Book Review: A glittering history of the world’s most infamous diamond

The Koh-i-Noor diamond passed through the hands of Mughals, Iranians, Afghans and Sikhs before it landed in Britain.
Updated 04 October 2017
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Book Review: A glittering history of the world’s most infamous diamond

William Dalrymple first arrived in India in 1984 and claimed that it was “the trip that really changed the direction of my life.” Since 1989, the Scottish author has intermittently lived in a farmhouse in Delhi. His love for India has inspired some beautiful books. I particularly enjoyed “White Mughals,” which tells the poignant story of General James Achilles Kirkpatrick who embraced the Indo-Persian lifestyle of the ruling classes that were being supplanted by the British. He fell in love with a beautiful Hyderabadi princess, Khair un-Nissa, and became a Muslim to marry her.
In this latest book, co-authored by journalist Anita Anand, Dalrymple tackles a regal subject, the Koh-i-Noor diamond.
‘’The rock star gem is a symbol of the looting of colonial times,” wrote Dalrymple, who became interested in the diamond after he came across references to it in Persian manuscripts.
During a recent edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival, Anand, Dalrymple and Navtej Sarna, who has also written about the Koh-i-Noor diamond, took part in a panel. “Something extraordinary happened, the audience was enraptured,” Anand wrote. Indeed, “it was electric. Because none of us knew the next bit of the story,” Dalrymple added. “I knew the first bit in Afghanistan, Navtej knew the Ranjit Singh bit, Anita knew the end of the story with Duleep Singh. So, we just sat there and came up with ‘We must do a book’,” Dalrymple wrote. Soon after, Sarna became India’s High Commissioner in London. Despite the lack of a third partner, Dalrymple and Anand decided to go on with the book. “We were both passionately interested in uncovering the truth and that’s what we’ve done in this book,” Anand wrote.
The last time the Koh-i-Noor was seen in public was at the queen mother’s funeral in 2002, when the crown, with the Koh-i-Noor as its centerpiece, was placed on her coffin. However, that stone was quite different from the 190.3 metric carat diamond that arrived in England on June 30, 1850.
Britons would get their first chance to see the Koh-i-Noor at the Great Exhibition of 1851. A third of the entire population of Great Britain at the time, that is around six million people, were expected to visit the exhibition between May 1 and Oct. 11, 1851. However, the visitors who managed to see the Koh-i-Noor were very disappointed. The Illustrated London News was quick to report that the Koh-i-Noor was not cut in the best form for exhibiting its purity and luster. Queen Victoria’s hisband, Prince Albert, was preoccupied by the diamond’s failure to arouse the interest of visitors and asked scientists and jewelers what could be done to improve its appearance. Sir David Brewster, the father of modern experimental optics, concluded that its yellow flecks prevented it from refracting light and added that the diamond would lose a great deal of its size if the flaws were dealt with adequately. Prince Albert then asked Messrs Garrard of London, jewelers to the queen, for a second opinion. Dutch craftsmen, known for their expertise, confirmed Brewster’s opinion concerning the flaws but they were sure they could make the Koh-i-Noor shine without reducing its size. However, despite their assurances, the expert stone cutters reduced the stone by half. It was unrecognizable, but at last it sparkled.
The Koh-i-Noor is an alluvial diamond because it was not actually mined but extracted from ancient riverbeds. Most alluvial diamonds are very small and it is rare to find a diamond as large as a hen’s egg. Until diamond mines were discovered in Brazil in 1725, all the world’s diamonds came from India.
The Koh-i-Noor has passed through the hands of Mughals, Iranians, Afghans and Sikhs. “Frustrating as it is, we simply do not know for sure the origin of the Koh-i-Noor and have no hard information about when, how or where it entered Mughal hands. We only know for sure how it left,” the authors wrote.
It is hard to imagine how such a beautiful object could trigger so much hatred and horrific instances of torture. Nader Shah, the Iranian ruler who invaded the Mughal empire, ordered that his son be blinded and his eyes brought to him on a platter. However, this was nothing compared to the atrocities committed by Agha Mohammed, a former court eunuch who was looking after an important prisoner, Shah Rukh, a grandson of Nader Shah. Although Sha Rukh had told his captor the hiding place of the crown jewels, he continued to torture him, asking him to reveal the Koh-i-Noor’s hiding place.
The first lady of Nader Shah’s harem gave Ahmed Khan Abdali, an Afghan general who had valiantly defeated a group of renegades who were plundering the royal coffers, the Koh-i-Noor and the Timur Ruby. Abdali wore the jewels in an armlet and reached Kandahar, which became the home of the Koh-i-Noor for the next 70 years. The diamond then reached Punjab and the hands of Ranjit Singh in 1813.
“For the next 36 years, the Koh-i-Noor would be in the possession of the Sikhs, indeed it would become… a symbol of their sovereignty,” the authors wrote.
The last owner of the Koh-i-Noor, Duleep Singh, was proclaimed maharaja of Punjab when he was five-years-old on Sept. 18, 1843. Six years later, he was told that he had submit to British power and surrender the Koh-i-Noor to the British queen. The Lloyd’s Weekly newspaper criticized the role played by the earl of Dalhousie, the governor-general of India, in exerting pressure on the young ruler to sign the final Treaty of Lahore.
“Though the marquis of Dalhousie has substantially made her majesty a present of the gem, in point of form, the boy Dhuleep Singh ceded it to the queen. But such a cession is a mockery (as) the lad did exactly what he was bid… He signed the paper placed before him quite regardless of its contents and the responsibility of its terms rest entirely with the governor-general.”
Queen Elizabeth II has refrained from wearing the Koh-i-Noor in public and it is now on display in the Tower of London, despite calls for it to be returned to the Indian sub-continent. In November 2000, the Taliban demanded that the Koh-i-Noor be returned to them. Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the Taliban’s foreign affairs spokesman, said: “The history of the diamond shows that it was taken from us to India and from there to Britain. We have a much better claim than the Indians.”
Pakistan also wants the return of the Koh-i-Noor while the Indian government maintains that it will try to bring back the diamond, despite the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, saying “diamonds were for the emperors and India does not need emperors.” Amid the claims and counter-claims, the British government is adamant that the stone will remain in London.
This book is a brilliant read for anyone interested in this infamous gem and its history.


What We Are Reading Today: Dare to Lead by Brene Brown

Updated 22 September 2019

What We Are Reading Today: Dare to Lead by Brene Brown

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