Desired, stolen, cursed: the history of the Koh-i-Noor diamond

The Koh-i-Noor is a gem of international renown, as divisive as it is beautiful. Writing for BBC World Histories magazine in 2016, William Dalrymple explores its murky history and asks: to whom should it belong now?

A replica of the Koh-i-Noor in Bangalore in 2002

On 29 March 1849, the young maharajah of the Punjab, Dulip Singh, was ushered into the magnificent Mirrored Hall at the centre of the great fort in Lahore. There, in a public ceremony, the frightened but dignified child finally yielded to months of British pressure and signed a formal Act of Submission. This document, later known as the Treaty of Lahore, handed over to the British East India Company great swathes of the richest land in India – land that, until that moment, had formed the independent Sikh kingdom of the Punjab, a northern region of south Asia.

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At the same time, Dulip (sometimes spelled Duleep) was induced to hand over to Queen Victoria arguably the single most valuable object in not just the Punjab but the entire subcontinent: the celebrated Koh-i-Noor diamond, the ‘Mountain of Light’. Article III of the treaty read simply: “The gem called the Koh-i-Noor, which was taken from Shah Sooja ool-Moolk [Shah Shuja Durrani] by Maharajah Runjeet [or Ranjit] Singh, shall be surrendered by the Maharajah of Lahore to the Queen of England.”

The East India Company, the world’s first multinational, had grown over the course of a century from an operation employing only 35 permanent staff, headquartered in one small office in the City of London, into the most powerful and heavily militarised corporation in history. Its eyes had been fixed on the Punjab and the diamond for many years, and the chance to acquire both finally arose in 1839, at the death of Dulip Singh’s father, Maharajah Ranjit Singh, when the Punjab had descended into anarchy.

A violent power struggle, a suspected poisoning, several assassinations, a civil war and two British invasions later, the company’s army finally defeated the khalsa (the body of devout Sikhs) at the bloody battle of Chillianwala, on 13 January 1849. At the end of that year, on a cold, bleak day in December, the governor-general of India, Lord Dalhousie, arrived in Lahore to take formal delivery of his prize from the hands of Dulip Singh.

Soon afterwards, the Koh-i-Noor was despatched to England, where Queen Victoria promptly lent it to the Great Exhibition of 1851. Long queues snaked through the Crystal Palace, in London’s Hyde Park, as the public thronged to see this celebrated imperial trophy. The diamond was locked away in its specially commissioned Chubb high-security glass safe, itself contained within a metal cage.

In this way, trumpeted by the British press and besieged by the British public, the Koh-i-Noor quickly became not only the most famous diamond in the world, but also the single most famous object of loot from India. It was a symbol of Victorian Britain’s imperial domination of the world and its ability, for better or worse, to take from around the globe the most desirable objects, and to display them in triumph, much as the Romans had once done with curiosities from their conquests 2,000 years earlier.

The Koh-i-Noor quickly became not only the most famous diamond in the world, but also the single most famous object of loot from India

As the fame of this diamond grew, the many other large Mughal diamonds that once rivalled the Koh-i-Noor came to be almost forgotten, and the ‘Mountain of Light’ achieved a singular status as the greatest gem in the world. Only a few historians remembered that the Koh-i-Noor, which weighed 190.3 metric carats when it arrived in Britain, had had at least two comparable sisters: the Darya-i-Noor (‘Sea of Light’), now in Tehran and today estimated at 175–195 metric carats, and the Great Mughal Diamond, believed by most modern gemologists to be the 189.6-carat Orlov diamond, now set in Catherine the Great’s imperial Russian sceptre in the Kremlin.

A singular status

In reality it was only in the early 19th century, when the Koh-i-Noor reached the Punjab and the hands of Ranjit Singh, that the diamond had begun to achieve its pre-eminent celebrity. This was partly the result of Ranjit Singh’s preference for diamonds over rubies – a taste Sikhs tended to share with most Hindus but not with the Mughals or Persians, who preferred large, uncut, brightly coloured stones.

Indeed, in the Mughal treasury the Koh-i-Noor seems to have been only one among a number of extraordinary highlights in the greatest gem collection ever assembled, the most treasured items of which were not diamonds but the Mughals’ beloved red rubies and spinel gemstones from Badakhshan in north-eastern Afghanistan.

The growing status of the Koh-i-Noor was also partly a consequence of the rapidly growing price of diamonds worldwide in the early and mid-19th century. This followed the invention of the ‘brilliant cut’, which fully released the ‘fire’ inherent within every diamond, and which led in turn to the fashion in middle-class Europe and America for diamond engagement rings.

