easily fetch $5000. We decided that due to notoriety of the local diamond trading in the region, Indian families on board should refrain from buying previous raw diamonds. However, the police chief suggested that all crew members and passengers could buy some cheap variety semi-precious stones like amethyst, ruby, opal, emerald, topaz, quartz and garnet from the exhibition counter at duty-free rates as souvenirs. These could match lucky stone requirements for a fraction of cost prevailing in India.