My Sunday Times review of Koh-i-Noor The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand
You’ll find the original here.
The file in the foreign office containing international claims to ownership of the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond, the “Mountain of Light”, has been growing thicker of late. In 2015 alone, a consortium of Indian businessmen and Bollywood glitterati threatened legal action if the diamond wasn’t removed from its display case in the Tower of London and handed over to their country. In Pakistan, a certain Mr Jaffrey, after writing dozens of letters to the Queen claiming the priceless gem for his homeland, finally approached the High Court in the city of Lahore for help. And the Taliban announced that the Koh-i-Noor belonged to them, on the grounds that it had been in the possession of Afghan kings in the 18th and early 19th century. Return it “as soon as possible”, their spokesman demanded.
The Koh-i-Noor “retains a fame and celebrity unmatched by any of its larger or more perfect rivals”, write William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, the co-authors of this book. Coveted by the Moguls, Persians, Afghans, Sikhs and the British, to whom it was finally surrendered in 1849 in Lahore before it was secretly taken to London and put on display as the ultimate imperial loot, it also remains “a lightning rod for attitudes towards colonialism”.
An “insubstantial fog of mythology” swirls unabated around the Kohi-i-Noor, too. The most prevalent superstition being that any man daring to wear it will face a grisly end, while women are somehow immune to its dark power. Dalrymple and Anand trace the font of Koh-i-Noor folklore to a single report compiled in Delhi in 1849 by a “slapdash” British junior assistant magistrate, Theo Metcalfe, who wrote down verbatim the fanciful tales told by the city’s hereditary jewellers. Crucially, this helped propagate the myth that the diamond is a magical gemstone of Hindu mythology, the Syamantaka, the property of Surya, the sun god. “Theo’s version of events has since been repeated in article after article, book after book, and still sits unchallenged on Wikipedia,” write the authors, who instead relied on bona fide archives to produce a history shorn of “bazaar tittle-tattle”. In debunking the myths, they take a little of the sheen off the diamond’s allure.
Thanks to Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who had it cut to suit western tastes in 1852, it is today only the 90th largest diamond in the world. What is more, there is no evidence of the Koh-i-Noor being a gem of great antiquity: the first indisputable reference to its existence is in 1739, according to the authors. But even stripped of fiction, the story of the Koh-i-Noor and its owners (emperors, kings, warlords and a one-eyed maharajah, many of whom did indeed meet violent ends, adding grist to the superstition mill) is riveting. Dalrymple and Anand present as evocative a rendering as the most enthralling bazaar storyteller while providing an astute and empathetic study of the historical landscape through which the diamond has made its troubled way.
It is a story rarely short on gore. When the Persian ruler Nader Shah captured Delhi in 1739, his troops slaughtered 30,000 of the population before carting off the gem, which by then had been set in the headpiece of the incomparable Peacock Throne. Shah was eventually knifed to death before the diamond passed to a succession of Afghan kings. The penultimate monarch, Shah Zaman, was blinded with a hot needle, yet managed to hide his most valuable possession in a crack in the wall of his dungeon.
Years passed before the Koh-i-Noor was discovered in the possession of a mullah who “in his ignorance was using it as a paperweight”. Later, it came into the possession of its proudest owner, Maharajah Ranjit Singh. The “Lion of Punjab”, who ruled from 1780 to 1839, wore the diamond strapped to his arm during public occasions — it was during his reign that the Koh-i-Noor “began to achieve real fame”.
In 1849, after Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general of the East India Company, wrestled the diamond from Ranjit Singh’s 10-year-old son, the Scot gloated in a letter about having caught his “hare”. He also annexed Punjab. And although his aggressive expansionism came in the context of an age when the British were hardly alone in assuming their right to grab whatever territory they fancied, the authors leave no room for doubt that Dalhousie’s actions were downright piratical. The gentleman charged with caring for the deposed child maharajah, Dr John Spencer Login, was not alone in condemning Dalhousie’s duplicitousness. He wanted the diamond paid for by the company and the funds used to help create jobs, schools and infrastructure. Instead, the Koh-i-Noor was taken to London, presented to Queen Victoria and subsequently displayed “in triumph, much as the Romans once had done with curiosities from their conquests”, write the authors.
More recently, the British monarchy has not shied from parading the Koh-i-Noor when occasion demands. After the death of the Queen Mother in 2002, her crown, in which the diamond is set, was placed on her coffin as she lay in state. Meanwhile, successive British governments continue to quietly rebuff all claims that the diamond was stolen. “I’m afraid to say, it is going to have to stay put,” David Cameron said while on a visit to India in 2010. Clearly, Pakistan, India, the Taliban and even the prolific letter-writing Mr Jaffrey are not going to have much joy. This highly readable and entertaining book, however, finally sets the record straight on the history of the Koh-i-Noor, which, cursed or not, continues to drive man’s covetous nature.