The Koh-i-Noor – Curse or Blessing?

From its gracious setting in the darkened velvet and glass of the Jewel House in the Tower of London, the legendary Koh-i-Noor, the diamond like a Mountain of Light, twinkles benignly at the daily passing of visitors. Placid and securely set in the front cross of The Queen Mother's crown, it seems inconceivable that ownership of this flashing gemstone is a tortuous tangle of horror, blood and international intrigue for over four centuries. The guide book blandly states the legend that this 105.60ct diamond brings bad luck to men, and thus since its arrival in Britain it has only been worn by women. What curses can be blamed on this stone, or is superstition shadowing the good fortune of those in its possession? 

Cursed or blessed, the stone is certainly notorious – ongoing wrangles over ownership have led to rival claims for its return from India, Pakistan and Iran. Bizarrely there has also been a claim of title from the god Jaganath represented by ministers for Odisha in India. It also belonged at one period to rulers of Afghanistan although this country has not joined the fray. A letter to The Times in 1976 by Sir Olaf Caroe during one period of debate pointed out that the word ‘return’ was scarcely applicable since “the Koh-i-Noor had been in Mogul possession in Delhi for 213 years, in Afghan possession in Kandahar and Kabul for 66 years, in Sikh possession in Lahore for 36 years and in British possession for 127 years.”

Its fate is best summed by one of its first owners, Moghul Indian emperor Humayan, who said “Such precious gems come by the flashing sword or through the grace of mighty monarchs”. Historically, its value was judged to be so enormous that no mere financial transaction could bestow title; only the transfer of power and dominion over kingdoms was adequate currency. 

The Tower guide book barely alludes to its immense history. The great diamond was almost certainly originally discovered in the river beds of Golconda, India, the source of many similarly fine historic diamonds, famous for having the most pristine carbon crystal lattice in nature. Originating in India over 1,000 years ago, the stone was bounty bound to Persia and then Afghanistan, then to the Punjab, and thence to Britain. 

The blood-soaked list of “mighty monarchs” who owned the Koh-i-Noor begins in the late C13th with Sultan Ala-ed-Din, who may be the inspiration for the fairy tale Aladdin. He killed his uncle the king to gain rule over Delhi and a legendary hoard of treasure, including a remarkable rose cut diamond of 186.10ct, almost certainly the Koh-i-Noor. When the invading Moguls, descended from Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, spread remorselessly from Turkey and invaded India, this exceptional diamond was tendered to them at the defeat of Agra in 1526. This is how the jewel came to be owned by Humayan, who although ruler of the Moghul empire, spent most of his life in exile with the Persian king, his ally, to whom supposedly he gave the diamond as a gift. Documentation does not exist to prove this, so perhaps its possession was kept a sacred Moghul family secret down the line of Humayan’s son Akbar, via his son Jahangir, and his descendant, Shah Jahan the architect of the Taj Mahal, otherwise it is difficult to explain how it re-emerges in Delhi in 1739, when the last ruling Moghul Muhammad Shah was foiled into unravelling the hiding place of the fabulous diamond in his turban to the conquering Persian, ruthless despot Nadir Shah, during a polite exchange of headdresses. The stone received its name when Nadir Shah gasped “Koh-i-Noor!”, or “Mountain of Light”, at the gleaming treasure before him. 

When the tyrant Nadir Shah was assassinated, bloody chaos broke out amongst his Persian descendants who, throughout two generations, either murdered, executed or put out each other’s eyes to gain control of the vast Persian empire. The huge diamond was given as a gift of gratitude by the most successful of the blinded Persian descendants, Shah Rukh, to his grandfather’s ex-general, ally and ruler of Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah. In return, Ahmad and the Afghan army helped Rukh control and bring peace to Persia. But in 1773 when Ahmad died, Rukh lost any power over his nation, leaving him the captive of the bloodiest character in the Koh-i-Noor’s story – a terrifyingly sadistic eunuch called Aga Mohammed Khan, who had gained absolute control of Persia and lost no time in torturing Rukh until, one by one, he gave up his remaining treasures. Convinced that Shah Rukh was lying to him and that he had not given the Koh-i-Noor to Afghanistan, Mohammed Khan had Rukh bound to a chair and his head shaved and a circle of paste moulded onto his scalp. Mohammed Khan personally poured molten lead into the gory crown. As this brutal torture failed to elicit the Koh-i-Noor, Mohammed Khan gave up, but Rukh expired soon afterwards. 

Over in Afghanistan, the Koh-i-Noor passed through bloody filial in-fighting following the death of Ahmad Shah. One of his grandsons, Zaman, managed to keep the great diamond safe from his dangerous usurping brothers, carefully embedded in the plaster wall of his prison cell for years, until he struck a deal with his ruling brother Shah Shuja, handing over the Koh-i-Noor in return for his personal safety. The prodigious diamond was to be pivotal in the transfer of power once again, when in 1810 Shuja and Zaman together fled Afghanistan to seek sanctuary with the Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh, the ‘Lion of the Punjab’, who tried various attempts to extort the famous diamond as the price of sanctuary, finally besieging Shuja in his residence until he reluctantly handed it over. 

The Lion of the Punjab was enormously proud to possess the incomparable Koh-i-Noor. He had it set in a great armlet flanked by a pair of lesser but beautiful pear shape diamonds, and wore it on his sleeve above the elbow, ostentatiously displayed to all visitors at the Sikh court. When he died in 1839, the diamond passed via the inevitable filial feuds to his recognised successor, Dhulip Singh, a young child from Ranjit Singh’s harem. Rival British, French and Russian empire building was beginning to squeeze the region. Britain’s diplomats, in the form of the East India Company, made a formal treaty of friendship with the regents of the boy king to stabilise their interests in the region, but the nation spiralled into a civil war amongst various tribal chiefs both Sikh and Muslim, which the British army quelled by force, annexing the Punjab, and imposing imperial rule by Queen Victoria and the surrender of all its treasure as war reparation. 

