Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Horrible History of the Star-crossed Sparkler

             It is not the biggest, it is not the finest, it is not the most valuable, but it is, perhaps, the most famous diamond in the world. It is the Great Diamond of history and romance, known since antiquity and with its origins in myth, and now called the Koh-i-noor, which means ‘the Mountain of Light’. 

Koh-i-noor Diamond

According to Hindu legend, it was worn by Carna, Rajah of Anga, a hero of the epic poem, the Mahabharata, which would give the stone a history of over four thousand years. This gem appears again in stories about Vikramditya, who flourished in the first century BCE and is said to have driven the Scythians from India. The earliest historical reference dates from 1526, in the Memoirs of Sultan Baber, where a similarly named Bikermâjit is defeated by Hûmaiûm, and Bikermâjit’s people present the conquerer with a peshkesh (tribute or present) of jewels and precious stones, amongst which was a famous diamond formerly owned by Sultan Ala-ed-din. 


Hûmaiûm in turn presented this diamond to Baber as a peshkesh, and Baber returned the diamond to him as a present. Ala-ed-din, of the Khalji dynasty, had ruled in Hindustan and had obtained this ‘famous’ diamond in 1304, by defeating the Rajah of Malwa, (note that, although described as ‘famous’, there is no name is given to the gem). Hûmaiûm’s life was bedevilled with bad luck (he died after falling down stairs) and he was defeated in battle by Sher Shah Suri, who died from an exploding cannon barrel. Hûmaiûm’s son, Akbar, refused to remove the stone from his father’s treasury, but Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, had the diamond placed in his Peacock Throne at Agra. 

Taj Mahal

Shah Jahan’s beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died during childbirth – he built the Taj Mahal to her memory – but he was overthrown by his own son, Aurangzēb, and eventually died under house arrest from face cancer. The diamond remained in the possession of the Mughal rulers until the invasion of Nadir Shah in 1739, who carried the stone back to Persia and is reputed to have first named it Koh-i-noor. Nadir Shah suffered from increasing ill-health and paranoia, he blinded his own son, whom he suspected of an assassination attempt, regretted this crime and had the officials who had witnessed the blinding executed, and was eventually assassinated by his own guards. One of his generals, Ahmed Shah Durrani, fled to Afghanistan, taking the Koh-i-noor with him, and it passed down the Durrani dynasty, until Ahmed’s grandson, Shujah Shah Durrani, was deposed and forced to flee, again taking the gem with him. 

The Shape of the Original Koh-i-noor

He took refuge in India, at Lahore, with Ranjit Singh, who forced him to relinquish the gem and, in return, won back the Afghan throne for Shujah. Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s Sikh empire held massive power but his death, in 1839, created a power vacuum that was filled by the intervention of the British East India Company, and the Punjab was declared to be part of the British Empire. 

Dulip Singh

One stipulation was that the diamond known as the Koh-i-noor, taken from Shujah Shah by Ranjit Singh, should be surrendered to the Queen of England by Dulip Singh, the thirteen-year-old successor of Ranjit, and the boy was sent to England in 1850. Governor-General Dalhousie arranged for the diamond to be transferred to London, on a paddle sloop, HMS Medea, under the care of C C Mansel and John Lawrence; Lawrence put the stone in a tin box which he carried in a waistcoat pocket, on one occasion he sent the waistcoat to the laundry, forgetting about the diamond, which was returned to him by an honest steward. 

Punch - The Koh-i-noor mistaken

At Mauritius, locals threatened to fire on the Medea when the ship, on which cholera had broken out, attempted to dock; a severe storm later threatened to sink the sloop. Eventually, the Medea reached England and Lawrence took the diamond to East India House, from where it was presented to Queen Victoria by the boy Singh. It was publicly displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851, and in 1852, under the supervision of Prince Albert, it was decided to re-cut the diamond, in the western fashion. 

The Duke of Wellington places the Koh-i-noor in the cutting mill

The work was entrusted to Garrard’s, who employed a Dutch cutter called Voorsanger from Coster’s workshop in Amsterdam; cutting began on July 16th 1852, with the Duke of Wellington first placing the stone in the cutting mill, and work continued for thirty-eight days, at a cost of £8,000. The stone was reduced from an initial weight of slightly more than 186 carats down to 106 1/16 carats, and it was found that some parts of the stone were much harder than other parts. 

The shape of the Koh-i-noor before re-cutting

The results were disappointing – the stone was too shallow to be cut to the real proportions of the ‘brilliant’ pattern, and it was felt that too much of the gem had been removed, and that maybe a different cut should have been used. Superstition followed the Koh-i-noor, it was said to be to blame for the premature death of Prince Albert in 1861, and to be the cause of the Indian Mutiny of 1857; reputedly, only God or a woman can only wear it, and the curse has brought about the downfall of every male monarch who has worn the diamond. 

The shape of the Koh-i-noor after re-cutting

It was mounted into a brooch and worn by Queen Victoria, and then mounted into the diamond crown that Queen Alexandra wore at the coronation of Edward VII, by Queen Mary and by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. It can now be seen at the Tower of London, along with the other crown jewels.
The Jewel House of the Tower of London

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