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
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