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Famous for its spice and ivory, and well-known to traders from Asia, the east coast of Africa had long attracted merchants from South Asia - merchant-venturers from the sub-continent trading alongside Arab slavers for centuries; contributing to the opening up of the interiors long before the European slave traders arrived on the scene in the 1400s, later followed by the missionaries and the colonisers.
Once the colonisation process began in earnest and the continent was gradually carved up into spheres of influence (legitimised by the Berlin Conference of 1885); and especially after 1860, when indentured labour from India began being shipped in - shopkeepers, craftsmen, clerks and even civil servants began flocking the new colonies. And after 1895, when the massive road and railway building projects began, along with the 'coolies' arrived a new set of Indians - draughtsmen, surveyors, accountants and overseers.
Ratanlal, escaping the poverty and squalor of his small village had boarded one such 'coolie' ship bound for Africa as a deckhand, when he was barely sixteen, and arriving at Mombasa in early 1910 - when it had already been taken back by the Crown from the Imperial British East Africa Company, and had ceased to be the capital of British East Africa - found the port city teeming with prosperous traders and merchants from back home.
He worked the docks in various capacities before catching the eyes of Meethibhai, a wealthy merchant with extensive business interests in both Mombasa and Nairobi, having a flourishing trade in spice, sesame and ivory, besides also being the official sutler to the British garrison at Mombasa, and the Governor's household in Nairobi. The man took pity on the lad and engaged him in one of his warehouse at Mombasa.
With untiring hard work, slavish obedience, and a large measure of cunning sycophancy Ratanlal soon ingratiated himself; and utilising his innate, shrewd intelligence, quickly learnt everything that Meethibhai could teach, absorbing every little detail of the merchant's business activities, his dealings and strategies - ever solicitous... soon the most trusted, and a close confidant.
When in 1913 Meethibhai tragically lost his wife and only son to the endemic influenza that regularly ravaged the land, Ratanlal, ever attentive, became indispensable... always by the devastated merchant's side... slowly taking charge of both the household and the businesses as the heartbroken merchant sank further and further into despondency.
Ratanlal, barely out of his teens, was practically master now - selectively firing the older, loyal staff, and engaging or promoting those who vouched their loyalty to him alone. Befriending his master's British friends, and the officials of the administration with artful sycophancy and lavish gifts!
And then, a lot happened in the later half of 1914...
As the July Crisis of 1914 (following the June 28 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria) unfolded in Europe, and war clouds rumbled over the darkened European horizon, threatening to engulf the African continent in its wake, settlers rushed in to organise themselves into irregular units and militias, arming themselves with all manners of available arms; and the Governor of British East Africa sent urgent appeals for reinforcement to deal with German East Africa.
When hostilities finally broke out in Europe, on July 28, with the Austro-Hungarian forces invading Serbia, Imperial Russia retaliating by attacking Imperial Germany and the Germans in turn invading Belgium (August 4, 1914) on their way to France. In total defiance of the Congo Act (and the provisions of the Berlin Conference of 1885), French and British troops invaded the German protectorate of Togoland on 7 August 1914, and Britain made a preemptive strike on Dar es Salaam (capital of German East Africa) on 13 August.
The Great War had finally arrived!
The Governor's request for reinforcement was meanwhile granted and two forces were raised in India and shipped to Mombasa under the command of Major General Arthur Aitken - the Indian Expeditionary Force B, with the task of invading German East Africa along the coast; and the Indian Expeditionary Force C, tasked to guard the Ugandan Railway system and take the German settlement of Longido on the slopes of Kilimanjaro.
What followed were the infamous Battle of Tanga (2 November) and the Battle of Kilimanjaro (3 November). It was a miserable defeat for the much larger British forces on both fronts and as the panicked commander and officers ordered a hasty retreat, the forces ran, leaving nearly all their equipments - rifles, machineguns, ammunitions, field telephones, food and clothing - behind, giving the Germans what they desperately needed.
And in Nairobi, Meethibhai most unexpectedly died on the night of 3 November, 1914...
War is a terrible time, bringing death and destruction in its wake, but it can also be a profitable time - for the one who spots the opportunity, and seizes it.
As the battered and bruised British forces returned to Mombasa from Tanga and Longido, Ratanlal rushed in with medicines and supplies, placing all his resources at the disposal of the British authorities, and throwing open his warehouse facilities for the Indian soldiers and British officers, while handing over his workshops and lorries to the military.
Over the next two years, as shortages, famine and disease stalked the troops (and the civilians), and the British forces were continuously harrassed by the German commander Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck's determined units leading raids into British East Africa, Uganda, and Rhodesia, attacking forts and destroying railroads, Ratanlal devotedly served the British administration and forces, providing practically everything that they could possibly need.
At the end of war following the Armistice of 1918, Ratanlal had not only completely taken over Meethibhai's businesses (and all his possessions and wealth since the merchant had no surviving heir, nor any claimants), but had also become the most prosperous merchant along the entire east coast of Africa; and one of the more powerful non-White in the entire colony!
Meethibhai's sudden death (under mysterious circumstances according to fellow merchants and friends) had remained un-investigated since the authorities were occupied with the emerging situation following the terrible Tanga fiasco - with neither the time, nor inclination to probe 'unsubstantiated' charges of alleged foul play... especially when the Empire was being threatened. And now, after the war, they had no desire to upset a steadfast ally like Ratanlal by reopening some old, forgotten allegation.
Thus, Ratanlal's takeover went unquestioned and unchallenged... and he never looked back!