To the Queen, the magnificent diamond was literally the jewel in the crown of her expanding empire and she was eager to see it. The epic task of bringing the priceless diamond around the world, over land and sea to London fell to Lord Dalhousie, the young and decisive Governor General of India, who had directed the annexation of the Punjab. The diamond, still set in the great armlet, was doubly sewn into a girdle secured by a chain around Lord Dalhousie’s neck on the 3,000-mile land journey to Bombay, where he boarded the steam ship Medea for Britain, and locked it in a double chest with three keys. The ship sailed in April 1850, when an immediate outbreak of cholera overwhelmed the crew. Quarantined off Mauritius, the captain was refused local help or provisions, and they had to run for the Cape; during the passage, a severe storm nearly destroyed and dis-masted them. Fortunately, their luck reversed once at the Cape; fully repaired and in perfect weather, the ship reached Britain speedily in June 1850. Days later, the Deputy Chairman of the Honourable East India Company presented the legendary diamond to Queen Victoria. 

The Queen immediately wore the enormous diamond armlet right away pinned to her bodice – at Court it was noted that it flashed like a “breastplate” - and press reports of it inflamed the nation, lighting the fuse of popular novels such as Wilkie Collins’ “The Moonstone”. The whispers of a curse came with it. The Queen was mollified by the assertion that a woman’s ownership would ward off such evil, and ever since the great stone has only ever been set into a queen’s diadem. The diamond became so famous that it was billed as the prime attraction at the Great Exhibition of 1851, but to general dismay it caused disappointment to the thousands queueing to see it, who imagined a prismatic multi-facetted brilliant in the new European style not the gloomily displayed, subtle lucidity of a rose cut diamond formed organically by Indian diamantaire tradition. Consequently, in 1852, Prince Albert ordered that the ancient diamond should be recut by Garrard to suit contemporary taste, losing not only its unique character accorded by its natural crystal form, but 43% of its original weight in the process. Queen Victoria was nonetheless delighted by the sharp brilliance of the re-cut diamond, and it was set by Garrard into the central collet of the magnificent Grand Diadem, and could be removed to form a glittering brooch or bracelet. In 1901, it formed the focal highlight of the new queen consort crown for Queen Alexandra at the coronation of King Edward VII, again removable as a brooch. Ten years later, in a new consort’s coronation crown by Garrard for George V’s queen, Mary, the diamond again assumed the star position; and finally, it rests where we see it now, poised serenely in a third queenly diadem: the glittering centrepiece of the elegant Art Deco queen consort's crown for HM The Queen Mother for the 1937 coronation of her husband, George VI.

Looking at the dramatic twists of fate in this condensed story of the diamond, does luck or evil shine through brightest?

The account of the journey from cholera death-ship to perfect sailing highlights the sensational contrasts of the diamond’s story in just one episode. On balance and by most normal definitions of a blessing, being associated with this diamond certainly brought some horrible ends – having your eyes put out by your princely brothers was the least of it. However, if a blessing is a stroke of good fortune, then when dealing with an object of such immense value that it could transfer a kingdom or save a dynasty, normal definitions of blessings such as personal happiness, wealth, health or love do not apply.  Through tangled intrigues and centuries of regal double-dealing, in an age when power was defined by overt riches and life was so cheap that even an emperor’s fate could hang by a thread, the innordinate rarity and value of a diamond this size made it the ultimate bargaining chip. The imperial owners of the Koh-i-Noor were quick witted enough to recognise any opportunity to use their treasure to bend circumstance to their best advantage. With the Koh-i-Noor only blessings that bring power, kingship, security of rule and wealth apply. To possess such leverage surely counts as a blessing, ensuring that its owner could endure to fight another day, such as Shah Rukh’s bounty payment to his Afghan ally, or patient Zaman’s lifelong stewardship.

Equally, however, from the gory story told above, it could be argued that the stone must be cursed. As the cause of the ultimate harm, misery, insecurity and loss, the diamond’s story leads through assassinations, horrific torture, and the ruination of four nations. On its arrival in Britain, a fabled treasure from afar, controversially confiscated as war reparation to a voraciously empire building Britain, it was at least bound to have some rumour attached to it. It may have been mere expediency to let it be believed that the stone was only cursed if a man were to wear it, to quash the rumours of ill-fortune that surrounded it and to gain the favour of Queen Victoria herself. Certainly, with fortune comes a heavy burden of responsibility to keep it: housed securely in perpetuity in The Tower, and designated a Crown Jewel, by law it may never be permitted to leave the shores of Britain.

Ultimately, whether it is a curse or a blessing depends on the circumstance. Perhaps the last word should come from the ever-pragmatic Lord Dalhousie. Having annexed The Punjab, taking the Koh-i-Noor as well as the other contents of the Toshakhana, the Lahore treasury, he had no truck at all with conjecture. Dalhousie quoted Shah Shuja when he wrote in 1858 “‘The value of the Koh-i-Noor is that whoever holds it is victorious over all his enemies’. And so it is. The Koh-i-Noor has been of ill-fortune to the few who have lost it. To the long line of Emperors, Conquerors and potentates who through successive centuries have possessed it, it has been the symbol of victory and empire.”