Vintage illustration of the State Crown of Queen Mary
The Koh-i-Noor diamond was transferred to the front cross of the crown of Queen Mary, wife of British King George V, for the coronation in 1911. (GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

The final act in the Koh-i-Noor’s rise to global stardom took place in the aftermath of the Great Exhibition and the massive press coverage it had engendered. Before long huge, often cursed, Indian diamonds began to make regular appearances in popular Victorian novels such as Wilkie Collins’s 1868 The Moonstone.

So it was that the Koh-i-Noor finally achieved in European exile a singular, almost mythic global status that it had never achieved before leaving its Indian homeland. And because the other great Mughal diamonds have come to be forgotten by all except specialists, all mentions of extraordinary Indian diamonds in sources such as the Memoirs of the 16th-century Mughal emperor Babur or the Travels in India of the 17th-century French jeweller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier have retrospectively been assumed to be references to the Koh-i-Noor. At each stage its mythology has grown ever more remarkable, ever more mythic – and ever more shakily fictitious.

Today, tourists who see the diamond in the Tower of London are often surprised by its small size, especially in comparison with the two much larger Cullinan diamonds displayed alongside it: in fact, at present the Koh-i-Noor is only the 90th-largest diamond in the world.

A murky history

Small as it is, the Koh-i-Noor retains enormous fame and status, and is once again at the centre of international dissension as the Indian government – among others – calls for the gem’s return. Even now, Indian officials cannot seem to make up their mind about the Koh-i-Noor’s perennially foggy history.

On 16 April 2016, the Indian solicitor general, Ranjit Kumar, told the Indian supreme court that the Koh-i-Noor had been given freely to the British in the mid-19th century by Maharajah Ranjit Singh, and was “neither stolen nor forcibly taken by British rulers”. This was, by any standards, a strikingly unhistorical statement – all the more odd given that the facts of its surrender to Lord Dalhousie in 1849 are about the only aspect of the story not in dispute.

Hard facts of the gem’s history are still almost suspiciously thin on the ground

Anyone who today tries to establish the hard facts of the gem’s history will find that unambiguous references to this most celebrated of jewels are still almost suspiciously thin on the ground. The Koh-i-Noor may be made of the Earth’s hardest substance, but it has always attracted around it an airily insubstantial fog of mythology. Indeed there is simply no 100% certain reference to the Koh-i-Noor in any Sultanate or Mughal source, despite many textual references to large and valuable diamonds appearing throughout Indian history, particularly towards the climax of Mughal rule. Some of these may well refer to the Koh-i-Noor but, lacking sufficiently detailed descriptions, it is impossible to be certain.

Conflicting claims over the jewel

In fact, there are no definitive mentions of the Koh-i-Noor in any document before the Persian historian Mohammad Kazem Marvi made what seems to be the first extant, solid, named reference in his history of the Persian Nader Shah’s invasion of India. This was written as late as the mid-1740s – a decade or so after Nader Shah had carried off the gem from India to Persia. And that was not the only time it travelled between countries. The case is often made in India that, as the Koh-i-Noor was taken by the British at the point of a bayonet, the British must therefore give it back.

Yet while the Koh-i-Noor certainly originated in south India – probably in the Kollur mines of Golconda in what’s now Telangana state – Persia, Afghanistan and Pakistan also have good claims to the jewel. It was owned at different times by Nader Shah, in the mid-18th century by Ahmed Shah Durrani (c1722–72) of Afghanistan, and of course by Ranjit Singh of Lahore, now in Pakistan. All three countries have at different times declared ownership and issued legal action to try to get it back; even the Taliban registered its claim to the stone.

Moreover, Ranjit Singh took the jewel by force, just as the British did. In the same way that British sources tend to gloss over the violence inherent in their seizure of the stone, Sikh ones do likewise. Yet the autobiography of its previous owner Shah Shuja Durrani (c1785–1842), which I found in Kabul when I was working on my book Return of a King, is explicit about what happened. After being deposed as emir of Afghanistan in 1809, Shah Shuja Durrani went into exile in India. On arrival in Lahore, to which he had been invited by Ranjit Singh in 1813, Shuja was separated from his harem, put under house arrest and told to hand over the diamond. “The ladies of our harem were accommodated in another mansion, to which we had, most vexatiously, no access,” wrote Shuja in his Memoirs. “Food and water rations were reduced or arbitrarily cut off.”

