British empire finds diamonds are not forever

Saturday 17 September 2011 14:25

In the Jewel House at the Tower of London, beyond metal doors several inches thick and in a case of bulletproof glass, sits the Koh-i-noor diamond. The 105-carat "Mountain of Light", set in the crown of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, sparkles with a fierce intensity as hushed tourists pass slowly before it on a moving walkway.

In the Jewel House at the Tower of London, beyond metal doors several inches thick and in a case of bulletproof glass, sits the Koh-i-noor diamond. The 105-carat "Mountain of Light", set in the crown of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, sparkles with a fierce intensity as hushed tourists pass slowly before it on a moving walkway.

That most famous of diamonds came to Britain from India in 1850, and yesterday it was reported that a group of 25 Indian politicians, led by a former High Commissioner to London, have begun to lobby for its return. They may find they have competition. Pakistan laid claim to the stone as long ago as 1976, on the grounds that its natural home is Lahore, and both Iran and Afghanistan could conceivably mount a credible case for ownership, such is the diamond's long and complex history.

"Ideally, somebody should steal it from the Tower of London - that would be very much in the spirit of the Koh-i-noor," says Kevin Rushby, who traced the diamond's trail over the centuries in his book Chasing the Mountain of Light. "All through its history it's been taken by coercion or deceit. The British basically pinched it off the Sikhs, who pinched it off the Afghans, who pinched it off the Persians, who pinched it off the Indians. Like the story of any big diamond, it's one of human greed and brutality."

The diamond's early history is sketchy. It is open to debate whether the Koh-i-noor was the fabled great diamond worth "the value of one day's food for all the people of the world", which glittered in the legendary Peacock Throne of the Mogul emperors. But it most certainly was the stone seized in the sack of Delhi in 1739 by the Persian Nadir Shah, who rejoiced in the title of "Sultan over the Sultans of the Earth, King of Kings and Lord of the Fortunate Conjunction".

The story goes that the conquered Mogul leader, Muhammad Shah, attempted to hold on to the diamond by concealing it in his turban, but the wily Nadir, not to be outwitted, suggested an exchange of headwear to mark the transfer of power. Once he had the Koh-i-noor in his possession, Nadir would spend the next eight years establishing a formidable reputation as one of the most bloodthirsty tyrants of all time, with blinding and decapitation a particular speciality, until finally he was murdered in his own tent. Not for nothing did a former keeper of the Tower of London once describe the Koh-i-noor as "dripping blood".

After Nadir's death, further violence and duplicity accompanied the Koh-i-noor's path from Persia to Afghanistan, before it eventually came into the possession of the Sikh leader Ranjit Singh, the Lion of Punjab. He loved the diamond so much that he had it set in his horse's bridle, so he could admire it while riding. After his death, the succession to his throne was bitterly contested until only one claimant remained - Dhulip Singh, the son of a water-carrier and a dancer, who had been passed off as Ranjit's child by a member of his harem. But Dhulip did not keep for long the fabulous diamond that he inherited. He was still a teenager when the British annexed his kingdom in 1849 and forced the young maharaja to hand over the diamond to the queen of England.

By this time, the stone's reputation for bringing bad luck to those who owned it was well established, so it was perhaps no surprise that the ship carrying it back to Britain was subject to an outbreak of cholera and was nearly wrecked in a storm. Nevertheless, it eventually reached Spithead on 29 June 1850.

As it happened, Queen Victoria had already been having more than her share of bad luck that summer. Within the space of a month she had been physically attacked twice: first an Irishman had fired a pistol at her; then a deranged retired lieutenant had stepped out of a crowd and rapped her on the head with his brass-topped walking-stick. Was the diamond already beginning to work its sinister influence? It was a worrying thought; so much so that Victoria never wore the Koh-i-noor in a crown, and the stone was subsequently reserved for the use of the wives of sovereigns.

As for Dhulip Singh, a story told by Lady Login, his British-appointed guardian, described a meeting he had with Queen Victoria, who had invited him to come to see the Koh-i-noor after it had been recut. According to her account, he examined the diamond and presented it back to the Queen "with a low obeisance", saying how pleased he was to place it in her hands. Whether this heart-warming little cameo has any basis in truth is open to doubt. According to Stephen Howarth, in his book The Koh-i-Noor Diamond, Dhulip Singh used to refer privately to the Queen as "Mrs Fagin" and maintained that he had as much right to Windsor Castle as she did to the Koh-i-noor.

But Britain is by no means alone when it comes to possessing a diamond of dubious origin. One of the glittering stars of the Russian state diamond collection housed in the Kremlin is the 189-carat Orlov Diamond, mounted in the Imperial Sceptre. Said to be one of the highest-quality diamonds ever to come from India, it may also have been the object of one of the most ingenious diamond heists in history.

