LAHORE: On a lovely spring day in March, 1849, Mr Elliot, the Secretary to Lord Dalhousie, held court in the Lahore Fort which was the seat of the government. Dilip Singh, the ten year old sovereign of the Kingdom of the Punjab was seated on the throne, one last time. A royal proclamation was read, announcing an end to the Kingdom. The young Maharaja handed over the Koh-i-Noor to the new masters and the vast territories won by Ranjit Singh, the Lion of the Punjab, were ceded to the Most Noble East India Company.
Dilip Singh became a ward of an English tutor, Dr Login. After a period of two months, Dilip Singh decided to renounce the religion of his forefathers, and be baptised. This decision was fully endorsed by Lord Dalhousie, not that he was interested in the salvation of the young Maharaja’s soul, but because after giving up, Sikhism, any risk of a successful claim to the throne by him was vanishingly small. At the age of 15, Dilip Singh was despatched to Britain. To keep him company, the young son of the Late Maharaja Sher Singh also came along. Dilip became a godson of Queen Victoria. In 1861, Maharani Jindan, Dilip’s mother was allowed to join him in England. She died there two years later. Dilip brought her ashes back to India.
Gulab Singh Dogra, a magnate of the Sikh court, benefited the most from the fall of the Sikh Empire. In 1846, after a large part of the Punjab was hived off by the British, the governor general invested him with the title to the Kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir. A hundred years later, at the time of the partition of India, his grandson, Hari Singh decided to accede to India. This led to a perennial conflict between the successor states of India and Pakistan. This thorny issue is still unresolved and remains a danger to regional and world peace.
The new government of the Punjab included two brothers, called Henry and John Lawrence. John Lawrence was entrusted with the custody of the Koh-i-Noor. He put it in his coat pocket and forgot all about it. Fortunately his servant had kept the box containing the diamond in a safe place, thinking that it was a piece of glass. Lord Dalhousie took it upon himself to transport the diamond from Lahore to Bombay. It was sewn into a two layered belt which Lord Dalhousie wore around his neck. According to Lord Dalhousie, he never parted company with it, till he deposited it in the official repository in Bombay.
Two army officers were charged with taking the diamond to England, on board the ship HMS Medea. When the ship neared Mauritius, there was an outbreak of cholera on board. The port officials declined them permission to dock. They were asked to depart immediately on the pain of artillery bombardment. Soon after, they ran into a fearsome sea storm which lasted for twelve hours. Ultimately they reached Plymouth and then disembarked at Portsmouth. The two officers took the diamond straight to the East India House and handed it over to the company director. On 3rd of July 1850, it was presented to Queen Victoria in Buckingham Palace.
The British Museum wanted to make a replica of the Koh-i-Noor. It was therefore removed from its frame to be weighed. It weighed 186 carats. During the reign of Shah Jahan, the French traveller Tavernier had written that it weighed 279 carats. There was a pang of doubt that the wily Punjabis may have duped the British Crown by palming off a fake. However, these fears proved to be unfounded.
In 1851, Koh-i-Noor was displayed in the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace. People came in droves and it was the most popular exhibit. There was a general feeling that the fabled diamond did not live up to the expectations of the visitors. His Royal Highness, Prince Albert, the Prince Consort, expressed similar views. He consulted various experts and it was decided that the diamond should be re-cut.
A Dutch company was commissioned with the delicate task. Their artisans were invited to Garrard’s, the Queen’s personal jeweller on Panton Street. On this premises, over a period of 38 days and with an expense of £8,000, the Koh-i-Noor was cut again. As a consequence, the weight of the diamond was reduced to 109 carats. It was given 66 sides, which gave it an enhanced brilliance.
It seems that the Queen felt a bit uneasy about the diamond and deigned to give it back to Dilip Singh. However, Dilip Singh returned it, after having admired its new found lustre. The Koh-i-Noor found a place in various crowns of Queen Victoria and Queen Mary. In 1937, it was put in the crown of Elizabeth, later, the Queen Mother, on the occasion of the coronation of her husband, King George VI. This is where it still remains. The Queen Mother died in 2002 and her crown, with the Koh-i-Noor was displayed in her funeral cortege. This caused angst in India and Pakistan, as it was considered in bad taste to flaunt the colonial loot.
When Dilip was returning to England in 1864, after depositing his mother’s ashes in Bombay, (he was not allowed to go to Lahore), he met and later married Bamba Müller, in Egypt. She was of mixed German and Abyssinian descent. They had 10 children, out of which six survived to adulthood. Of these, perhaps the most prominent was the Princess Sophia Dilip Singh who was a key leader in the Suffragette Movement. She also campaigned for the right of the British women to contribute to the war effort in the First World War. She herself helped as a Red Cross nurse, to the astonishment of the Sikh soldiers, wounded on the Western Front.
Another daughter, Princess Bamba Dilip Singh came to Lahore with her Hungarian friend, Marie Antoinette Gottesman. Bamba married Colonel DW Sutherland, the principal of the King Edward Medical College. Her friend married Umrao Singh Shergill Majithia, a Sikh aristocrat. They had a daughter called Amrita Sher-Gill, who became one of the foremost painters of modern India.
Princess Bamba continued to live in Lahore, the capital of her grandfather’s Empire. She had a house in Model Town where she died in 1957 and is buried in the Christian Cemetery (Gora Qabristan).
In 1976, then prime minister of Pakistan Zulfikar Ali Bhutto wrote to Jim Callaghan, the British Prime Minister, demanding the return of the diamond, as it had been taken forcibly from Lahore. He wrote artfully that its return “would be symbolic of a new international equity strikingly different from the grasping, usurping temper of a former age”.
Needless to say, Her Majesty’s Government did not oblige. The archives released in 2006, however, reveal that the Callaghan government took the letter seriously, and drafted a well considered legal response. Similar requests made by India have also been rejected.
Recently, a writ petition has been submitted in the Lahore High Court, to advise the Government of Pakistan, to make efforts for the repatriation of Koh-i-Noor. The court is currently examining the Treaty of Lahore, 1849. The case continues.
The author is a physician, currently working in the UK. Send him an e-mail on [email protected].
Published in The Express Tribune, May 22nd, 2016.
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