Well I’ve heard of a news cycle, but seriously! The Kohinoor story seems to be astride some kind of Ducati superbike.
On Tuesday afternoon I was called into a BBC television studio to discuss the Indian government’s decision not to seek the return of the diamond. The reasoning given for this, as reported by the media, was: “It was gifted to the East India Company by Maharajah Ranjit Singh.”
It was a short sentence containing a world of weirdness. The first part was wildly inaccurate. The second part was… well frankly supernatural and I can deal with the latter quickly and cleanly. Maharajah Ranjit Singh died in 1839, and the diamond was “acquired” by the British almost a decade later. The Lion of Punjab was capable of many things, but largesse after cremation was not one of them.
Now to the second, less clean, but in my view equally clear mis-statement. The Kohinoor was never a gift. It was taken by the British, by force, from a frightened little boy. Therefore the diamond came to Britain thanks to dubious legality but very clear immorality.
The boy King, Duleep Singh, was only eight years old at the time he signed the treaty of Bhyroval on December 16, 1846. It lost him his kingdom and his Kohinoor. The British had come to Punjab as friends earlier that year. They then surreptitiously garrisoned troops in the region, separated Duleep Singh from his mother – the Regent, Maharani Jindan (dragging her screaming from his side and locking her in a tower) and contrived two Anglo-Sikh wars to further weaken the realm. Alone and terrified, with the sound of distant cannon still ringing in his ears, this small child Duleep Singh was surrounded by grown British men, and told to sign away his future if he valued his present. Later in life he would attempt to take legal action against the British over their conduct, however Duleep Singh, living in exile in England by this time, was thwarted at every turn and eventually died a broken and broke man.
A contemporary account
With the excellent William Dalrymple, I am currently writing a history of the Kohinoor, and therefore we have been up to our elbows in various dusty archives both here and in India. Had the diamond truly been a gift, as stated by the Indian government, the Delhi Gazette, a British newspaper, would hardly have printed in May 1848:
“This famous diamond (the largest and most precious in the world) forfeited by the treachery of the sovereign at Lahore, and now under the security of British bayonets at the fortress of Goindghur, it is hoped ere long, as one of the splendid trophies of our military valour, be brought to England in attention of the glory of our arms in India”.
I had gone into the television studio to underline what I called the “poppycock” argument of “Kohinoor as gift”, however barely had the cameras stopped rolling than the news broke of a dramatic u-turn from the Indian government. Now I don’t know what it means when the Indian government says it will “make all possible efforts” to get the diamond back. I’m pretty sure the diamond will stay in London for the foreseeable future. However as someone who has been immersed in this cursed stone’s history for some years, it is good to see the record somewhat straightened.
Anita Anand is the author of Sophia, Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, published by Bloomsbury in 2015.