Diamond lacks rock-star glitz
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