Persistant rumours, however remained, and displeased whispers made the rounds - of 'gifts' and 'favours' that had enchanged hands. How Ratanlal had 'bought' over his powerful friends in both the civil and military administration; friends who had the authority, and could influence... friends who made his transition from a penniless deckhand to a prosperous merchant, smooth and easy...
Ratanlal had neither the time, nor any interest in such petty accusations, concentrating instead on consolidation and expansion of what he had acquired!
Seeing the war unfold, Ratanlal had learnt some important lessons - spices were good, but grains and provisions were better. But better still, and more lucrative, was arms and ammunitions... and the logistics of supply and transportion. So, he bid his time and prepared for the next conflict - gradually expanding his warehousing facilities, buying up arms from the flooded European market, and establishing a transport company.
And with the carefully nurtured connections that he had established during the war, and the influence and vantage that this priviledged position provided him, Ratanlal was soon buying and stockpiling diamonds from small mining operators and producers who were not already a part of the De Beers cartel... No, he had no plan, nor desire, to challenge the monopoly of the De Beers company, but was simply keen on taking advantage, making a healthy profit out of the brutally controlled and ruthlessly regulated diamond trade.
At the end of the Second World War, Ratanlal and his only surviving son, Roshanlal, were not only the biggest trader of grains and provisions, but also one of the biggest suppliers of arms and ammunitions, and owner of the most extensive, and reliable, transport company along the entire east coast, with fleets of lorries, barges and watercrafts, and even a fledgling air cargo division. The son a well-known face in the diamond district of Antwerp - the days of spices, sesame and ivory long over!
The end of war had also sounded the death knell of colonialism across the globe, and Africa too was restive. In Kenya (formerly, British East Africa), the Mau Mau Rebellion exploded in 1952.
Over the next four years Ratanlal and Roshanlal was once more aiding the British government as the authorities brutally put down the revolt - not only supplying and transporting, but actually unleashing mercenary forces upon the hapless people!
Then, as the 60's decade unfolded, with it's nationalistic fervour, and engulfed the African continent, Ratanlal and Roshanlal sensed their new opportunities and intelligently chose sides...
As country after country were attaining independence, freedom from colonial rule was often followed by ethnic conflagration - and the father-son duo (soon joined by Roshanlal's young son, Pranlal, who had just returned from England) began supplying the much needed arms, ammunitions and provisions to the various contesting parties, their earlier patrons - desperately clinging colonial powers reluctant to let go - now replaced by a new set of 'clients': rebels and rivals... and savage warlords. Actively hunting with the hounds, and whenever a safe opportunity provided itself, running with the hare too!
Congo and Mozambique... Angola and the Nigeria-Biafra conflict... (and still later, Rwanda, Liberia and Sierra Leone) - and there, in those conflict zones, Pranlal made his serendipitous discovery of 'blood diamond' in 1961 - a term still unheard of, and a concept still not fully fathomed or understood.
He saw the opportunity and grabbed it, the family quickly making a profitable business out of dealing death and destruction - their once small air cargo service, now a massive operation, transporting huge quantities of arms shipments into the very heart of each conflict zone... and then shipping out illicit diamonds back to Europe, and the world!
Having witnessed the anti-Asian wave sweeping Africa in the late sixties and early seventies, and especially after Idi Amin's savage expulsion of the community from Uganda, Ratanlal, now in his eighties, decided to move to Europe. But unlike most other Asians of the former British colonies, they didn't opt for British citizenship - instead, using their powerful Belgian contacts (befriended during the Congo conflict in which they had supported the colonial interests) they got themselves Belgian citizenship... moving to Brussels in 1976.
Ranjeet, Pranlal's young son, already an acknowledged diamantaire, joined the family business in the early 80s, and quickly expanded the arms for diamond trade... adding hawala to the family business.
But the world of the 90s was a fast changing place, and the international community had become more conscientious. Things weren't as simple and easy as it had been earlier, and there was mounting pressure from various quarters. The family moved from Brussels to Interlaken, and Ranjeet shifted his base to Dubai, setting up his hedgefund and media businesses as a front... and forming a new infrastructure consortium to tap the Asian construction boom...
Following the international outrage over the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and after the December 2000 adoption of the General Assembly Resolution A/RES/55/56 supporting the creation of an international certification scheme for rough diamonds, Ranjeet finally severed his family's arms for diamond ties, and also discontinued his hawala dealings since the rise of global terrorism had brought the practice under strict international scrutiny.
He was now totally legit - concentrating only on expanding his legitimate diamond trade, his infrastructure and real-estate finance... hedgefund and media businesses.
Trishul shut the folder and rubbed his eyes - sickened and horrified, but also fascinated by what he had just read.
And as he stretched, Dash lifted his head and gave a sleepy yelp, licking Trishul's hand, as if to remind his master that he was there.
Trishul lovingly scratched him behind the ear and yawned... Gosh, he was tired, and sleepy! He had been engrossed in the report, and had been reading for hours... He really needed to get some rest now, he had work to do in the morning.
Well, he'd read the remaining section on Amit later, tomorrow... and as he put away the folder and snuggled down under the blanket, his mobile began to ring.
'Who could it be?' he wondered as he sat up and looked at the bedside clock - it was 3.30 AM!
"Hello?" he said, answering the phone.
"Trishul..." he heard the single whisper float in and instantly recognised the voice, his heart slamming with excited anticipation.
But before he could respond, or the caller could add another word, there came the indistinct sound of a scuffle and the line went dead!
... to be continued
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