Stone with a story

John Ure dis­cov­ers that the his­tory of the world’s most in­fa­mous di­a­mond is an uned­i­fy­ing tale of greed, mur­der and ap­pro­pri­a­tion

Country Life Every Week - - Books - Wil­liam Dal­rym­ple and Anita Anand (Blooms­bury, £16.99)

DI­A­MONDS, so the say­ing goes, are a girl’s best friend. that’s as may be, but one thing that’s cer­tain is that the Koh-i-noor, the world’s most cel­e­brated di­a­mond, was no friend to most of the men and some of the women who pos­sessed it. Its own­ers have var­i­ously been blinded, poi­soned, tor­tured to death, burned, threat­ened with drown­ing, mur­dered by their own fam­ily or as­sas­si­nated by their body­guards.

In the first half of this book, Wil­liam Dal­rym­ple traces what is known of the Koh-i-noor’s his­tory up to the mo­ment in 1849 when this enor­mous rock passed into Bri­tish hands. He finds that its his­tory up un­til the early 17th cen­tury is mostly based on un­re­li­able gos­sip, but that, by 1616, sir thomas Roe, english am­bas­sador to the court of the great Mughal who presided over much of the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent, is re­li­ably re­ported to have sighted the Koh-i-noor.

It was the Mughals (rather than the Per­sians) who orig­i­nally com­mis­sioned the Pea­cock throne and the Koh-i-noor was its crown­ing glory. the throne took seven years to build and was es­ti­mated to have cost more than the con­struc­tion of the taj Ma­hal, the value of the di­a­mond alone, as one am­bas­sador es­ti­mated, be­ing equiv­a­lent to ‘two and a half day’s sub­sis­tence of the whole world’. the Mughals at­trib­uted mys­ti­cal pow­ers to the Koh-i-noor and con­sid­ered that it re­pelled thieves, al­though, in re­al­ity, it seemed con­sis­tently to at­tract them.

still adorn­ing the Pea­cock throne, the Koh-i-noor passed next into the own­er­ship of the Per­sian ruler Nadir shah. It seems likely that it was part of the booty car­ried back from Delhi to Herat by ‘700 elephants, 4,000 camels and 12,000 horses… in wag­ons laden with gold, sil­ver and pre­cious stones’. A less likely al­ter­na­tive story is that the Nadir shah in­sisted on swap­ping tur­bans with the Great Mughal, know­ing that the lat­ter had re­moved the di­a­mond from the throne and hid­den it in his tur­ban.

From Per­sia, the Koh-i-noor passed to Ah­mad Khan Dur­rani of Afghanistan. It brought bad luck on its own­ers here, one of whom, hav­ing been im­pris­oned, man­aged to con­ceal it in a crack in the wall of his cell. For a while, the stone dis­ap­peared, only to be found be­ing used as a pa­per­weight by an ab­sent-minded mul­lah.

even­tu­ally, af­ter he had been put in a cage and seen his son tor­tured, the Afghan shah shuja was per­suaded to part with the ‘in­fa­mous di­a­mond’ to Ranjit singh, the sikh ruler of the Pun­jab, who had re­cap­tured all the Afghan lands to the east of the Khy­ber Pass. Ranjit’s suc­ces­sor, the young boy Duleep singh, fi­nally sur­ren­dered the stone to the Bri­tish east In­dia Com­pany.

It is at this point that the story is taken over by the co-au­thor, Anita Anand. she ex­plains how the 10year-old Ma­hara­jah Duleep singh signed away his in­her­i­tance un­der pres­sure from the earl of Dal­housie (the gover­nor-gen­eral) and how the di­a­mond then passed to Queen Vic­to­ria.

the Queen was ini­tially un­en­thu­si­as­tic about it. Her own­er­ship co­in­cided with var­i­ous un­happy events and, when Lord Dal­housie heard this, he re­marked: ‘If H.M. thinks it brings bad luck, let her give it back to me.’ the Queen only started to wear the di­a­mond af­ter the Ma­hara­jah had cer­e­mo­ni­ally handed it to her in eng­land. Mean­while, the jewel had been a big at­trac­tion at the Crys­tal Palace ex­hi­bi­tion in 1851 and Prince Al­bert had con­tro­ver­sially su­per­vised its cut­ting to make it more wear­able —but also much smaller.

From Queen Vic­to­ria, the di­a­mond passed into the crown of the next three queens—alexan­dra, Mary and el­iz­a­beth, the Queen Mother—where it re­mains, on dis­play in the tower of Lon­don. el­iz­a­beth II has never worn it. Per­haps to do so, in­deed, is to tempt fate.

How­ever, for all that the Kohi-noor may be a doubt­ful best friend, there is no doubt­ing the fas­ci­na­tion of its story, told so en­gag­ingly here.

A por­trait of Ah­mad Khan Dur­rani, who ob­tained the Koh-i-noor from Nadir Shah af­ter the lat­ter was as­sas­si­nated by his own guards

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