A star of London’s Crown Jewels, the Indian gem has a bloody history of colonial conquest
by Lorraine Boissoneault for the Smithsonian Magazine, August 2017. Used with permission of the author and Brian Wolly, Digital Editorial Director
The diamond came from India’s alluvial mines thousands of years ago, sifted from the sand. According to Hindu belief, it was revered by gods like Krishna—even though it seemed to carry a curse, if the luck of its owners was anything to go by. The gem, which would come to be known as the Koh-i-Noor Diamond, wove its way through Indian court intrigues before eventually ending up in the British Crown Jewels by the mid-1800s. That was when a British amateur geologist interviewed gemologists and historians on the diamond’s origins and wrote the history of the Koh-i-Noor that served as the basis for most future stories of the diamond. But according to historians Anita Anand and William Dalrymple, that geologist got it all wrong.
“We found what every historian longs for,” Dalrymple says. “A story which is incredibly important to people, an object known around the world, but which is all built on a structure of myth.”
In their book Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond, Anand and Dalrymple work their way through more than four centuries of Indian history to learn the truth about the diamond, “panning the old research” like the Indians who sieved river sand for diamonds, Anand says. And the true history has its share of drama. For Dalrymple, “It’s a perfectly scripted Game of Thrones-style epic. All the romance, all the blood, all the gore, all the bling.”
But beneath the drama of the diamond is a more serious question that still has no clear answer: How should modern nations deal with a colonial legacy of looting? With numerous countries (including India, Pakistan and the Taliban in Afghanistan) having claimed ownership of the Koh-i-Noor, it’s a topic under vigorous debate.
To understand where the diamond came from—and whether it could ever go back—requires diving into the murky past, when India was ruled by outsiders: the Mughals.
On the Gemstone Throne
For centuries, India was the world’s only source of diamonds—all the way until 1725, with the discovery of diamond mines in Brazil. Most of the gemstones were alluvial, meaning they could be sifted out of river sands, and rulers of the subcontinent embraced their role as the first diamond connoisseurs.
“In many ancient Indian courts, jewelry rather than clothing was the principle form of adornment and a visible sign of court hierarchy, with strict rules being laid down to establish which rank of courtier could wear which gem in which setting,” Dalrymple and Anand write in their book. The world’s oldest texts on gemology also come from India, and they include sophisticated classification systems for different kinds of stones.
Turco-Mongol leader Zahir-ud-din Babur came from Central Asia through the Kyber Pass (located between modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan) to invade India in 1526, establishing the Islamic Mughal dynasty and a new era of infatuation with gemstones. The Mughals would rule northern India for 330 years, expanding their territory across nearly all of present-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and eastern Afghanistan, all the while reveling in the mountains of gemstones they inherited and pillaged.
Although it’s impossible to know exactly where the Koh-i-Noor came from and when it first came into the Mughals’ possession, there is a definite point at which it appears in the written record. In 1628, Mughal ruler Shah Jahan commissioned a magnificent, gemstone-encrusted throne. The bejeweled structure was inspired by the fabled throne of Solomon, the Hebrew king who figures into the histories of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Shah Jahan’s throne took seven years to make, costing four times as much as the Taj Mahal, which was also under construction. As court chronicler Ahmad Shah Lahore writes in his account of the throne:
“The outside of the canopy was to be of enamel work studded with gems, the inside was to be thickly set with rubies, garnets, and other jewels, and it was to be supported by emerald columns. On top of each pillar there were to be two peacocks thick set with gems, and between each of the two peacocks a tree set with rubies and diamonds, emeralds and pearls.”
Among the many precious stones that adorned the throne were two particularly enormous gems that would, in time, become the most valued of all: the Timur Ruby—more highly valued by the Mughals because they preferred colored stones—and the Koh-i-Noor diamond. The diamond was lodged at the very top of the throne, in the head of a glistening gemstone peacock.
