Curse of the jewel in the Crown

The Mail on Sunday - Event - - BOOKS - matthew den­ni­son Matthew Den­ni­son is the au­thor of ‘Queen Vic­to­ria: A Life Of Con­tra­dic­tions’ (Wil­liam Collins, £8.99)

Koh-I-Noor Wil­liam Dal­rym­ple and Anita Anand Blooms­bury £16.99

At 91, El­iz­a­beth II has yet to wear the Koh-i-Noor di­a­mond, the most fa­mous of Bri­tain’s Crown Jew­els. Read­ers of Koh

I-Noor will ap­pre­ci­ate why. In­stead, the glit­ter­ing oval jewel daz­zles vis­i­tors to the Tower of Lon­don, the cen­tre of a Mal­tese cross in the queen con­sort’s crown last worn by Queen El­iz­a­beth the Queen Mother, and last seen in pub­lic on top of her cof­fin at her funeral in 2002.

It is not be­cause the Queen owns larger di­a­monds – the stones called Cul­li­nan I and II, or, in­deed, the Timur Ruby of 352 carats, de­scribed as the ‘Trib­ute to the World’ – that she avoids this leg­endary gew­gaw.

The Koh-i-Noor’s his­tory is che­quered. Its story is one of greed, usurpa­tion, treach­ery and blood­shed on an eye-wa­ter­ing scale, and any num­ber of for­mer own­ers have come to re­gard pos­ses­sion of the stone more as a curse than a bless­ing.

In ad­di­tion, the jewel arouses pow­er­ful na­tion­al­ist emo­tions, with the gov­ern­ments of In­dia, Pak­istan, Afghanista­n and Iran, as well as the Tal­iban, all de­mand­ing its re­turn in re­cent years.

Ac­claimed historian of In­dian his­tory Wil­liam Dal­rym­ple has writ­ten a joint ac­count with Anita Anand of what re­mains, a cen­tury and a half af­ter its ac­qui­si­tion by Queen Vic­to­ria fol­low­ing the an­nex­a­tion of the Sikh king­dom of the Pun­jab by the British East In­dia Com­pany in 1849, the most fa­mous gem­stone in the world.

Dal­rym­ple tracks its tor­tu­ous jour­ney across the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent and Afghanista­n to its ar­rival in the Pun­jabi trea­sury; Anand tells the sub­se­quent story of British own­er­ship. Their two nar­ra­tives are neatly spliced and stylis­ti­cally har­mo­nious.

Through­out the stone’s his­tory, cru­elty and dis­hon­esty have played their part. The cur­rent be­lief that only a woman can safely wear the jewel is one of a hand­ful of su­per­sti­tions cling­ing to it: for­mer own­ers have con­sid­ered it a guar­an­tee of good for­tune and, usu­ally un­wisely, proof of their own unas­sail­able power. In the

18th cen­tury, the Koh-i-Noor was among jew­els be­long­ing to In­dia’s Mughal em­per­ors, a col­lec­tion so vast that it re­quired 700 ele­phants, 4,000 camels and 12,000 horses to trans­port it. No other stone in that im­mense jewel box pos­sessed the al­lure of the huge di­a­mond that was then twice its present size (cut­ting in 1852 gave the di­a­mond its cur­rent sparkle but re­duced it from 190.3 carats to 105). Its first own­ers as­so­ci­ated it with the Sya­man­taka, ‘the prince of gem­stones’, the mighty jewel tra­di­tion­ally worn by the sun god Surya. Ever af­ter, the Koh-i-Noor has re­tained as­so­ci­a­tions with di­vine or superhuman power.

As Dal­rym­ple’s blood-drenched nar­ra­tive shows, its ma­te­rial and spir­i­tual lus­tre have re­peat­edly in­spired men and women to des­per­ate and de­ter­mined acts. And to­day, like many spoils of Em­pire, the stone arouses fierce de­bate. The bright­est jewel in the Crown, it is also the most in­fa­mous.

The Queen Mother wear­ing the crown (with­out its arches) fea­tur­ing the Kohi-Noor, with Prince Charles, 1953. Left: the Queen Mother’s Crown on top of her cof­fin, 2002

The Koh-i-Noor sits in a Mal­tese cross at the front of the Queen Mother’s Crown

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