The Koh-i-Noor remains a symbol of the British Raj in contradictory ways, writes William Dalrymple
On March 29, 1849, the 10-year-old maharaja of the Punjab, Duleep Singh, was ushered into the magnificent Shish Mahal, the Mirrored Hall throne room at the centre of the great Fort of Lahore. The boy’s father, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was long dead, and his mother, Rani Jindan, had been forcibly removed and incarcerated in a palace outside the city. Now Duleep Singh found himself surrounded by a group of gravelooking men wearing red coats and plumed hats, who talked among themselves in an unfamiliar language. In the terrors of the minutes that followed, the frightened but dignified child finally yielded to months of pressure. In a public ceremony in front of what was left of the nobility of his court, he signed a formal act of submission. Within minutes, the flag of the Sikh Khalsa was lowered and the Union flag run up above the fort.
The document signed by the 10-year-old maharaja handed over to a private corporation, the East India Company, great swathes of the richest land in India — land that, until that moment, had formed the independent Sikh kingdom of the Punjab. At the same time Duleep Singh was induced to hand over to Queen Victoria personally the single most valuable object in the entire subcontinent: the celebrated Koh-i-Noor diamond, or Mountain of Light.
When he heard Duleep Singh had finally signed the document, governor-general James BrounRamsay (Lord Dalhousie) was triumphant. “I have caught my hare,” he wrote. He later added: “The Koh-i-Noor has become in the lapse of ages a sort of historical emblem of the conquest of India. It has now found its proper resting place.”
The East India Company, the world’s first really global multinational, had grown over the course of a century from an operation employing only 35 permanent staff, headquartered in one small office in London, into the most powerful and heavily militarised corporation in history: its army by 1800 was twice the size of that of Britain. It had had its eyes on both the Punjab and the diamond for many years. Its chance finally came in 1839, at the death of Ranjit Singh, when the Punjab had quickly descended into anarchy. A violent power struggle, a suspected poisoning, several assassinations, a civil war and two British invasions later, the company’s army finally defeated the Sikh Khalsa at the bloody battle of Gujrat on February 21, 1849.
At the end of the same year, on a cold, bleak day in December, Dalhousie arrived in person in Lahore to take formal delivery of his prize from the hands of Duleep Singh and his guardian, John Login. Still set in the armlet Ranjit Singh had worn, the Koh-i-Noor was removed from the safe of the Lahore toshakhana, or treasury, by Login, and placed in a small bag that had been specially made by Lady Dalhousie. Broun-Ramsay wrote out a receipt, “I have received this day the Koh-i-Noor diamond.”
For better or worse, the British Empire was the most important thing the British ever did. It altered the course of international history, and shaped the modern world. It also led to the huge enrichment of Britain, just as, conversely, it led to the impoverishment of much of the non-European world. Yet British people remain largely ignorant of the blackest side of the imperial experience, and are still taught in their schools that it was only their German enemies who turned racism into an ideology that justified mass murder. In contrast the Raj, we like to believe, was like some enormous Merchant Ivory film writ large over the plains of Hindustan, all parasols and S Simla tea parties, friendly elep phants and handsome maharajas. Yet Indians often have very b bitter memories of British rule. T Today it is believed in India — whether rightly or wrongly — w that the British came to India as l looters and plunderers, and subjectedj the country to centuries of humiliation.h And it is certainly true that for alla the irrigation projects and newn railways, the Raj presided overo the destruction of Indian political institutions and cultural p self-confidence, while the economic figures speak for themselves. In 1600, when the East IndiaI Company was founded, Britain was generating 1.8 per cent of the world’s GDP while India was producing 22.5 per cent. By 1870, at the peak of the Raj, Britain was generating 9.1 per cent, while India had been reduced to a poor Third World nation, a symbol across the globe of famine and deprivation. Given the issues involved, it is hardly surprising that there is little neutral territory in the complex debate on empire that is now ranging among historians across the globe. Did Western imperialism bring capitalism and free trade to Asia, as its supporters would have us believe; or did it destroy millennia-old trading networks? Did it bring democracy to a part of the world inured to tyranny; or did it remove political freedom of expression from lands with long traditions of debate and public expression of dissent? Did it bring in constitutional guarantees of the freedom of the individual; or promote slavery, exploitation, indentured labour and forced migration? Did we bring just governance and irrigate the deserts; or did we plunder natural resources, drive a succession of species to extinction and preside over a succession of famines that left many millions dead while surplus grain was being shipped to Britain? The debate over the legacy of the British Empire has today become as deeply and pro- foundly polarised. For some, such as the Indian parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor, the British Empire is a terrible blot on world history comparable to slavery and fascism; to be neutral or even balanced on the issue is to become complicit in tyranny. The British Empire, believes Tharoor, brought more horror to the world than Hitler, Stalin and Mao combined.
For others, such as Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts or David Gilmour, the Victorian administrators of the Indian Civil Service could certainly be fallible, but far from being oppressive exploiters they in fact represented, so Gilmour tells us, “the British Empire at its best and most altruistic”.
The story of the Koh-i-Noor, a symbol of the sovereignty of India taken from South Asia by force, raises not only important historical issues but vital contemporary ones too, being in many ways a touchstone and lightning rod for attitudes towards colonialism and posing the question: What is the proper response to imperial looting? Do we simply shrug it off as part of the rough-and-tumble of history or should we attempt to right the wrongs of the past?
Few today would disagree that Jewish art looted from its owners during the Nazi Holocaust of the 1940s should be returned, but we tend to treat as a very different case Indian gems and art treasures looted in the 1840s.
wt Australians are largely unburdened by the imperial baggage the British carry, and that may be one reason Malcolm Turnbull received a warmer welcome from India’s Narendra Modi in April than Theresa May in November. But our attitude to the British Empire, the colonial past and colonial loot is certainly something we need to think over carefully, not least given the importance of good relations with
ps India in the coming Asian century. by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand is published this week by Bloomsbury. reviews the book — Page 22 on The Black Prince — Page 14
WHAT IS THE PROPER RESPONSE TO IMPERIAL LOOTING?
The Koh-i-Noor diamond in the crown during the Queen Mother’s 2002 funeral; Maharaja Duleep Singh, below