The story of how Britain acquired the Koh-i-Noor diamond, pictured, has many facets
Like the magnificent jewel itself, the story of how Britain acquired the Koh-i-Noor diamond has many facets. Some sparkle with intrigue, others are bloody and sordid.
The chief characters in this epic tale, recently drawn to our attention again with demands from Pakistan for the famous gem’s return, include a nymphomaniac queen mother with a taste for opium, an eccentric ginger-haired general known as Tipperary Joe, and a boy ruler.
Not forgetting the extras: tens of thousands of British and Sikh soldiers who died in the gruesome battles that decided the diamond’s fate 170 years ago.
Disembowelled on swords and bayonets or blown to smithereens by musket and cannon balls, they seem to vindicate the Hindu death curse said to haunt the stone: that ‘he who owns this diamond will own the world but will also know all its misfortunes’.
Despite this, ever since the British took it in the mid-19th century, claims have been lodged for its return by those who believe they are its rightful owners — including the people of India, the Iranians and even the Taliban in Afghanistan (because it was lodged there with a ruling family in the late 18th century).
Now comes a new demand from a Pakistan lawyer who, after years of campaigning and letter-writing, has been promised his day in court in Islamabad. There he will argue that the stone was ‘snatched illegally’ from an area that subsequently became part of Pakistan when India was partitioned in 1947.
His petition calls for a response not only from the British Government but from the Queen — appropriately, perhaps, as it was into her great-great-grandmother’s hands that the Koh-i-Noor fell.
It was less than ten years into Queen Victoria’s reign when the all-conquering British, in the guise of the army of the East India Company, found themselves butting up against the last remaining major military force in the Indian sub-continent: the Sikhs of the Punjab.
The Sikhs had a powerful army, its 45,000 infantrymen and 26,000 cavalry well drilled, well armed and, in their chainmail, breastplates and helmets and wielding razor-sharp curved swords, considered the equal of any European force.
They had been assembled and organised by Ranjit Singh, the charismatic Maharajah of Lahore, founder of the Sikh empire and celebrated ‘Lion of the Punjab’ — except that by 1845, as the British cast covetous eyes on his kingdom, he was dead, leaving a son, five-year-old Duleep Singh, as his heir and a dangerous political vacuum.
At the centre of the struggle for power in Lahore was the boy’s mother, the voluptuous Maharini Jindan, who because of her infant son had not committed suttee — burnt herself to death on Ranjit Singh’s funeral pyre — like his other wives.
She was described by the British as ‘a debauched woman of 33, very indiscriminate in her affections and an eater of opium’, and her court was said to be ‘a hotbed of vice’. Yet she took charge, appointing herself Regent, transacting state business and steering a canny course between the many rival factions in the land.
A woman inspects the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond, which was taken from Lahore by colonial forces 150 years ago
One key faction was the Sikh army — and in an attempt to keep it out of palace politics, she encouraged it to take on the British.
A British army of 54,000 men on the frontier and biding its time — waiting, some historians would argue, for an excuse to invade the Punjab — took up the challenge.
It crossed the border in December 1845, led by Sir Hugh Gough, a blunt Anglo-Irishman (hence his nickname of Tipperary Joe) with a reputation for recklessness and a belief that ‘cold steel’, in the form of British bayonets, was the answer to every hostile situation.
He went into battle in a long white coat with a cone-shaped turban on his head. One of his officers described him as brave as a lion but with little common sense.
In the first battle of the Anglo-Sikh War, just before Christmas 1845, he marched his men into the teeth of the Sikh artillery, lost nearly 1,000 but came out just on top.
His aggression and seeming disregard for loss of life persuaded the Sikh generals to disappear behind earthworks and fight a purely defensive war, hoping to wear the enemy down.
They had not allowed for Gough’s pig-headedness. He sent in attack after attack against dug-in cannons, racking up casualties like never before in the campaign to conquer India.
