Queen Elizabeth II’s casket leaving Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, Scotland, on September 12, 2022. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The death of Queen Elizabeth II, at age 96 and after 70 years on the British throne, and the accession of Charles III as king, has revived a centuries old debate about some of the country’s Crown Jewels, and in particular the Kohinoor Diamond, which was brought to London from India during the reign of the late monarch’s great grandmother, Queen Victoria.
The demand to return the legendary gem is not of recent vintage. But, still, within just hours of the news of Elizabeth’s death at Balmoral Castle in Scotland on September 8, 2022, the word “Kohinoor” started trending on Indian Twitter.
One tweet noted that the Kohinoor “was stolen” by the British, who “created wealth” from “death,” “famine” and “looting,” and another stated that “If the King is not going to wear Kohinoor, give it back.”
While a formal request from the Indian government has not been issued to date, there have been calls upon Prime Minister Narendra Modi and president Droupadi Murmu to make such a demand.
It is very unlikely that the 105-carat oval-shaped Kohinoor will ever be worn by the new English king. This is because it currently is set in the Queen Mother’s Crown, the largest of the 2,800 stones set in the headpiece. If it worn at all in the coming years, the most likely person to do so will be the Queen Consort, Camilla, the second wife of Charles III.
INDIA DEMANDS, BUT BRITAIN REFUSES
India is not the only country to have laid claim to the Kohinoor. Other include Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
But India’s claim has been the most persistent, for it was there that the diamond was mined, in what today is State of Andhra Pradesh. Discovered during the 12th Century to 14th Century Kakatiyan dynasty, it was said to have been 793 carats before being cut.
Two of the more recent times that the Kohinoor’s return was formally demanded by the Indians was in 1947, when the country gained its independence from Britain, and in 1953, when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned.
But, in 2000, several members of the Indian Parliament signed a letter calling for the diamond to be given back to India. Britain then responded tersely, saying that a variety of claims made it impossible to establish the diamond’s original owner, and in any case it had been part of Britain’s heritage for more than 150 years.
In July 2010, while visiting India, the then-British Prime Minister David Cameron referred to requests about returning the diamond by saying “If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. I am afraid to say, it is going to have to stay put.”
An 1856 portrait of of Queen Victoria by the German painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter. She is wearing a brooch set with the Kohinoor diamond. (Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.)
In April 2016, the Indian Culture Ministry stated it would make “all possible efforts” to arrange the return of the Kohinoor to India, although the then-Solicitor General of India stated that it had been “given voluntarily by Ranjit Singh to the British as compensation for help in the Sikh Wars. The Koh-i-Noor is not a stolen object.”
The Kohinoor is a one of a large number of a treasures that fell into Britain’s hands during the days that it led a colonial empire. Another is the Elgin Marbles, which were looted from Greece and can be seen today in the British Museum. More recently, Britain did return to Nigeria the 72 Benin Bronzes, which has been seized by British forces during the 19th Century.
The Kohinoor Diamond set in in the front cross of Queen Mary’s Crown. (Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)
CHANGING HAND AND CROWNS
The Kohinoor changed hands many times from the time of its discovery. Having been in the possession of the Kakatiyan dynasty after being mined, it is known to have been held by Mughals in the 16th century, and thereafter was seized first by the Persians and then the Afghans.
The Sikh Maharajah, Ranjit Singh, returned the diamond to to India after taking it from Afghan leader Shah Shujah Durrani, but it fell into British hands in the 1840s during the annexation of Punjab, when the East India Company forced the 10-year-old Maharajah Dunjeep Singh to surrender lands and possessions.
The Kohinoor was presented to Queen Victoria on July 1850 at Buckingham Palace by the deputy chairman of the East India Company. Ayear later was shown to the public at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, London, as a symbol of the might of the British Empire.
The diamond at the time had 169 facets, but after consulting with mineralogists, Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, decided that the stone should be repolished. A 66-facet diamond was the result, with the weight of the stone reduced from 186 old carats (or 191 modern carats) to its current 105.6 carats.
The newly-cut Kohinoor stone was mounted in a honeysuckle brooch and a circlet worn by the queen, and was not part of the Crown Jewels at the time. Queen Victoria was said to be uneasy about the way it had been acquired.
But, following the death of Queen Victoria, the Kohinoor was set in the crown of the new Queen consort, Alexandra, the wife of King Edward VII, and it was used at their coronation in 1902. It was transferred to Queen Mary’s Crown in 1911, and to the Queen Mother’s Crown in 1937. When she died in 2002, it was placed on top of her coffin for the lying-in-state and funeral.
All these crowns are today on display among the British Crown Jewels in the Tower of London, although there are crystal replicas of the Kohinoor in the older two crowns. Also can be seen a glass model of what the Kohinoor looked like when it was first brought to the United Kingdom.