Koh-i-Noor: Colonialism’s Blood-Stained Diamond

A series of crowns sat on red cushions with orbs and sceptres alongside
Vivika Sahajpal

With it being possibly the most controversial diamond in the world, discussions around the Koh-i-noor have resurfaced with the decisions surrounding the coronation; once again, bringing to light the dark history that the diamond epitomises, unearthing questions of the past and memories of generational pain. Vivika Sahajpal discusses.

The Koh-i-Noor diamond, which has been claimed by different regions of South Asia, remains firmly in British possession, sitting front and centre in the main cross of the late Queen Mother’s crown. Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, social media was full of requests for the diamond’s return and discussions around the painful memories the coronation would bring up regarding the Koh-i-Noor.

Since this, Buckingham Palace has announced that the diamond will not be used in the coronation but has not declared the reason to be the way it came into British possession. Given its prominence in history and its position, the Koh-i-Noor stands as a trophy of British colonialism and empire. Whilst this gesture, potentially holds some significance, its impact is negligible in the face of the atrocities committed in India during the reign of the British empire. Shashi Tharoor’s Speech at the Oxford Union exemplifies the feelings of many concerning the reparations that should potentially be made to India and the ways in which the British crippled the Indian economy and infrastructure for years to come.

Passed between empires and dynasties via invasion, destruction, inheritance, gratitude and coercion

Understanding the history of the diamond is necessary for understanding why it causes such controversy and dispute and why it represents so much pain. Long before the British empire took possession of the diamond, it passed between empires and dynasties via invasion, destruction, inheritance, gratitude and coercion, a story riddled with power, violence and pride.

A Convoluted history

The diamond was originally from alluvial mines on the bank of an Indian river in present-day Andhra Pradesh where it was sifted from the sand during the Kakatiya dynasty. Dalrymple and Anand’s book ‘Koh-i-Noor: The history of the world’s most infamous diamond’ (2017) discusses the diamond’s movements throughout history since then.

The Koh-i–Noor changed hands between dynasties of North and South India until the invasion and establishment of the Mughal empire in India. Here, the synchronous written record of the infamous diamond begins with Shah Jahan’s commission of the jewel-encrusted Peacock throne in 1628. Covered in precious stones, the throne took seven years to create, with the Koh-i-Noor prominently showcased.

The journey of the diamond after this is disputed and discussed, however this is the succession that is widely believed. It remained there on the throne until Nadar Shah invaded India in 1732, looting the Mughal treasury, taking the peacock throne and leaving a massacre of thousands in the wake of the invasion. He took the Koh-i-Noor to his homeland of Iran where he wore it on an armband. After his assassination, the diamond was taken to present-day Afghanistan where it was owned by the Durranis.

The opportunity they were looking for – to take advantage of his age and the naivety that came with it

It is thought that the youngest of the Durranis, Shah Shujah Durrani, then gifted it to Ranjit Singh (leader of the Sikh empire) in Lahore after he gave him respite when he lost his family empire. Ranjit Singh’s desire for and reverence of the diamond solidified its position as a symbol of magnificence. This is where the Koh-i-Noor’s connection with the British becomes apparent; there is a lack of clarity over what Ranjit Singh did with the diamond as his health and the Sikh empire declined, but in 1849 the diamond was in the hands of Duleep Singh, The Boy King of the Sikh empire.

The Boy King

At just 10 years old, Duleep Singh lived with his Mother, Jindan Kaur, the empress at the time. Now in possession of the Koh-i-Noor, he became a subject of intrigue and a target for the British. The British press reportedly discussed the matter throughout the journey of the diamond through South Asia, wanting the British East India Company to keep track of the diamond with the ultimate goal of having the coveted diamond in Britain’s possession. Duleep Singh’s rule provided the East India company with the opportunity they were looking for – to take advantage of his age and the naivety that came with it.

In 1849, they separated Duleep from his Mother, forcing him to amend the Treaty of Lahore, relinquishing all claim to sovereignty and giving away the Koh-i-Noor. Following this, he was adopted by a British diplomat whilst his Mother was exiled to Nepal. It wasn’t until the age of 22 that he reunited with her and brought her to England. At this point, the Koh-i-Noor had been cut, polished and publicised, and was worn by royalty. From there, it would make its way to the crown jewels where it remains today.

In the context of colonialism, returning the diamond almost acts as an admission of shame and guilt

A legacy

As awareness is raised and stories are shared, the question of what is to be done with colonial loot becomes apparent. The Koh-i-Noor, remaining in its current position could be interpreted as a declaration of pride in acquiring it, perhaps seen as a bitter reminder of the horrors of the British Empire. The adamant stance to not return the diamond was vocalised by David Cameron in 2010 when he declared that the diamond would ‘stay put’ in Britain. Other artefacts, stolen from different nations, such as two bronze statues looted from Nigeria have since been returned. This raises the question of why the Koh-i-Noor is different.

First of all, the significance of the diamond to British culture has significantly grown since it came to England with it now being in a prime position in the crown jewels. Secondly, the British actively invested time and resources in seeking out the diamond and acquiring it. Thirdly, and most importantly in the context of colonialism, returning the diamond almost acts as an admission of shame and guilt. Returning the trophies of their pillaging that receive more media attention could set a precedent of reparation when it has been so vehemently declared in the past that the Koh-i-Noor will not be returned.

The politically strategic move of not using the diamond in the coronation could temporarily placate the nations that are demanding its return, however nations have been ruined at the hands of the British empire; this is a fact that this simple gesture will not rectify and a fact that will continue to demand action.

Vivika Sahajpal

Featured image courtesy of Annie Spratt on Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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