One regiment alone lost 260 red-coated soldiers in just ten minutes, and for a while it looked as if an unheard-of defeat was on the cards. The presumption of British invincibility, on which many of the military and political successes in India had been built, was suddenly in doubt.
A British general recorded a sense of ‘gloom and foreboding. Perhaps never in the annals of warfare has the British Army on so large a scale been nearer to annihilation’.
But the next day, after a night spent sleeping outside in the bitter cold of winter, four battalions marched towards the Sikh guns, flags flying and as compact and disciplined as if they were on the parade ground back in Delhi or Calcutta. The enemy ran.
The British marched on farther into the Punjab, fighting ‘like devils’. A lieutenant recalled how the enemy’s cannonballs ‘mowed down our ranks. A nine-pound shot severed a man’s head from his body three yards from me’. But the advance continued.
The crown of Queen Mary of England. In the front, the Koh-i-Noor diamond can be seen
‘Then the lancers were ordered to charge the enemies, which they did most splendidly, rushing smack through them and, wheeling round, charged back again, cutting them to pieces in hundreds.’
Though clearly defeated on that day, the Sikhs did not surrender. ‘A thousand of them concealed themselves in rocks and rushed out at us, discharging their muskets. Our men rushed on them with bayonets, killing them hand to hand.’
In a series of brutal exchanges of shells, grapeshot and musket balls, 2,000 more British soldiers went down but the Sikhs lost 10,000, a third of their strength.
Finally, Gough led the British into Lahore to the strains of See the Conquering Hero Comes from the band, displaying a procession of hundreds of captured Sikh cannons to stress who had won.
Tribute was exacted from the defeated nation in land and cash. But there the takeover stopped. The people were deemed ‘patient and submissive’, and the little king and his mother were allowed to continue as rulers for a time, with a British Resident to advise them.
For two to three years, an uneasy peace reigned in the Punjab.
But beneath the surface there was unrest, encouraged by the Maharini. By this point she was theoretically in exile, but she could still stir up trouble. Dissidents and mutineers from what was left of the Sikh army began to collect in the city of Multan, around a leader named Dewan Mulraj.
Two British lieutenants sent to put him in his place had their heads hacked off and sent back to Lahore. A full-scale revolt against British rule was soon under way, fuelled by warlike people such as the Pathans.
The British dithered, uncertain how to proceed at the height of summer when heat exhaustion could take a terrible toll on soldiers unused to such fierce conditions.
A hastily assembled army descended on Multan, besieged it for a few weeks and then withdrew, prompting more Punjabis to join the revolt. The area’s Muslim minority were urged to join an anti-British jihad.
Not until the summer heat cooled and winter approached did the British stir themselves into action. ‘The Sikh nation has called for war,’ declared Lord Dalhousie, recently installed as Governor-General of India, with typical Victorian gusto, ‘and, on my word, sirs, they shall have it — and with a vengeance!’
A massive punitive expedition set out. Multan was besieged again, and at the beginning of 1849 British and Indian troops captured the city. No quarter was given in the bloody hand-to-hand fighting.
Women and children were slaughtered, houses ransacked and temples pillaged. One soldier recorded how rings and chains were ripped from the living as well as the dead.
Officers joined in the plundering alongside their men. A captain wrote home without a qualm of conscience that loot worth 2.5 million rupees had already been seized and they were now digging for buried treasure.
Meanwhile, the main British force was moving towards Lahore with Tipperary Joe in command again, despite misgivings back in London about the cost of his campaigns in soldiers’ lives.
His tactics were as reckless as before — ‘bull-at-a-gate’, as one commentator put it. He advanced one regiment headlong into artillery fire at Chillianwala and saw half of them fall. The survivors fled back two miles. Regimental colours were lost, a particular disgrace.
Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) with her eldest daughter Princess Elizabeth (later the Queen) on the balcony of Buckingham Palace
Seeing British soldiers run, two locally recruited sepoy battalions did the same. Once again, Gough’s actions raised questions about Britain’s presumed invincibility, on which premise the whole annexation of India had been built. Was this the beginning of the end for the British?
