The CURSED Crown Jewel


The Nation - - FRESH INK -

SOME PEO­PLE look at the world through rose-coloured glasses. The Mughal em­peror Shah Ja­han (15921666) pre­ferred a green­ish tint when he put on his spec­ta­cles with emerald lenses. (His re­serve pair had lenses of di­a­mond.) Such a man ob­vi­ously needed a fancy chair to sit on, so he com­mis­sioned the jewel- stud­ded Pea­cock Throne, in­spired by the myth­i­cal throne of King Solomon. Among the stones was the Koh- iNoor – the “Moun­tain of Light”.

Though not the big­gest di­a­mond in the world – it ranks only 90th – it is cer­tainly the most sig­nif­i­cant, as Wil­liam Dal­rym­ple and Anita Anand doc­u­ment in “Koh- i- Noor: The His­tory of the World’s Most In­fa­mous Di­a­mond”. Stories of bad luck have clung to it, and its ar­rival in Bri­tain in 1850 caused a rash of nov­els about cursed jew­els, among them Ben­jamin Dis­raeli’s “Lothair” and Wilkie Collins’s “The Moon­stone”.

The first part of Dal­rym­ple and Anand’s blood- soaked tale, “The Jewel in the Throne”, deals with the gem’s pre- Bri­tish his­tory. Its early where­abouts are en­veloped in mists. Our main source has long been an ac­count put to­gether in 1849 by Theo Met­calfe, a ju­nior East In­dia Co of­fi­cial in Delhi, an ac­count that the au­thors dis­miss as based on the “bazaar gos­sip” of the city’s jewellers. The first men­tion of the di­a­mond by name oc­curs in the Per­sian his­to­rian Muham­mad Kazim Marvi’s his­tory of the war­lord Nader Shah’s 1739 in­va­sion of In­dia: Marvi saw the Pea­cock Throne with his own eyes among the loot in Nader’s royal tent and de­scribes how on top of the pea­cock “was at­tached a di­a­mond the size of a hen’s egg, known as the Koh-iNoor – the Moun­tain of Light, whose price but God it­self could know”. This ac­count clearly kills Met­calfe’s fan­ci­ful ver­sion, which has the wily Nader Shah cheat­ing the Mughal em­peror out of his di­a­mond by swap­ping tur­bans with him.

From then on, we fol­low the jewel – at some point trans­ferred from the throne to an arm­band – on its cen­tu­ry­long jour­ney from Per­sia to Afghanistan and back to the Pun­jab, to the day on which it was con­fis­cated by the Bri­tish. Along the way, there are eyes pricked with hot nee­dles and vic­tims mur­dered by be­ing drenched with hot lead, blown from can­non, slow- poi­soned with mer­cury, crushed by fall­ing ma­sonry or “ac­ci­den­tally” shot – make that two shots, just to be sure.

Over it all wafts the smell of burn­ing flesh and san­dal­wood from the prac­tice of sut­tee, ac­cord­ing to which, upon a ma­hara­jah’s death, his wives and ser­vants were burned with him, sup­pos­edly en­joy­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence like “in­tox­i­cated ele­phants”.

The Bri­tish East In­dia Com­pany and its armies clev­erly ex­ploited the chaos fol­low­ing the death of the ma­hara­jah of Pun­jab, Ran­jit Singh. On March 29, 1849, Lord Dalhousie, the gover­nor-gen­eral of In­dia, had Ran­jit’s 10-year-old son and suc­ces­sor, Duleep, sign an Act of Sub­mis­sion ced­ing con­trol of Pun­jab to the East In­dia Co and sur­ren­der­ing the Koh-i-Noor to the queen of England. Af­ter­ward Dalhousie wrote: “I had ‘caught my hare’.”

The sec­ond part of the book, ti­tled “The Jewel in the Crown”, be­gins with the Koh- i- Noor’s pas­sage to Bri­tain. As one would ex­pect, the ship car­ry­ing it was hit by cholera and a gale be­fore the di­a­mond could be pre­sented to Queen Vic­to­ria.

The di­a­mond was then billed as the star at­trac­tion of the Crys­tal Palace Ex­hi­bi­tion, Prince Al­bert’s pet project, which opened in Lon­don on May 1, 1851. To house the jewel, the lead­ing lock­smith of his day, Jeremiah Chubb, had con­structed an in­ge­nious glass safe within a metal cage: If any­body tried to touch the di­a­mond, it im­me­di­ately dis­ap­peared. Chubb promised Lon­don’s most skil­ful safe cracker a re­ward of 100 pounds and a govern­ment par­don if he could pick the lock. Af­ter months of try­ing, he couldn’t.

If Chubb’s safe lived up to ex­pec­ta­tions, the di­a­mond did not. The small en­clo­sure it was dis­played in was sti­flingly hot, lead­ing ex­hi­bi­tion vis­i­tors to skip it, and news­pa­pers com­plained about the ir­reg­u­lar way it was cut – not sym­met­ri­cal, as was the Euro­pean pref­er­ence. With a fi­asco loom­ing, Dutch ex­perts were brought over to re­cut it. The 83-yearold Duke of Welling­ton, whose mil­i­tary ca­reer had started in In­dia, was on hand to make the cer­e­mo­nial first cut. A cou­ple of months later, the di­a­mond emerged con­sid­er­ably smaller – down to 93 carats from 190.3 – but much spark­lier.

Af­ter the ex­hi­bi­tion, a di­a­dem was made for Queen Vic­to­ria with the Koh- i- Noor set into a Mal­tese cross above the band. She wore it on a state visit at Ver­sailles in Au­gust 1855, where she wowed the hard- toim­press French. It was later re­fash­ioned a num­ber of times, by Queens Alexan­dra, Mary and El­iz­a­beth, Ge­orge VI’s wife. Un­der the present queen, it has lan­guished in the Tower.

For Duleep Singh, things did not end well. To get him out of the way, he had like­wise been packed off to England. At court he be­came a favourite of the queen. Franz Xaver Win­ter­hal­ter’s 1854 por­trait shows him look­ing might­ily ef­fete, decked out in rich silk bro­cades but sans arm­band with di­a­mond. With time, his re­sent­ment grew. He spent a for­tune on his es­tate, Elve­den Hall in Suf­folk, known as the Wed­ding Cake for its os­ten­ta­tion. And he fre­quented seedy East End mu­sic halls, Dal­rym­ple and Anand write, “hand­ing out jew­els to danc­ing girls ... as if they were sweets”. He died, at the age of 55, in a shabby Paris ho­tel room in 1893.

The Koh-i-Noor can only be donned by a god or a woman, goes the leg­end; any man who wears it will meet an un­for­tu­nate end. Queen El­iz­a­beth II needn’t worry: her im­pe­rial crown does not con­tain the fa­mous gem, which re­mains set in the Queen Mother’s...

Koh-I-Noor: The His­tory of the World’s Most In­fa­mous Di­a­mond By Wil­liam Dal­rym­ple and Anita Anand Pub­lished by Blooms­bury Avail­able at ma­jor book­shops, Bt475 Re­viewed by Hen­rik Ber­ing

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