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The Kohinoor ‘curse’ and other unknown stories about the British crown jewel

The crowds waited for hours to catch a glimpse of the fabled jewel and once they did, they were left largely disappointed. The now-defunct satirical magazine Punch referred to it as the ‘Mountain of darkness’, playing upon the English translation of the Kohinoor as ‘mountain of light’.

kohinoor, kohinor british royal family, kohinoor in UK, kohinoor return to India, kohinoor history, elizabeth, queen, queen death, elizabeth death, kohinoor news, elizabeth news, world news, Indian Express, current affairsQueen Victoria and Prince Albert with the Kohinoor (Wikimedia Commons)

Eleven-year-old Duleep Singh was hardly aware of the colossal diplomatic significance of the piece of document presented to him by officials of the East India Company on March 29, 1849. The young king of the Sikh kingdom had recently been separated from his mother, was witness to terrible fighting inside his kingdom during the Anglo-Sikh war, and was barely able to comprehend the implications of his loss in it. The document in question demanded that he sign over his kingdom and title, his fortune and future along with it. Foremost among the demands was one that was key to British imperial pride, the Kohinoor.

“The gem called the Kohinoor, which was taken from Shah Sooja-ool-mulk by Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, shall be surrendered by the Maharaja of Lahore to the Queen of England,” said the document. Singh signed the document and thereafter Punjab became British territory and the famed Kohinoor was now British property.

The entire Lahore treasury was in fact designated as war booty, which included gems and other objects of much superior quality and design. It included, for instance, the Taimur’s ruby and the Darya-i-noor, reputed to be the largest and most beautiful diamond in all of Bengal. The monetary value of the treasury exclusive of the Kohinoor was estimated to have been a little short of a million pounds.

The Kohinoor, however, with the mythology and legacy attached to it, was the most desirable jewel for the imperial ambitions of the Company officials. The Governor General, Lord Dalhousie, wrote about his choice in his personal diary:

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“The Koh-i-Noor has ever been the symbol of conquest. The Emperor of Delhi had it in his Peacock Throne. . . . [W]hile Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk was king, Ranjit Singh extorted the diamond by gross violence and cruelty. And now when, as the result of unprovoked war, the British Government has conquered the kingdom of Punjab, and has resolved to add it to the territories of the British Empire in India, I have a right to compel the Maharaja of Lahore, in token of his submission, to surrender the jewel to the Queen, that it may find its final and fitting resting place in the crown in Britain.

The British Empire in India, as we know, was scripted by the East India Company, and so was the destiny of the legendary Kohinoor. But what did the diamond mean to the British monarchy who was to possess it as part of the crown jewels?

“For the monarchy, it was not so much the Kohinoor as the idea of owning an important diamond that was of huge significance,” says art historian Siddhartha V Shah. “For all the popularity and power that the British had, Queen Victoria had no big diamonds at the time when other European rulers such as the Empress of France and Catherine the Great of Russia already possessed them,” he explains.

kohinoor, kohinor british royal family, kohinoor in UK, kohinoor return to India, kohinoor history, elizabeth, queen, queen death, elizabeth death, kohinoor news, elizabeth news, world news, Indian Express, current affairs The Kohinoor in the armlet as presented to Queen Victoria. (Wikimedia Commons)

Interestingly, all these other diamonds were from India too and European monarchies played a big role in making them popular worldwide. It was about time that the monarch of Britain that was in charge of India possessed a giant diamond.

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The passage to England

Having annexed his kingdom, the British exiled Duleep Singh from Punjab. He was put under the tutelage of Scottish doctor John Spencer Login and his wife Lena. Back in England, while the legends of the Kohinoor were causing much excitement among the press and the public, the manner in which it was acquired by the Company and the treatment of Singh and his mother came under harsh criticism.

“Are we really to see the mountain of light?…Is the renowned Kohinoor really on its way to England? Is the Tower of London actually to possess such a treasure,” asked the Lyod’s Weekly as cited by historian William Dalrymple and journalist Anita Anand in their book, ‘Kohinoor: History of the world’s most famous diamond’ (2017).

