Even if you don’t know anything about the Kohinoor, you still probably know that the diamond is part of the British colonial loot from India — and if those guys had any shame, they’d return it to us. The truth, however, is more meaty and complex than predigested jingoism. In their new book, Kohinoor: The Story Of The World’s Most Infamous Diamond (Juggernaut Books, 2016), journalist Anita Anand and historian William Dalrymple present the facts of the case, as revealed by their research, while delving deep into how the diamond came to leave India and arrive in Britain—and all the eventful stops along the way
Origin story: Hogwash
There are some widespread myths about the Kohinoor’s early years, i.e. that it was found in a forest (actually, it washed up on a riverbed), it was placed in the eye of an idol (unverified) and, as recently as last year, our solicitor general claimed the diamond was gifted to the British by the Maharaja of Punjab (it was, in fact, grabbed from his terrified 11-year-old son). It’s not even the gargantuan ‘Mountain of Light’ that its name implies and doesn’t qualify among the biggest diamonds in the world (it’s not even in the top 90). But it is still extraordinary.
While it’s true that the Kohinoor is from India and was looted by the East India Company, it has also spent portions of its life shaping the histories of Iran and Afghanistan. Pakistan too claims it. Both Dalrymple and Anand picked up its trail far away from India—the former found it in Persian documents as he worked on his last book, Return Of A King (Bloomsbury, 2013), and the latter stumbled upon it in British archives, where she researched her biography, Sophia (Bloomsbury, 2015). Dalrymple says, “The entire first half of its history, as relayed by every book, is complete bunkum. There is not a single historical reference to the Kohinoor before the 1740s, when it’s reported as being taken out of India.”
Once they acquired it, the British did such a good job of marketing the Kohinoor that people from all over the country swarmed to see this precious relic of the Empire—and returned home severely underwhelmed. As Anand puts it, the British thought it was “a bit crap” and not nearly shiny enough. That the diamond’s rock star reputation survived even this debacle is all the proof we need: marketers run the world.
Body count: Alarming
It’s not the diamond itself that’s fascinating, but the ring-of-Sauron-like effect it had on everyone who owned it. Dalrymple and Anand’s book is split into two parts: he writes about the Kohinoor’s journey from India to Iran and Afghanistan and back, and she picks up the story from when it lands in England in the 19th century. Both parts are teeming with gory deaths. In the first half, there’s a delightful account of a Persian king who had molten lead poured on his skull and another of an Afghan ruler who had his face slowly eaten by maggots. Then there’s all the post-interval carnage. Anand says, “I’ve got a slow poisoning, a bludgeoning, a caving-in of the head, a cutting into pieces… and that’s only in the first six pages.”
Future projects: TV?
You might just be able to watch this true story of the Kohinoor turned into a TV series or film sometime soon. Anand and Dalrymple have received interest from a few quarters, but maintain that it’s still too early to tell how that will go. Reading it, you can see that the Kohinoor has a lot of cinematic potential. The murders alone are worth the price of admission.