ZEE JLF@The British Library
Anita Anand and William Dalrymple, introduced by Susan Stronge
Multiple murders, treachery and skulduggery are all part of the story surrounding the spectacular Koh-i-Noor diamond. The diamond has been claimed by India, Iran, Pakistan and the Taliban, all of whom want it back from its current home in the Tower of London.
Susan Stronge, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s specialist in Mughal court art, explained that every precious stone needs a good story to boost its sales. “Dealers added colourful stories. What was good were stories of theft and smuggling.”
And yet the true story, uncovered by historian William Dalrymple and biographer and broadcaster Anita Anand, is far stranger and bloodier than any myth that has grown up around the world’s most famous diamond, which today stands as a symbol of British monarchy and empire. Dalrymple explained that once research for the book Koh-i-Noor was underway, “everything that is known about the Koh-i-Noor disappears like mists on an autumn morning.”
In his gallop through the diamond’s early history, Dalrymple explained that other gems such as rubies were valued more highly in the Moghul period. Mughal emperor Shah Jahan was said to be “obsessed with gems”, amassing a huge collection including stunning turban ornaments. Gifts of gems were also used to gain promotions.
Before diamonds were discovered in Brazilian mines, India supplied the world with them. They were mythologised for getting rid of skin blemishes, and deflecting fire and thieves, but also for attracting violence.
Dalrymple said the first recorded sighting of the Koh-i-noor diamond – Persian for “Mountain of Light” – was on Shah Jahan’s Peacock Throne. The throne was “like a kiosk,” piled up with jewels. Shah Jahan had commissioned it in 1628, and it had cost the empire four times more than the Taj Mahal.
In 1739, Persian Emperor Nadir Shah attacked and looted Delhi, stealing the Koh-i-noor, along with the Peacock Throne. Almost a decade later, he himself was assassinated by his own bodyguard, General Ahmad Shah Durrani, who took the Kohinoor for himself.
Yet the General too soon suffered a grisly death, in his case, from a face tumour. His son buried the diamond before he was blinded and imprisoned. It was found by another descendent, Shah Shujah Durrani, in an unsuspecting mullah’s study, where it had been used as a paperweight for a decade. He took it and exchanged it as collatoral with Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh empire, who granted him refuge in Lahore. “It was the first time the diamond became more of itself,” according to Dalrymple.
Ranjit Singh wanted the diamond to be placed in the Jaganath temple in Puri after his death. Instead, a “wheel of death” ensued, with a series of shocking events. “What follows in four years is a maelstrom of death that leaves Games of Thrones standing,” Anand observed. It included poisoning, hideous injuries inflicted by masonry falling on a mourning son, and siege warfare, and resulted in the death of four more Rajas, a Crown Prince, a Queen Regent and several aristocrats.
“Intrigue wraps itself around the Koh-i-Noor,” said Anand.
Eventually the diamond ended up on the armband of the five year old Prince Duleep Singh, before being spirited out of the country by Lord Dalhousie, the new governor of India, who saw its value in boosting his career. “He wanted to lay it at the feet of Queen Victoria,” said Anand.
But the myth about the diamond was far from over. The ship bringing the gem to England suffered from a turbulent storm and the crew from terrible sickness. Just as it arrived in England, more bad luck occurred when the greatly esteemed politician Robert Peel died in a freak horse accident, and the Queen herself was the victim of a surprise “lunatic” attack.
“When she greets the Koh-i-Noor she does so with a black eye,” said Anand.
The diamond’s planned triumphal display at the Great Exhibition failed to attract sparkling compliments from the six million visitors. Instead, it was ridiculed by the press, along with the increasingly elaborate displays dreamt up by the Queen’s Consort Prince Albert’s to show it off.
At first “it was displayed in a gilded cage like an animal,” said Anand. “When it goes back to the Tower it goes back in disgrace.”
It was decided to cut this potent symbol of power, and the 83-year-old soldier and statesman the Duke of Wellington made the first cut, but did not live to see the diamond sparkling after the jewellers had finished their work.
After all that, Queen Victoria wrote in a letter to her oldest daughter, the Princess Royal: “No one feels more strongly than I do about India or how much I opposed our taking those countries and I think no more will be taken, for it is very wrong and no advantage to us. You know also how I dislike wearing the Koh-i-Noor.”
And what is the latest “curse” of the Koh-i-Noor, asked one audience member?
Anand replied: “Some audiences in India have said it’s Brexit.”
– By Julia Gregory