The Koh-i-Noor re­mains a sym­bol of the Bri­tish Raj in con­tra­dic­tory ways, writes Wil­liam Dal­rym­ple

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - Koh-i-Noor: A His­tory of the World’s Most In­fa­mous Di­a­mond John Zubrzy­cki Stephen Romei

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


The Koh-i-Noor di­a­mond in the crown dur­ing the Queen Mother’s 2002 fu­neral; Ma­haraja Duleep Singh, be­low

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