For a century after the creation of the Peacock Throne, the Mughal Empire retained its supremacy in India and beyond. It was the wealthiest state in Asia; Delhi, the capital city, was home to 2 million people, more than London and Paris combined. But that prosperity attracted the attention of other rulers in Central Asia, including Persian ruler Nader Shah.
When Nader invaded Delhi in 1739, the ensuing carnage cost tens of thousands of lives and the depletion of the treasury. Nader left the city accompanied by so much gold and so many gems that the looted treasure required 700 elephants, 4,000 camels and 12,000 horses to pull it (and you thought all that fanfare in Aladdin was Disney-ized embellishment). Nader took the Peacock Throne as part of his treasure, but removed the Timur Ruby and the Koh-i-Noor diamond to wear on an armband.
The Koh-i-Noor would remain away from India—in a country that would become Afghanistan—for 70 years. It passed between the hands of various rulers in one blood-soaked episode after another, including a king who blinded his own son and a deposed ruler whose shaved head was coronated with molten gold. With all the fighting between Central Asian factions, a power vacuum grew in India—and the British soon came to take advantage of it.
The Boy King and the British Crown
At the turn of the 19th century, the British East India Company expanded its territorial control from coastal cities to the interior of the India subcontinent. As Dalrymple and Anand write of the British campaigns, “[they] would ultimately annex more territory than all of Napoleon’s conquests in Europe.” In addition to claiming more natural resources and trading posts, the British also had their eye on a piece of priceless treasure: the Koh-i-Noor.
After decades of fighting, the diamond returned to India and came into the hands of Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh in 1813, whose particular affection for the gem ultimately sealed its aura of prestige and power. “It was not just that Ranjit Singh liked diamonds and respected the stone’s vast monetary value; the gem seems to have held a far greater symbolism for him,” write Anand and Dalrymple. “He had won back from the Afghan Durrani dynasty almost all the Indian lands they had seized since the time of Ahmad Shah [who plundered Delhi in 1761].”
For Anand, Singh’s elevation of the diamond was a major turning point in its history. “The transition is startling when the diamond becomes a symbol of potency rather than beauty,” Anand says. “It becomes this gemstone like the ring in Lord of the Rings, one ring to rule them all.”
For the British, that symbol of prestige and power was irresistible. If they could own the jewel of India as well as the country itself, it would symbolize their power and colonial superiority. It was a diamond worth fighting and killing for, now more than ever. When the British learned of Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839, and his plan to give the diamond and other jewels to a sect of Hindu priests, the British press exploded in outrage. “The richest, the most costly gem in the known world, has been committed to the trust of a profane, idolatrous and mercenary priesthood,” wrote one anonymous editorial. Its author urged the British East India Company to do whatever they could to keep track of the Koh-i-Noor, so that it might ultimately be theirs.
But the colonists were first forced to wait out a chaotic period of changing rulers. After Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839, the Punjabi throne passed between four different rulers over four years. At the end of the violent period, the only people left in line for the throne were a young boy, Duleep Singh, and his mother, Rani Jindan. And in 1849, after imprisoning Jindan, the British forced Duleep to sign a legal document amending the Treaty of Lahore, that required Duleep to give away the Koh-i-Noor and all claim to sovereignty. The boy was only 10 years old.
From there, the diamond became a special possession of Queen Victoria. It was displayed at the 1851 Great Exposition in London, only for the British public to be dismayed at how simple it was. “Many people find a difficulty in bringing themselves to believe, from its external appearance, that it is anything but a piece of common glass,” wrote The Times in June 1851.
Given its disappointing reception, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, had the stone recut and polished—a process that reduced its size by half but made the light refract more brilliantly from its surface.
While Victoria wore the diamond as a brooch, it eventually became part of the Crown Jewels, first in the crown of Queen Alexandra (the wife of Edward VII, Victoria’s oldest son) and then in the crown of Queen Mary (the wife of George V, grandson of Victoria). The diamond came to its current place of honor in 1937, at the front of the crown worn by the Queen Mother, wife of George VI and mother of Elizabeth II. The crown made its last public appearance in 2002, resting atop of the coffin of the Queen Mother for her funeral.
