The Many Meanings of the Kohinoor
Calls for the return of the Kohinoor go all the way back to the man who gave the diamond to Queen Victoria in the first place – or, as he argued, had it taken from him under duress. In 1889, Duleep Singh was a tired man of 51, burdened by debt and frustrated by the refusal of the British to let him return to India and prevent his reconversion to Sikhism.
Once,hehadbeenclosetotheQueen,whosaw the handsome boy who had come to Britain in 1854 as a symbol of the India that was rapidly becoming her dominion. She had made him a part of the court and she had been highly gratifiedwhen,onbeingshowntheKohinoorafterit was re-cut in 1852 (reducing it from 186 to 105.6 carats), he had gracefully presented it back to her, “expressing in a few graceful words the pleasure it afforded him to have this opportunity of himself placing it in her hands,” according to a report printed in the Times of India.
This mattered because the circumstances under which the diamond had been obtained had always been dubious. Lord Dalhousie, the GovernorGeneralofIndia,hadclaimeditasthe spoils of victory at the end of the Second AngloSikh War in 1849. Dalhousie argued that the diamond had always been taken by conquest, whetherbyDeccanSultans,MughalEmperors, the Shah of Persia, the Emir of Afghanistan or, finally, Duleep Singh’s father Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The British had just done the same.
Not everyone agreed. The East India Company (EIC) was furious since the war had been fought with their troops and they were still technically in control of India. The Board of Directors saw the diamond as a return on their investment in the War. British opinion was also ambivalent. The free-booting ways of theEICinthe18thcenturywerelessappealing in the more moralistic 19th century. As historian Danielle C Kinsey pointed out in an essay, diamonds became associated with “the rapacity of a corrupt brand of plunder imperialism.”
In 1889, Duleep Singh was aiming squarely at this unease. His letter, republished in ToI, spokeofhowtheBritishhadgainedthePunjab by artificially instigating a war and labelling him–“aboythenofsomenineyearsofage”–as a rebel. Singh knew the British were not likely to give him back Punjab, but he could appeal to the Queen directly for one thing: “But my diamond,theKohinoor,Iunderstand,isentirelyat your own personal disposal…I do not hesitate to ask that this gem be restored to me, or else that a fair price be paid for it…”
Singh would die a few years later with no response, and certainly no reparations, from the Queen. As Kinsey said, the diamond had already come to have too much meaning for the Queen, and the UK in general. This started from the most obvious need for ostentatious jewels to display royal power. Other royal courts had major diamonds like the Russian Tsar’s 190 carat Orloff diamond or Napoleon’s 140 carat Pitt diamond (both also originally from India). The British had nothing like this and Dalhousie’s offer of the Kohinoor neatly filled the niche.
The Kohinoor also arrived just before one of the most important events of the Victorian Age was to begin. The Great Exhibition, which opened in 1851, was a showcase for British industry, innovation and power. It was a formal
announcement of sorts of how the Industrial Revolution was making the UK a global power.
TheKohinoorcamejustintimetobeputatits heart, a symbol of power passing from East to West. A special display was made for it and its
security features were a major talking point. The press was fed stories about the history and legends of the Kohinoor and it quickly became a huge source of interest at the exhibition, with massive crowds queuing to see it and endless press reports about its ‘history.’ But there was an even bigger problem: the Kohinoor was not that impressive.
Although Ranjit Singh’s treasury had more impressive stones like the huge Taimur Ruby or the Darya-i-Noor, an even larger and more perfect diamond, it was the Kohinoor that had themosthistory,howeverunreliable,attached toit,andthatwaswhyitwaschosenasatribute to the Queen. But at the exhibition, the general feeling was disappointment – “an egg-shaped lump of glass,” one writer called it.
This is when the Queen’s husband Prince Albert decided to cut the diamond. This is the Kohinoorthatnowexistsanditcouldbeargued itishardlythesamestonethatwentfromIndia. Kinseyarguesthatthecuttingwas“anattempt to reconstitute the stone as a gemmological component of Britain’s civilising mission.”
If the history of the stone placed it in India’s turbulent past, it’s reshaping with the help of British knowledge and industrial skills (actuallyimportedfromthediamond-cuttingcentre of Amsterdam, but that fact was underplayed) showed how Victorian Britain would create a modern, enlightened India.
This might seem even more reason to protest Britain’s continued possession ofthe stone and many people have tried. One of the first, unexpectedly,wasNobelPrize-winningscientistCV Raman. In 1953, ToI noted how, about six years earlier, Raman referred to the Kohinoor in a lecture and maintained “this country’s independencewouldnotbecompleteuntilthejewel was returned to its native shores.”
AnotherpersistentclaimantwasBeantSingh Sandhawalia, the Amsterdam-based descendant of one of Duleep Singh’s close associates, Sardar Thakar Singh Sandhawalia. By 1999, hisdescendantclaimedtohavedocumentsthat conclusively proved his claim to the Kohinoor, which he promised to hand over to Amritsar’s Golden Temple.
This is one of the problems that those calling for the return of the Kohinoor never get into. If we got it back, what would we do with it? We have no Crown Jewels or Presidential regalia into which it could fit easily. As for putting them in a museum, why not start with creating a permanent display for the Hyderabad Crown Jewels, which are a great deal more impressive?
The British have held the Kohinoor for probably as long as most of its past owners. As Kinsey’sessayshows,theyhavebuilttheirown national mythologies around it. While Queen Victoria might have preferred to think of it as a gift, Dalhousie was essentially correct – it was taken by force, as it always has been. The Indian government was correct in its initial argument that there is really no basis to claim the Kohinoor now.
For those unsatisfied by this, there is this consideration: how much more useful is the Kohinoor as a permanent symbol of the dubious ways in which it built its Empire and justified it? There is a tendency among the British to downplay their Imperial past, to say that enough time has gone by and that their modern, multiracial country has no more debts to pay to history. But this glosses over the immense transfer of wealth from India to Britain and the enduring advantages it gave them. Returning the Kohinoor is too easy a way to let them off the hook!