They Stole it from Us

April 6th, 1850. The paddle sloop HMS Medea slipped away from its mooring in the
port of Calcutta and began the long journey to its home port of Portsmouth, England. The charter was unusual, for the ship carried but two passengers: Captain Ramsay and Lt.Colonel Mackeson, both soldiers in the employ of the East India Company and aides to the Governor General of the Company’s Empire in India, Lord Dalhousie. In addition to their personal effects, the men carried with them a single, innocuous dispatch box that presumably contained dispatches from Dalhousie to his board of directors in London. It was uncommon for Her Majesty’s Navy to be deployed on what appeared to be mundane Company business, for the Company had vessels aplenty of its own. What the Medea’s skipper, Captain Lockyer, did not know was that Lord Dalhousie had specifically asked the British Admiralty for the loan of a warship to carry this very particular cargo. Though no doubt curious about their odd assignment, Lockyer and his men could at least content themselves with the prospect of a summer voyage considerably more relaxed than their spring, which they had spent fighting pirates off the coast of Hong Kong.  

The Medea did not reach Portsmouth until June 29th, where it docked in an isolated quay with little fanfare. The voyage had been more eventful than anyone had anticipated, for the ship had nearly met its fate in the Indian Ocean. About a third of the way into the journey, cholera had broken out on board and killed two sailors. Fortunately for the crew, the ship had been on the approach to the island of Mauritius, a British possession, and a crucial supply halt on the India route. But the Mauritians were terrified that the deadly cholera might jump ship onto land and refused to let the Medea birth. They demanded that the Medea leave immediately, which Lockyer flatly refused to do. Irked, they petitioned the island’s Governor to have the ship sunk, men and all. Tensions ran high, but eventually Lockyer had his way and loaded the Medea with fresh clean water, which miraculously banished fresh incidents of cholera from the ship. The Medea left Mauritius with generally better health and fresh food, only to sail directly into the storms that bedevil the environs of The Cape of Good Hope. Its crew battled gale force winds for nearly twelve hours before finally managing to get away.

The relief of the Medea’s crew and passengers at their narrow escape was magnified soon after arriving at Portsmouth, when the contents of the mysterious dispatch box were finally revealed. In the dispatch box was a small iron chest with two locks whose only keys were on the person of Col. Mackeson. Inside the chest sat a solitary stone. It was the Koh-i-Noor, the fabled Mountain of Light. It had been sent to England as a gift from the East India Company to its sovereign, Queen Victoria.

The Company had won the 186 carat diamond by force of arms. In 1849, it had confiscated the behemoth from the twelve year old Maharajah of the Punjab, Duleep Singh. The famed jewel was not all that Duleep had had to surrender. The blood soaked Second Anglo-Sikh War had resulted in the annexation of the Punjab and its 4 million citizens into the Company’s Empire. The powerful kingdom of the Punjab, built by the brilliant Maharajah Ranjit Singh, had crumbled a mere 10 years after his death, victim to the greed, pettiness and intrigue of his worthless successors. The Company, under the imperialist Dalhousie, had stepped in and picked up the valuable pieces. Ironically, the Punjab, like the rest of the British Empire in India, had been won for the British chiefly by Indians. Though lead by British officers and laced with British regiments, the wars of the East India Company were fought and won by an Army made up primarily of sepoys (sipahis) – native soldiers.

The Koh-i-Noor had always been a prize of war. Though its origins are shrouded in mystery, the diamond had certainly been discovered in the mines of Golconda, the sole source of the stones in the world until the 18th century. It passed from hand to hand, and came to obsess any that possessed it. Among its most illustrious owners was the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, then arguably the richest monarch in the world, which one would have to be in order to absorb the immense expenditure of state funds necessary for the construction of a mausoleum named The Taj Mahal. The jewel remained in the Mughal treasury until 1739, when it fell into the hands of the Persian conqueror Nadir Shah, and acquired its present name. Nadir Shah was in the midst of the bloody sack of Delhi, massacring thousands and looting the priceless imperial Mughal treasure – a treasure that the Mughal Empire had accumulated over two hundred years, by, in part, looting the rest of India. It is said that despite being surrounded by the fabulous hoard of gold and jewels, Nadir Shah was so overwhelmed by the diamond’s size, weight and brilliant light that he exclaimed in his native Persian: Koh-i-Noor, Mountain of Light!

The diamond did not remain Nadir’s for long, as he was murdered by his own men in 1747. The diamond made its way to Afghanistan, and from thence to Ranjit Singh in the Punjab. Ranjit Singh was so enamored of the Koh-i-noor that he never let it out of sight. He even had it mounted on his bridle, so that he could admire (and guard) it while taking the long rides he loved.

The legend of the Koh-i-Noor owes much to the travelers, courtiers, ambassadors and common people who wrote, spoke and sang of its beauty. The giant stone was often in plain sight wherever its owners went, shining on royal turban, crown and in Ranjit Singh’s case, a singularly stunning bracelet. But never in its history had the diamond been in actual peril, for none who came under its sway would willingly harm it – until its voyage on the Medea, when it nearly ended up at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.

Today, the Koh-i-Noor is not the giant it once was. It lost nearly 40% of its weight when it was re-cut by the Victorians to enhance its brilliance. At 108 carats, it is neither the largest nor the the most beautiful diamond in the world. It sits in the Tower of London in the company of the British Crown Jewels, where it is admired in passing by millions of tourists, most of whom know little of its history or mystique. Except for the tourists with Indian passports, who point at it as they go by and sometimes mutter: They stole it from us.

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