Shuja regarded this as an ill-mannered breach of the laws of hospitality. “It was a display of oafish bad manners,” he wrote, with all the hauteur he could muster, dismissing his captor as “both vulgar and tyrannical, as well as ugly and low-natured.”

Gradually, Ranjit increased the pressure. At the lowest ebb of his fortunes, Shuja was put in a cage; according to one account, his eldest son was tortured in front of him until he agreed to part with his most valuable possession. “Ranjit Singh coveted the Koh-i-Noor diamond beyond anything else in this world,” wrote the chronicler Mirza ‘Ata Mohammad, “and broke all the laws of hospitality in order to get possession of it. The king [Shah Shuja] was imprisoned for a long time, and his guards left him out in the burning sun, but to no effect as he would not confess where the jewel was hidden. At length they took his young son, Prince Muhammad Timur, and made him run up and down ladders on the bare roof of the palace in the burning sun, with no shoes or head-covering; the child had been gently brought up and had a delicate physique which could not stand this burning torture, so he cried out aloud and seemed about to pass away. The king could not bear to see his beloved child suffer so.”

Finally, on 1 June 1813, Ranjit Singh arrived in person and waited upon Shah Shuja with a few attendants. He was received by Shuja “with much dignity and, both being seated, a pause and solemn silence ensued, which continued for nearly an hour. Ranjit then, getting impatient, whispered to one of his attendants to remind the Shah of the object of his coming. No answer was returned, but the Shah with his eyes made a signal to a eunuch, who retired, and brought in a small roll, which he set down on the carpet at an equal distance between the chiefs. Ranjit desired his eunuch to unfold the roll, and when the diamond was exhibited and recognised, the Sikh immediately retired with his prize in his hand.”

The question of whether or not the Koh-i-Noor was cursed greatly exercised the proudly rational Victorians. Lord Dalhousie was firmly of the belief that the great diamond was not cursed; he quoted Shah Shuja Durrani, who told Ranjit Singh that it brought only good fortune, “as those who possess it have it in their power to subdue their enemies”. Lord Dalhousie pointed out that the diamond had belonged to some of the luckiest, richest and most powerful monarchs of history, and scoffed at the notion that a curse was even possible.

The question of whether or not the Koh-i-Noor was cursed greatly exercised the proudly rational Victorians

Yet, as my years of research into the Koh-i-Noor have confirmed, many of the diamond’s owners – Shah Shuja among them – have indeed suffered in the most appalling ways, and its history is littered with owners who have been blinded, slow-poisoned, tortured to death, burned in oil, threatened with drowning, crowned with molten lead and assassinated by their own family and closest bodyguards. Even the passengers and crew of HMS Medea were scythed down by a cholera epidemic and storms as the vessel carried the Koh-i-Noor across the seas from India to England in 1850.

So what should happen now to this allegedly cursed diamond? Some have suggested that a museum should be built for the stone at Wagah, on the border between India and Pakistan – a unique institution accessible from both sides. Others have mooted that the stone should be cut up once again, and a piece be given to each of those countries that make a credible argument for its return, including Iran and Afghanistan. However, it is most unlikely that such Solomonic wisdom would ever be entertained by the British; nor, indeed, would it satisfy any of the various parties involved.

The Koh-i-Noor was not the largest diamond in Mughal hands – and it later lost much of its weight during the cutting ordered by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, in 1852 – yet it retains a celebrity unmatched by any of its larger or more perfect rivals. This, more than anything else, has made it the focus of demands for compensation for colonial looting, and set in motion the repeated attempts that have been made to have it returned to its various different former homes.

This story still raises not only important historical issues but contemporary ones, too. In many ways it is a touchstone and lightning rod for attitudes towards colonialism, posing the question: what is the proper response to imperial looting? Do we simply shrug it off as part of the rough-and-tumble of history, or should we attempt to right the wrongs of the past?

What is certain is that the immediate future is not likely to see this diamond prised from its display case in the Tower of London. Last seen in public on the coffin of the British Queen Mother in 2002, it awaits a new queen consort. Given the diamond’s violent and often tragic history, this may not be good news for the future of the monarchy, nor the next couple to sit on the throne.

For nearly 300 years after Nader Shah carried away the great diamond from Delhi, fractur-ing the Mughal empire as he did so, and 170 years after it first came into British hands, the Koh-i-Noor has apparently lost none of its power to create division and dissension. At very best it seems to bring mixed fortunes to whoever wears it, wherever it goes.

William Dalrymple is a historian and writer. His new book, Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Famous Diamond, co-authored with Anita Anand, was published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

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This article was taken from issue 1 of BBC World Histories magazine, published in December 2016