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At the same time, as the authors note, the paper painted Dalhousie as an arrogant man and went on to charge him “with betraying his employers at the East India Company and overstepping his mandate in India.”

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Though stung by the criticism, Dalhousie had to ensure the safe passage of the diamond to England. It finally left on board HMS Medea on April 6, 1850. Approximately three months later as the Medea reached the English port of Plymouth, the British press stood in eager anticipation and no sooner had the diamond landed on British soil, were newspapers brimming with stories of its history of bloodshed and also of the terrible curse afflicting its owners, for it was well known how each of Ranjit Singh’s successors before Duleep Singh perished and the tragedy that fell upon the Sikh Empire soon after.

The appetite for reading about the ‘curse of the Kohinoor’ grew stronger with the events coinciding with its arrival in England. A couple of days before the diamond reached England, Queen Victoria was visiting her ailing uncle in London right after she left home, her carriage was approached by a man who struck her over the head with a thin cane. The queen was left with a black eye and a prominent cut on her forehead. While the motive for the action remained unknown, the newspapers ran stories about the arrival of the Kohinoor alongside those of the attack on the queen.

“Such juxtapositions merely fuelled the rumours about the diamond’s dark powers,” write Dalrymple and Anand. Further, on July 2, the day the Kohinoor arrived, Victoria’s great confidant, the former prime minister Robert Peel, met with sudden death.

Amidst the many unnatural coincidences, the queen remained rather silent about receiving the greatest jewel of the world.

Victoria, Albert and the Kohinoor

Despite the subdued reaction of the monarch to the arrival of the Kohinoor, there was much excitement in the royal household about its display in the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations which was to open in less than a year. Prince Albert was particularly enthused about the arrival of the Kohinoor since he could use it for generating further interest in the upcoming exhibition.

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Shah in his article, ‘Romancing the Stone: Victoria, Albert and the Kohinoor diamond’ (2017) explains that “as Victoria’s ‘Prince Consort’, he (Albert) had no official power or duties attached to his title.” Many of the features associated with royal masculinity were withheld from him and reserved for his wife. “Involvement in projects that emphasised the masculine domains of science and progress- like the Great Exhibition of 1851- was one of the ways in which Albert could demonstrate and assert his masculinity, fashioning himself as a man of vision and innovation,” writes Shah. The Kohinoor was to be of key importance to Albert in this regard.

With his aggressive publicising of the diamond’s display at the exhibition, the British press went on to label the Kohinoor as the ‘Lion of the Great Exhibition’. It sat at a special place in the event isolated from the other precious and exotic objects from India. It was put inside a large case which was observed variously by the newspapers of the time as a ‘golden cage or a prison’ or as a ‘great parrot-cage with gilded bars,’ and atop it sat a small golden crown. The presentation was such that people could view it only from a distance, thereby greatly reducing its effect on the viewers.

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The crowds waited for hours to catch a glimpse of the fabled jewel and once they did, they were left largely disappointed. The now-defunct satirical magazine Punch referred to it as the ‘Mountain of darkness’, playing upon the English translation of the Kohinoor as ‘mountain of light’.

“The British people were used to a European cut of diamond, but the Kohinoor did not look like that. So it looked like a lump of glass,” explains Shah. “The Kohinoor was cut with an Indian belief that diamonds have a talismanic energy and that they must retain as much of their original size as possible,” he adds.

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Humiliated by the disappointment caused by the diamond, Albert made several modifications to its display at the exhibition. “For instance, they put a tent around the diamond and put jets of fire inside so that the diamond shines. But people were rushing out as soon as they entered because of the unbearable heat,” says Shah. “Every effort to make the diamond stand out was a complete failure.” Finally, disheartened by the reception, Albert decided to get the Kohinoor recut.