The ferocity with which the Sikhs fought certainly made it look that way. One observer noted how they would still lash out with their swords even when transfixed by a British bayonet in their guts.
Fortunately for the British, the weather intervened. Rain stopped play. After a three-day downpour, the Sikh army withdrew, leaving Gough to nurse the wounds of 2,300 casualties. He had survived — just.
But now the momentum was with him as he waited for reinforcements to arrive. Then, at the head of an army of 23,000, he advanced towards the city of Gujrat, where the Sikh army was massed.
This time he approached more cautiously and followed the military handbook. A hundred guns pounded the Sikh trenches in a two-hour artillery barrage, broke their cannon and allowed the infantry to advance relatively unscathed. The Sikhs ran as the British cavalry, sabres drawn, charged in to mop up any resistance.
The war for the Punjab — always a close-run thing — was over.
At his court in Lahore, ten-year-old Duleep Singh signed away his claim to the throne of the Punjab and soon afterwards the province was formally annexed as part of British India.
For the defeated Sikhs there was a price to pay, of which the ounce-and-a-quarter Koh-i-noor diamond was just one part.
The peace treaty stipulated that ‘the kingdom of the Punjab is at an end and henceforth a portion of the British Empire in India’. It added that ‘the gem called the Koh-i-Noor shall be surrendered by the Maharajah of Lahore to the Queen of England’.
For much of its existence the diamond had been the booty of conquest and, in that sense, what happened in 1849 was no different from what had gone before.
The size of a small hen’s egg, it originated in river silt in south-eastern India, first popped up in recorded history sometime in the 13th century and was installed as the eye of the effigy of a Hindu goddess in a temple.
With a value once lyrically described as ‘the expenditure of the whole Universe for two-and-a-half days’, it was looted by various warlords over the centuries before ending up in the treasury of Shah Nader of Persia in the 18th century, whose forces had conquered part of India. Koh-i-noor is Persian for ‘mountain of light’, which legend says is what the Shah exclaimed when he first saw it.
When the Shah’s empire collapsed, one of his generals seized the stone and took it to Afghanistan. One of his descendants then fled with it to Lahore, where Ranjit Singh took possession of it in 1813. It had been in the hands of the Sikhs for just 36 years before Duleep Singh was forced to hand it over to the British.
In December 1849, it was handed over to the Governor-General of India and in February 1850 was sealed inside an iron safe and a red dispatch box to be sent to England by ship. The vessel encountered stormy weather and there were fears that it might have foundered.
The diamond duly arrived in England, though, where it was first handed to the chairman of the East India Company. On July 3, 1850, it was presented to Queen Victoria in person by the young Duleep Singh, who had been brought over from Lahore specially to do so.
The following year it was displayed inside a red tent at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, where tens of thousands gawped at it through iron bars. Gaslight flickered around it, making it sparkle.
What was most noticeable, besides its enormous size, was its comparative ugliness. It had never been the prettiest of diamonds, which is why Prince Albert then had it re-polished and re-shaped at Garrards, the crown jewellers. The Dutch expert who carried out the work discovered several flaws, which he cut away.
This made it a perfect and more pleasing oval but reduced its size by more than a third, from 186 carats (37.2 grams/ 1.3oz) to 105.6 carats (21.1 grams/ 0.75oz). It was then mounted in a tiara for Queen Victoria and later reset, first into Queen Mary’s Crown and finally into the Queen Mother’s crown for the coronation of George VI in 1937.
That crown is now with the rest of the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London. Whether this will be its last resting place remains to be seen. British governments have, however, consistently resisted outside claims of ownership.
On a visit to India in 2013, David Cameron made it clear that he wouldn’t relinquish the Koh-i-Noor.
‘I don’t believe in “returnism”,’ he declared. In other words, the only way the jewel might be taken back is if another vast Sikh army lays siege to the Tower.