The tale of a diamond that became a coveted prize during centuries of political turmoil.
The history of the Koh-i-Noor diamond is a narrative of greed, war, and barbaric cruelty. Dalrymple (Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42, 2013, etc.) and Anand (Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, 2015) divide their chronology, with Dalrymple covering the gem’s history from its mysterious origins in antiquity, when it was apparently removed from the eye of an idol in southern India, through medieval times, devastating conflicts in the 17th and 18th centuries, and ending in 1839, when India’s ruler, and the gem’s owner, Ranjit Singh, died. Anand picks up the story with Britain’s increasing domination of India, the handing over of the diamond by Singh’s son to the East India Company, its perilous transit to Queen Victoria, and its fate up to the present. The diamond was large but not the largest in the coffers of Asian rulers: an inch and a half long, nearly an inch wide, and shaped like an egg. It became a symbol of power, worn on ceremonial occasions, strapped to the bicep of whoever possessed it; the gem was coveted despite its reputation of having “dark powers.” As Dalrymple writes, “few possessors of the Koh-i-Noor have led happy lives”—surely an understatement. “Its owners,” he acknowledges, “have variously been blinded, slow-poisoned, tortured to death, burned in oil, threatened with drowning, crowned with molten lead, assassinated by their own family and bodyguards, or have lost their kingdoms and died in penury.” The ship transporting the diamond to England was beset by cholera and a vicious storm. Although many who saw it described its amazing shine, viewers in England were disappointed when it was displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Prince Albert contrived a new display case but eventually decided to have it cut. The result was a brilliant diamond half its original size. Currently, India, Pakistan, and the Taliban are zealously pressing for its return, which England staunchly refuses.
A lively, well-researched history of lust for wealth and power.