What Makes a Diamond “Loot”?
Still shrouded in myth and mystery (including a rumor that the diamond is cursed) one thing is clear when it comes to the Koh-i-Noor: it sparks plenty of controversy.
“If you ask anybody what should happen to Jewish art stolen by the Nazis, everyone would say of course they’ve got to be given back to their owners,” Dalrymple says. “And yet we’ve come to not say the same thing about Indian loot taken hundreds of years earlier, also at the point of a gun. What is the moral distinction between stuff taken by force in colonial times?”
For Anand, the issue is even more personal. Born and raised in the UK, her family is Indian and her relatives regularly visited. When they would tour the Tower of London and see the Koh-i-Noor in the Crown Jewels, Anand remembers them “spending copious amounts of time swearing themselves blue at the glass case with the diamond.”
According to Richard Kurin, Smithsonian’s first Distinguished Scholar and Ambassador-at-Large as well as the author of Hope Diamond: The Legendary History of a Cursed Gem, part of the reason these gemstones came to be perceived as “cursed” is because of how they were gained.
“When the powerful take things from the less powerful, the powerless don’t have much to do except curse the powerful,” Kurin says. Like the Koh-i-Noor, the Hope diamond came from India and was displayed at the London Exposition in 1851. It is now displayed at the National Museum of Natural History, having been donated by Harry Winston, who legally purchased it.
And while Kurin says uncovering the line of ownership of a gemstone like the Koh-i-Noor is best practice when it comes to history, it doesn’t necessarily lead to a legal obligation (though other scholars and lawyers disagree). He and Dalrymple both point out that the rulers who once owned these gemstones headed nations that no longer exist.
That’s one of the biggest differences between objects taken during colonial conquest and art and treasure looted by Nazis—the difficulty in ascertaining who has the first and most legitimate claim to anything.
“Post-colonial collections is a big topic everywhere,” says Jane Milosch, the director of Smithsonian’s Provenance Research Initiative. “There can be a reassessment for certain objects of, ‘we may have legal ownership, but does it make sense to keep this material?’” She cites a 2014 case in which the British Museum returned two bronze statues from Benin to Nigeria (they were taken during an attack in 1897 after British officers were killed during a trade mission).
But returning pillaged art and treasure from World War II, as complicated as that can be, is still far less complex than unraveling colonial history. “You’re dealing with countries that existed when the object was acquired, but they may not exist now—and countries who we had trade agreements with that may have different export laws now,” Milosch says. “Provenance is very complex and people aren’t used to processing a chain of ownership. By the time you hit the second or third owner over time, the information can get more difficult to research. This is why I say it’s important that these things not be yanked out of museums, because at least people have access and can study them until we know for sure if they were looted.”
The Koh-i-Noor isn’t the only contested treasure currently residing in the UK. Perhaps equally controversial are the Elgin Marbles, statues carved 2,500 years ago and taken from the Parthenon in Athens by British Lord Elgin in the early 1800s. So far, the UK has retained ownership of the statues and the diamond, regardless of calls for their return.
Anand thinks one solution that doesn’t require removing the Koh-i-Noor from the UK is to make the history of the diamond clearer. “What I would dearly love is for there to be a really clear sign by the exhibit. People are taught this was a gift from India to Britain. I would like the correct history to be put by the diamond.”
Dalrymple agrees that disseminating the true history is half the battle. “Whenever we lecture, we find people who are horrified by the history. But they’re not resistant—they just weren’t aware of it.”
The diamond isn’t likely to leave the Crown Jewels anytime soon. Anand and Dalrymple only hope that their work will do some good by clarifying the true path the infamous gemstone followed—and helping leaders come to their own conclusions about what to do with it next.
Lorraine Boissoneault is a contributing writer to SmithsonianMag.com covering history and archaeology. Her impressive list of articles, with links, she has written for the Smithsonian can be seen HERE.