Once the decision to cut the diamond was made, Albert went about consulting a large range of scientists and diamond cutters to help him in the process. Most refused to work upon it because they knew that much of the diamond would be lost in the process. Finally it was a Dutch company that agreed to recut the Kohinoor and submitted its plan assuring Albert that only a negligible amount of the carat weight would have to be discarded. The proposal was accepted and the grand procedure to reshape the Kohinoor began on July 16, 1852.

“Albert made a grand spectacle of the process. He makes sure that it is publicised in all newspapers and that people can visit the place where the Kohinoor is being cut to view the process for themselves,” explains Shah. The process was inaugurated by the 83-year-old Duke of Wellington, who made the first cut in the diamond. The Duke was a venerated military leader in Britain, well known for his campaigns in India and more so for defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.

kohinoor, kohinor british royal family, kohinoor in UK, kohinoor return to India, kohinoor history, elizabeth, queen, queen death, elizabeth death, kohinoor news, elizabeth news, world news, Indian Express, current affairs The recutting of the Kohinoor in 1852 from The Illustrated London News. (Wikimedia Commons)

It took 38 days for the Kohinoor to be transformed, and once it did it was clear that despite the promise made earlier, it had undergone a significant reduction in size. As Shah notes in his article, 43 per cent of the Kohinoor’s original carat weight was lopped off. “The legendary 186-carat Mughal cut diamond was replaced by a 105-carat oval stellar brilliant,” he writes.

Despite the much-publicised spectacle around the Kohinoor and its refashioning, it failed to achieve popularity among the British public. “All of the attention on the Kohinoor is limited to the time it arrives in London, during the Great Exhibition and when it is recut. After that the enthusiasm around it dwindled,” says Shah.

For all the initial fuss around the Kohinoor though, it was never really enjoyed by the British monarchy as the EIC had imagined it. “Bound for a central spot in the Crown of State in 1850, the Kohinoor was used at various times by Victoria as a diadem, a brooch, and a bracelet, but never became the central piece that Dalhousie had imagined,” writes historian Danielle C Kinsley in her article, ‘Kohinoor: Empire, Diamonds, and the Performance of British Material Culture’ (2009). She adds that “the queen did not even wear the diamond in public until the marriage of her daughter to the crown prince of Prussia in 1858.” Kinsley notes that this had to do with the anxieties over the incompleteness of British hegemony which was a complex network binding the colonies with the metropole and always at the risk of degenerating.

In fact, long before she wore it in public, Victoria had on her mind the sentiments that the Kohinoor aroused in its previous owner, Duleep Singh, who also had become her favourite Godson after he was moved to England. Victoria was enamoured by Singh in every way and the Maharaja too held deep affection for her.

Sometime in 1854, she is known to have asked his foster parent, Lady Login, if the Maharaja ever mentioned the Kohinoor and whether he wished to see it again. Login replied that there was no other thought that so much filled the thoughts and conversations of the Maharaja as did the diamond. A few days later she dutifully brought up the matter with Singh and recorded the conversation in her personal diary. To her query about the Kohinoor, Singh replied, “I would give a good deal to hold it again in my own hand. I was but a child, an infant when forced to surrender it by treaty….now that I am a man, I should like to have it in my power to place it myself in Her majesty’s hand” (as cited by Anita Anand in her book, ‘Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary’ (2015)).

The very next day Victoria and Albert arranged for the diamond to be brought in while Singh posed for a portrait being painted by a German artist in Buckingham Palace. The monarch along with her consort placed the Kohinoor in Singh’s hand, eagerly anticipating his reaction. Anand in her book cites Lady Login’s recollection of the incident: “For all his air of polite interest and curiosity, there was a passion of repressed emotion in his face…evident, I think, to Her Majesty, who watched him with sympathy not unmixed with anxiety.”

After a few minutes of careful gazing at his prized ancestral jewel, Singh took it to the Queen, bowed before her and put it in her hand while stating humbly: “It is to me Maam the greatest pleasure thus to have the opportunity, as a loyal subject, of myself tendering to my Sovereign- the Kohinoor.” This was the last time that Singh or anyone from the Sikh kingdom came so close to the diamond.

