The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond
By William Dalrymple and Anita Anand
335 pp. Bloomsbury. $26.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 was intended by its patron, Prince Albert, to showcase Britain’s place as the workshop of the world. Yet the star attraction of the event was not a product of Victorian scientific know-how but a diamond imbued with such mythic power that “long queues snaked through the Crystal Palace to see this celebrated imperial trophy locked away” in a specially designed glass case enclosed in a metal cage. This diamond was the Koh-i-Noor, or, in Persian, “Mountain of Light.”
But the crowds were disappointed. The uncut diamond, though massive, did not sparkle sufficiently. After the exhibition, Albert, who did not like irregularity, sent the gem to a jeweler. The diamond that now sparkles in the queen mother’s crown is almost half the size of the original, but, as William Dalrymple and Anita Anand reveal in their lapidary book, its symbolic heft is as potent as ever. At least three countries — Afghanistan, Pakistan and India — lay claim to its ownership, but for now it twinkles in the Tower of London underneath the curious gaze of tourists moving past on a specially designed conveyor belt. (To prevent crowding, a move Prince Albert would have approved.)
Indian diamonds (until the 18th century all diamonds came from the subcontinent, “except a seam of black diamond crystals found in the mountains of Borneo”) are not mined but found in the alluvial soil of the riverbeds. The Koh-i-Noor isn’t the biggest diamond to have been found, but it is the most famous. The book opens with the early history of the uncut diamond and tries to disentangle its provenance from the web of sinister myth that surrounds it (myth Wilkie Collins used in his 1868 novel, “The Moonstone”). In its first known appearance, the Koh-i-Noor adorned the famous Peacock Throne of the Mughal emperor in Delhi, but it was plundered by a Persian warlord named Nader Shah.
The jewel did not bring its new owner happiness. Convinced that his son was trying to kill him, Nader ordered him to be blinded and his eyes displayed on a platter. A hundred years later, the diamond was the proudest possession of Ranjit Singh, the Sikh warrior who dominated the Punjab in the early half of the 19th century. But when he died, the British swooped in and in 1849 his youngest son, 10-year-old Duleep Singh, was forced to sign a paper ceding his possessions, including the Koh-i-Noor, to the East India Company. The diamond was sent to Queen Victoria by Lord Dalhousie, India’s governor general, who declared that “the Koh-i-Noor has become in the lapse of ages a sort of historical emblem of conquest in India. It has now found its proper resting place.” But rumors that the diamond brought bad luck to whoever touched it were fueled as the ship carrying it back to London was battered by freakish storms and its passengers stricken with cholera. On the day it arrived in London, Victoria was hit on the head with a cane by a deranged former army officer.
The real casualty, however, was the diamond’s last owner, Duleep Singh. Separated from his mother, who was imprisoned for refusing to accept British sovereignty, he converted to Christianity and was brought to England, where he became a favorite of Victoria’s. She commissioned Franz Xaver Winterhalter, the Mario Testino of the 19th century, to paint the young man in his traditional costume. In the finished portrait, he stands draped in pearls with a diamond aigrette twinkling from his turban, every inch the maharajah — except, of course, for the Koh-i-Noor.
Victoria, who felt a little uneasy about the way the diamond had come into her possession (though not so uneasy that she refused it), had the gem brought from the tower and asked Duleep Singh, as she put it in his outstretched hand, “if he thought it improved, and if he would have recognized it again?” “There was a passion of repressed emotion in his face,” one observer wrote, “evident I think to Her Majesty, who watched him with sympathy not unmixed with anxiety.” But the orphaned, dispossessed teenager found dignity in humiliation. Giving the diamond back to the Queen, he declared, “It is to me, Ma’am, the greatest pleasure thus to have the opportunity, as a loyal subject, of myself tendering to my Sovereign — the Koh-i-Noor.” Duleep Singh would never touch the diamond again. As he grew older, the enormity of the wrongs that had been done to him overpowered his desire to please. He spent the rest of his life trying to obtain some restitution and return to his homeland. His efforts were unsuccessful and he died penniless in a Paris hotel in 1893.