WHAT is the proper response to imperial looting? Do the spoils now belong to the heirs of the long-ago victors, or should we give them back? The question is put by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand at the end of this book about one of the most famous and fought-over jewels in history, which now glitters in the Tower of London: the Koh-i-Noor diamond, from India, the “Mountain of Light”. It is a wonderfully bloody, romantic, and ultimately disturbing saga.
Indian myth equates the stone with the wondrous jewel of the sun-god, the Syamantaka. Indian rulers were in thrall to jewellery; but for centuries, as travellers gasped at diamonds as big as hen’s eggs, rivers of pearls, fabulous rubies, and gem-encrusted regalia, none clearly described any stone as the one later known as the Koh-i-Noor.
The “Mountain of Light” received its name only in the 1730s, when the 300-year-old Mughal empire fell to the warlord Nader Shah. The Koh-i-Noor at that time was set into the bejewelled Peacock Throne, and throne and diamond went with Nader Shah to Persia. War, bloodshed, and treachery followed the diamond, until, in 1813, Ranjit Singh bullied Shah Shuja into yielding it to him, and hung on to it for 33 years.
Singh brought the Koh-i-Noor to the attention of the West. He wore it in public fastened on his arm, and it became the symbol of his strong, tightly governed Sikh state. The British in India were greedily aware of it; and, when Singh died, and his kingdom collapsed in in-fighting over his successor, the British made their move. The heir finally chosen was Duleep Singh, a ten-year-old boy; and, in a heartbreaking account, the frightened but dignified little maharaja, surrounded in the great fort of Lahore by grave men in plumed hats, signed away his Sikh kingdom — and with it the single most valuable object in the Punjab. The “gift” of the Koh-i-Noor, the British Governor-General, Lord Dalhousie, said, symbolised the conquest of India.
Its British sojourn, although less bloody and exotic, makes equally absorbing reading. On its way to London, a civil servant tucks the gem into his waistcoat pocket, and forgets what he’s done with it.
Queen Victoria is unimpressed by the stone: she is mourning the death of Sir Robert Peel when it is presented to her. The British do not take to it: on show at the Great Exhibition, it is almost booed — it is not big enough, not sparkly enough, a let-down. Prince Albert has it recut in the modern “brilliant” fashion, and the celebrity the Duke of Wellington makes the first carefully staged cut.
Duleep Singh’s story continues in London, where he arrives, young, handsome, and compliant, and is at once a favourite with Queen Victoria. Winterhalter paints him. Cruelly, however, he is actually persuaded to hold in his hand the Koh-i-Noor, which once dazzled the Punjab on his small arm, and then present it “voluntarily” to the Queen. It is a hurt that never leaves him, and his story is unbearable from then on.
Queen Victoria wore the gem in her diadem, notably at a ball at Versailles in 1855. It glittered in the crowns of Queens Alexandra, Mary, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth II — although the latter never wears it. But it has now become something of a diplomatic hand-grenade. Since 1947, the Indians and Pakistanis have repeatedly asked for it back; and the demand is unlikely to fade away. Like the legendary Syamantaka gem before it, the Koh-i-Noor’s beauty continues to create division and dissension. But its story makes enthralling reading.
Koh-i-Noor: The history of the world’s most infamous diamond
William Dalrymple and Anita Anand
Church Times Bookshop £15.30