The CURSED Crown Jewel
HOW A DIAMOND ‘THE SIZE OF A HEN’S EGG’ JOURNEYED FROM THE PUNJAB TO PERSIA TO AFGHANISTAN TO LONDON, LOSING CARATS ALONG THE WAY BUT GAINING NOTORIETY
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 crown, on display in the Tower of London and pictured on the cover of William Dalrymple and Anita Anand’s book.
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