Di­a­mond lacks rock-star glitz

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - John Zubrzy­cki’s

One of the en­dur­ing mys­ter­ies about the Koh-i-Noor is why it has be­come the most fa­mous di­a­mond in the world, the cen­tre­piece of the crown jew­els and the most vis­i­ble sym­bol of three cen­turies of Bri­tish rule in In­dia. When it was first put on pub­lic dis­play at the Great Ex­hi­bi­tion of 1851, it was found to be dull and dis­ap­point­ing, and that was be­fore it was re­cut, re­duc­ing it from 186 carats to 105, its present size. The ad­di­tion of gas lamps to in­crease its lus­tre only added to the dis­com­fort of those who queued for hours to see it. The “Moun­tain of Light” was dubbed “The Moun­tain of Dark­ness” by satir­i­cal mag­a­zine Punch.

The di­a­mond also was dwarfed in stature and bril­liance by sev­eral other stones in the Lahore trea­sury, which was seized by the Bri­tish in 1848 af­ter the de­feat of the 10-year-old ma­haraja of Pun­jab, Duleep Singh. They in­cluded the Darya-i-Noor (Sea of Light), re­puted to be the “largest and most beau­ti­ful di­a­mond ever in Ben­gal” and of “su­pe­rior bril­liancy and pu­rity of colour to the Koh-i-Noor”.

Con­sid­ered war booty, the trea­sury’s con­tents nor­mally would have been sold or given away as bonuses by the East In­dia Com­pany and its court of di­rec­tors.

In­stead the gov­er­nor-gen­eral, Lord Dal­housie, saw the stone as “a sym­bol of con­quest”, giv­ing it a value that went far be­yond any mon­e­tary mea­sure. There was only one rest­ing place for the “Gem of the Moghuls” and that was in the “Crown of Britain”. To give the stone its due, he de­cided to stage a spe­cial dar­bar where the de­posed ma­haraja would of­fer the Koh-i-Noor to Queen Vic­to­ria as a to­ken of his sub­mis­sion.

Dal­housie went to great lengths to in­sist that the child-ruler was not co­erced into hand­ing over his prized pos­ses­sion. Six years later he seemed vin­di­cated. Singh fol­lowed the di­a­mond to Eng­land, be­com­ing one of Vic­to­ria’s favourites. When his por­trait was be­ing painted by cel­e­brated court artist Franz Xaver Win­ter­hal­ter, she showed him the di­a­mond again. In­stead of protest­ing against its plun­der, he bowed be­fore the queen and said: “It is to me, ma’am, the great­est plea­sure thus to have the op­por­tu­nity, as a loyal sub­ject, of my­self ten­der­ing to my sov­er­eign — the Koh-i-Noor.”

As Wil­liam Dal­rym­ple and Anita Anand mas­ter­fully il­lus­trate in Koh-i-Noor: The Story of the World’s Most In­fa­mous Di­a­mond, Singh’s ap­par­ent ac­qui­es­cence has done lit­tle to dampen the pas­sions sur­round­ing the jewel’s own­er­ship.

Size-wise it may be in­finites­i­mally small com­pared with the El­gin mar­bles, but on the scale of con­tro­versy it out­shines its ge­o­log­i­cal cousin many times over. In­dia, Pak­istan, Afghanistan and even the Tal­iban have all laid claim to the stone, and the rise of na­tion­al­ist sen­ti­ments on the sub­con­ti­nent will make those de­mands only in­creas­ingly shrill.

Dal­rym­ple, who traces the stone’s his­tory to 1839, and Anand, who tracks its con­tro­ver­sial jour­ney from the Sikh court to the Tower of Lon­don, are ac­com­plished writ­ers. But their promise to re­veal the true his­tory of the Koh-iNoor is a dan­ger­ous boast to make on a sub­ject where sep­a­rat­ing fact from fic­tion has eluded re­searchers for decades.

Even this metic­u­lously re­searched book, which draws on sev­eral pre­vi­ously un­trans­lated San­skrit, Per­sian and Urdu sources, and looks crit­i­cally at ear­lier his­to­ries of the stone, will not be the last word on the bril­liant’s prove­nance. To do so would rob it of its mys­tique. Rather, Dal­rym­ple and Anand have ex­pertly chis­elled away at many of the myths sur­round­ing the Koh-i-Noor to give us the most com­pre­hen­sive, ac­ces­si­ble and en­ter­tain­ing his­tory so far.

Most of the myths can be traced back to Theo Met­calfe, the lieu­tenant-gov­er­nor of the north­west prov­inces who was com­mis­sioned to write an ac­count of the stone by Dal­housie shortly af­ter Singh “gave” it to him. Among the sto­ries per­pet­u­ated by Met­calfe and de­bunked by Dal­rym­ple is the fa­mous ac­count of how Per­sian king Nadir Shah tricked Mo­hammed Shah into giv­ing him the stone by in­sist­ing on a cus­tom­ary ex­change of tur­bans af­ter he learned that the Afghan ruler had hid­den it in his head­gear. All the while it was safely lodged in the Pea­cock Throne, which Nadir Shah had looted and was about to trans­port back to Per­sia.

The closer Dal­rym­ple and Anand track the Koh-i-Noor, the blood­ier and more treach­er­ous the story be­comes. Like many con­tested di­a­monds, it was re­put­edly cursed. Few of its own­ers led happy lives. A tu­mour ate away the nose of Afghan ruler Ahmed Shah, who had a di­a­mond-stud­ded sub­sti­tute at­tached in its place. Nadir Shah de­scended into mad­ness. Be­liev­ing his son was be­hind a plot to as­sas­si­nate him, he had him blinded with hot nee­dles. Duleep Singh gam­bled and drank his way into obliv­ion, dy­ing pen­ni­less in a shabby Parisian ho­tel in 1893.

As for the di­a­mond, it never lived up to Dal­housie’s ex­pec­ta­tions. Its re­cut­ting was gen­er­ally seen as a dis­as­ter. It failed to shine with Vic­to­ria, who pri­vately ex­pressed her dis­like of the di­a­mond be­cause of the way it had been ac­quired. No Bri­tish monarch has worn it since her death in 1901. The last time it left the Tower of Lon­don was in 2002, when the crown in which it is set was placed on the cof­fin of the Queen Mother as she lay in state. Im­pe­rial ob­ses­sion com­bined with myth mys­tique make for a great story but have given it a lus­tre it doesn’t de­serve. lat­est book is The Mys­te­ri­ous Mr Ja­cob: Di­a­mond Mer­chant, Ma­gi­cian and Spy.

The then Queen El­iz­a­beth, pic­tured with Princess El­iz­a­beth, wears the Koh-i-Noor crown af­ter her corona­tion in 1937

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