There is a story that the diamond was once set as one of the eyes in a Hindu statue in the great temple of Vishnu at Srirangam in southern India. During fighting between English and French forces in the 18th century, a French deserter came to hear of the diamond and hatched a remarkable plan to steal it. His problem was that the statue was located in the temple's innermost shrine, where no Christians were allowed, so his first move was to take up the Hindu faith and get himself a job in the temple. Over a period of years he managed slowly to gain the confidence of the temple elders; eventually he was made guardian of the inner sanctum, together with its treasure.

One dark and stormy night, the cunning and patient Frenchman decided that his time had finally come. He swiftly prised the diamond from its socket and had it away to Madras, where he sold the stone to an English sea captain for £2,000. The story later inspired Wilkie Collins to write The Moonstone, his famous novel of diamonds and deceit.

The stone later took its name from the Russian nobleman Count Grigori Grigorievich Orlov, who purchased it in Amsterdam in 1775. A former lover of Catherine the Great, he believed he might win back her heart by making her a present of the diamond. And Catherine was indeed delighted with the gift; so much so that she had it set in the Imperial Sceptre. Sadly, she was not quite delighted enough to allow the count back into her bed. All he got for his trouble was a marble palace in St Petersburg, and he was forced to seek consolation with his cousin. He went mad not long afterwards.

When it comes to bad luck, no stone is more ill-starred than the notorious Hope Diamond. Believed to be part of the 112-carat Blue Diamond bought in India by the 17th-century traveller and diamond merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, the Hope is said to bring bad luck to all its owners. Indeed Tavernier himself lived his final years in penury, bankrupted by his son. According to one account, he was eaten by wild animals during his final trip to India.

The Blue Diamond was purchased by Louis XIV of France and was handed down in the French royal family, being worn by both Madame du Barry and Marie Antoinette. In 1792 it was stolen by thieves, along with the rest of the French crown jewels. Most of the other precious stones were recovered, but the Blue Diamond disappeared without trace. However, nearly 40 years later, a London banker called Henry Thomas Hope bought a 44-carat blue diamond - about a third of the Tavernier's size - that had almost certainly previously been part of the original Blue Diamond. This new diamond was called the Hope - with some irony, as it turned out.

The fortunes of the Hope family would go from bad to worse after the purchase of the stone, and by the time it came down to Lord Francis Hope, he was close to bankruptcy and forced to sell it. But it was after it had been bought by the American socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean, wife of the owner of The Washington Post, that the diamond really began to exert its malign influence. Her son died in a car crash at the age of nine; her husband became obsessed with another woman, turned to drink and went mad; and her daughter died of an overdose of sleeping pills at the age of 25. Mrs McLean herself died shortly afterwards. In 1958, the Hope's final owner, a New York diamond merchant called Harry Winston, donated it to the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC, where it now resides.

A companion piece to the Blue Diamond among the French crown jewels was the Regent Diamond, currently to be found at the Louvre. It has its own tale of human misery to tell. The story goes that it was found by a slave working in an Indian mine in 1701, who decided to filch it for himself rather than hand it in to the mine's owners. He made a wound in one of his calves and concealed the 426-carat diamond in it, covered with a bandage - no easy task, considering that the stone was bigger than a walnut. Having successfully made away with it, he reached the coast, where he foolishly offered a share in his prize to one of the seemingly ubiquitous English sea captains who inhabited every Indian port, waiting to be offered illicit diamonds. The slave wanted the captain to give him passage out of the country, which he duly did - and then promptly threw him overboard.

The diamond later came to the attention of Thomas Pitt, then governor of Madras, who purchased it for about £20,000, confidently expecting to make a profit of £430,000 on his return to England. But it was not to be. The diamond was so expensive that Pitt could find no one in Europe willing to buy it, even after it had been cut down from 426 carats to 140. To make matters worse for Pitt, his wife had not only begun to exhibit spendthrift tendencies but had also developed a scandalous association with a notorious roué.

It was eight years before Pitt finally found a buyer - Louis XIV, for a price of £135,000 - and even then he received only £40,000 up front. Pitt was forced to spend the last nine years of his life trying to retrieve the balance while trying to stop his family squandering the rest. "What hellish planet is it that influences you all?" he wrote to his son. "Did ever mother, brother and sisters study one another's ruin and destruction more than my unfortunate and cursed family have done?"

Today, of course, it is not so much individual diamonds but the diamond industry that curses the lives of millions. The illicit trade in diamonds funds the long-running war in Angola, where Jonas Savimbi's Unita guerrillas are said to have traded around £2bn-worth of stones to pay for supplies in the last decade. Diamonds are also at the heart of the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, is alleged to have committed 11,000 troops in exchange for lucrative mining concessions.

And in Sierra Leone, there is no doubt what lies at the root of the ongoing bloody conflict - that is to say, control of the extensive diamond-producing areas in the east of the country. A recent UN report blamed the diamond trade in Sierra Leone for "destabilising the country for the better part of three decades, stealing its patrimony and robbing an entire generation of children".

Brutality and greed. So the story continues...

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments