Koh-i-Noor Diamond: A Controversial Legacy of Colonialism 

Picture of a woman contemplating the Koh-i-Noor diamond in her hand
The 105 carat Koh-i-Noor was held by a string of Indian rulers before it was handed over to the East India Company CREDIT: AFP

The history of the Koh-i-Noor diamond has sparked heated debates. This diamond, one of the most infamous in the world, has a complex past, particularly concerning its possession by the British during their rule over India. Calls for restitution persist.

Its origins remain enigmatic, shrouded in myths and legends.  An initial hypothesis suggests that it was discovered 5,000 years ago in India. Numerous tales surround the diamond, with some ancient Hindu texts claiming that those who wear the jewel will be struck by misfortune:

« Only God, or a woman, can wear it with impunity »

An 12th century Indian script

The Mughal monarch Shah Jahan adorned his Peacock Throne with the diamond, which was later taken by Nadir Shah during the invasion of India in 1739. Both wore the stone and subsequently lost their territory and lives.

Where does the Koh-i-Noor come from ?

The 105.6-carat Koh-i-Noor diamond has passed through the hands of different dynasties and empires over the centuries, including the Mughals and Persians, before being “gifted” to Queen Victoria in 1849 by Duleep Singh, its last heir. In reality, under pressure from the British, this young Sikh ruler, who was only about ten years old, was brought to sign the Last Treaty of Lahore in March 1849. This treaty stipulated that the Koh-i-Noor and other jewels from the Punjab treasury would be handed over to the British East India Company. In exchange, Duleep Singh and his family were to receive an annual pension, and he would be allowed to live in England under British supervision. This history makes it difficult today to determine a legitimate owner and to fully trace the jewel’s historical journey, especially as borders have evolved over the centuries.

  • Queen Mary's Crown, G. Younghusband and C. Davenport, 1919, Wikimedia commons
  • Cover of the book entitled: « Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond »

A coveted gem

British royal women have worn the precious stone since 1887, and its value is now estimated between $200 and $591 million. The death of Queen Elizabeth II in September 2022 has reignited the debates surrounding the Koh-i-Noor diamond. Should it be returned to its rightful owners, and if so, who are they really?

The ethical question of the restitution of the Koh-i-Noor persists, with India, Pakistan, and the Taliban in Afghanistan all claiming ownership of the diamond. Unlike the return of artworks looted by the Nazis, the debate over colonial pillaged objects is complex, as most of the countries of origin no longer exist. Richard Kurin, Smithsonian’s first Distinguished Scholar declared:

« When the powerful take things from the less powerful, the powerless don’t have much to do except curse the powerful. »

Richard Kurin, Hope Diamond, The Legendary History of a Cursed Gem

Despite many calls for restitution, it is unlikely that the Koh-i-Noor will leave the British Crown Jewels in the short term, as there are no binding international rules that compel countries to return looted cultural property. The true history of the Koh-i-Noor could, however, raise new awareness about the consequences of colonialism. According to petitions for the diamond’s restitution to India, this act of voluntarily returning the Koh-i-Noor could partially help wash away the sins of Britain’s colonial past and “redeem” itself.

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