The Kohinoor after Victoria

Queen Victoria passed away in 1901 and the Kohinoor was supposed to have passed on to her son, the new emperor of India — King Edward VII. However, conversations around the curse of the stone had reemerged in public discourse after the death of Duleep Singh in 1893, who in the final years of his life had made several failed attempts to get back his lost throne and the fortune he had as a child signed off to the British. In 1893, the Sikh monarch had died penniless and alone at a shabby hotel in Paris.

Thereafter a belief had set in that the Kohinoor was harmless when worn by a woman but would bring disaster to any man who thought of having it. Consequently, the stone was passed on to Queen Alexandra, the wife of Edward II. She wore it for her coronation on August 9, 1902. Dalrymple and Anand describe the crown as having been “refashioned from the crown Queen Victoria had worn at Versailles in 1855, its 3000 diamonds had been configured into eight sweeping arches meeting high in a diamond-encrusted globe.” At the front and centre of the crown, the Kohinoor took pride of place.

In the ensuing decades, the Kohinoor was worn by two other British queen consorts at their coronations. Queen Mary, the wife of King George V, wished to have a simpler crown designed for her coronation, but kept the Kohinoor at its centre as well. The wife of King George VI, Elizabeth too had the Kohinoor embedded in her coronation crown which was framed in platinum with 2800 diamonds and consisted of another great diamond that was given to Victoria in 1856 by the Sultan of Turkey. She wore it at each of her husband’s state openings of the Parliament and also at her daughter’s coronation that took place in June 1953.

The Kohinoor in the front cross of Queen Mary’s crown. (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the belief that the Kohinoor was to bring doom only on male monarchs, when Queen Elizabeth II took over the throne, she too decided to refrain from wearing the jewel. “It’s hard to say why Elizabeth II chose to not wear the Kohinoor, but diplomatically it would not be a wise thing to do since Britain had just lost India. It was important to not remind South Asia that they had the diamond,” says Shah.

In the last few decades, there has been much discussion around the Kohinoor and its repatriation in the post-colonised world. The government of newly-independent India in 1947 first asked for its return, while the Congress government in Orissa too laid claim to the Kohinoor on the ground that Maharaja Ranjit Singh on his deathbed had asked for it to be given to the Jagannath Temple in Puri. Both these requests were turned down by the British government. Similar requests have been made by the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan, both of which have been turned down.

In each of these cases though, the British monarchy, in whose name the Kohinoor was signed off in the first place, has remained visibly silent. “The crown jewels belong to the state and not the monarchy. When George V and Queen Mary came to India for the Delhi Durbar of 1911, they were not allowed to take the crown jewels. He had to commission a new crown to wear in India,” explains Shah, adding that the Kohinoor too in that case belongs to the British state and not to the present king.

The return of the Kohinoor is further complicated by the politicised geographies of the post-colonised world. Should it be returned to India where the Kohinoor was discovered, or to what is now Pakistan from where it was taken? Should it be returned to the Sikh community to which Maharaja Ranjit Singh belonged, or to the Lahore treasury? Then there is the question of how Ranjit Singh acquired the diamond by torturing Shah Shuja Durrani who ruled over parts of present day Afghanistan.

The Kohinoor continues to kindle nationalist sentiments in India every now and then, as it did most recently after the demise of Queen Elizabeth II. The British monarchy on the other hand remains wary, both of the demise of the empire and of the curse of the Kohinoor. It is kept at a distance in the Jewel House in the Tower of London, attracting millions of visitors every year.

Further reading:

William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, Kohinoor: The History of the World’s most Infamous Diamond, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017

Siddhartha V. Shah, Romancing the Stone: Victoria, Albert and the Kohinoor DiamondWest 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History and Material Culture, 2017

Danielle C. Kinsey, Koh-i-Noor: Empire, Diamonds, and the Performance of British Material CultureJournal of British Studies, 2009

Anita Anand, Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, RevolutionaryBloomsbury Publishing, 2015

First published on: 20-09-2022 at 05:06:32 pm
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