Queen Victoria Posts

Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond

( My review of William Dalrymple’s and Anita Anand’s magnificent book on the Kohinoor diamond was published in Bookwitty. )

Kohinoor, co-authored by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, is about one of the most famous gems in history.Koh-i-noor or “Mountain of Light” is the ninetieth biggest diamond in the world, but its fame far surpasses any other technically superior and bigger diamond. This could be attributed to the rapidly growing price of diamonds worldwide in the early and mid-19th century. Some centuries ago, the Koh-i-noor was mined from the Guntur diamond mines, Andhra Pradesh, India.

According to the writers,

“in the seventeenth century European jewellers had established a slight technological edge over their Mughal rivals. There are frequent references to emperors and other Indian rulers sending gems via the Jesuits to be cut in Goa, or even in the European merchant colony in Aleppo…. [But] there is simply no certain reference to the Koh-i-Noor in any Sultanate or Mughal source, despite a huge number of textual references to outsized and hugely valuable diamonds appearing throughout Indian history, particularly towards the climax of Mughal rule. Some of these may well refer to the Koh-i-Noor, but lacking sufficiently detailed descriptions, it is impossible to be certain.”

As the legend was slowly established, battles were fought and horrendous atrocities were committed in the search for the gem, which was rumoured to be exquisite, but which was in fact was a dull beauty. This became apparent when Prince Albert displayed the jewel at the Great Exhibition (1851) only to discover it lacked lustre. Unfortunately as the Illustrated London News wrote:

A diamond is generally colourless, and the finest are quite free from any speck or flaw of any kind, resembling a drop of the purest water. The Koh-i-Noor is not cut in the best form for exhibiting its purity and lustre, and will therefore disappoint many, if not all, of those who so anxiously press forward to see it.

So Prince Albert tried a few tricks to make this magnificent jewel glitter as a diamond should while representing the exotic British Empire in the East, and as a prime trophy of the British military prowess expanding its territories in India. He enclosed the gem in a wooden cabin, shutting out all natural light that streamed through the glass roof and windows of the Crystal Palace. It enabled the gas lamps and mirrors placed to do their work far more efficiently and with the gem placed on an extraordinary velvet cloth, it glittered and shone. The Koh-i-Noor was given state-of-the-art security for there was quite a crush of people who came to see it on display.

Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond - Image 2

In the fascinatingly detailed history recounted in Kohinoor, the exquisite diamond had been embedded in Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s legendary Peacock Throne, a war trophy collected by Nadir Shah during his sack of Delhi. It was later worn as an amulet by Maharajah Ranjit Singh, until it was finally handed over by his ten-year-old son, Maharajah Duleep Singh, to Queen Victoria under the Treaty of Lahore.

It was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Crystal Palace in a special space created by Prince Albert, influencing Victorian writers to include Indian diamonds in their plots (as in Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s Lothair). Queen Victoria wore it as a brooch. It was cut further from 190.3 metric carats to 93 metric carats for it to be installed in the British Crown. It was worn by Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII, at her coronation in 1902. Since then, it has acquired the myth that it is cursed and can never be worn by a reigning monarch or a man. The last time the gem was seen in public was in 2002 at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, when her crown, with the Koh-i-Noor as its centrepiece, was placed on her coffin.

Kohinoor has been structured with the first half recounting centuries of the gem’s turbulent history written by William Dalrymple. It is packed with the historical details, facts and figures, and magnificent descriptions that are to be expected in Dalrymple’s storytelling, including an account of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s funeral, where his wives committed sati.

Afterward, the narrative is picked up by journalist Anita Anand (who also wrote the magnificent biography of Duleep Singh’s daughter, Sophia). In the second half of Kohinoor, Anita Anand maintains the brisk pace of narration set by Dalrymple, but adds a sensitive, gendered dimension, best shown in the nuanced portrait of the 26 year-old widow of Ranjit Singh, Rani Jindan, mother and regent of Duleep Singh. Both writers are clear they want to be as factually accurate as possible and demystify some of the myth surrounding the Koh-i-Noor, especially the fabulous story Tom Metcalfe created for the diamond in the mid-19th century.

In fact, the Koh-i-Noor’s foggy history reared its head again recently,

“on 16 April 2016, the Indian Solicitor General, Ranjit Kumar, told the Indian Supreme Court that the Koh-i-Noor was given freely to the British in the mid 19th century by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and had been ‘neither stolen nor forcibly taken by British rulers.’ This was by any standards a strikingly unhistorical statement, all the odder given that the facts of its surrender to Lord Dalhousie in 1849 are about the one aspect of the diamond’s history not in dispute. In the recent past, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and even the Taliban have also laid claim to the gem, and asked for its return.”

Kohinoor is an immensely readable account of a famous gem.

14 February 2017 

Anita Anand, “Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary”

Sophia Duleep SinghAs far as her place in history is concerned, Sophia was perhaps her own worst enemy. She never sought glory and disliked speaking in public. Before her death, when asked to contribute to her entry in Who’s Who, Sophia Duleep Singh’s was one of the briefest in the book. Under ‘interests’ she wrote just one line: ‘The Advancement of Women’.  (p.378)

Sophia Duleep Singh was the granddaughter of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, SherePunjab, The Lion of the Punjab.  He was the king who was crowned Maharajah or supreme king, of the new Sikh Empire. It was his empire that Queen Victoria wanted …and got, along with the Kohinoor diamond.  His son, Duleep Singh, was an infant when his father died. His mother was appointed regent but by the time he was fourteen he had moved to the court of Queen Victoria in London. For the rest of his life, except for a couple of visits to India, he remained abroad. Sophia Duleep Singh was born in 1876 to a family that was very well off, except their fortunes declined quite rapidly thereafter. Duleep Singh was frittered away their fortunes, their possessions were auctioned and he abandoned his family for his mistress and moved to Paris. Despite all this, Sophia was well provided for. Her godmother was Queen Victoria.

The few years she spent as being extremely popular on the social circuit, ordering her dresses in the latest fashion from Paris and breeding dogs, especially Pomeranians in the grace and favour apartment Sophia had been given at Hampton Court by her godmother. Then she made her first trip to India. It was a turning point for her. Upon her return she set up the Lascar’s Club where more than 5,000 lascars availed of the facilities. But it was with the Women’s Society for Social and Political Union, a suffragist group, that she became the fierce feminist she was. She refused to pay taxes, marched to Parliament and did not take part in the census, all the time demanding equal rights and vote for women. She part of many violent incidents involving the police and the suffragettes but remained unafraid. Later she moved to the countryside, taking in war evacuees during World War II and died there in 1948.

Anita Anand is a seasoned journalist who has a big advantage in writing this biography — collecting and verifying facts for a story. She has spent a long time researching, speaking to people, including those who knew Sophia, and reading documents in the British Library. To piece together a woman’s life is never easy since there is always a paucity of information. Yet Sophia Duleep Singh  left a paper trail but till now little had been really said or documented about her life or even her involvement in the suffragette movement unlike Emily Pankhurst. Hence Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary is a remarkable achievement of using reliable existing information, verifying it and then putting it together into a coherent narrative. There are moments when the book could have been edited a bit more since Sophia does not really mark her presence in the book till p.168. ( Here is a reviewer who could not read beyond p.175: http://www.dailyo.in/art-and-culture/sophia-dileep-singh-how-to-torture-the-reader/story/1/1319.html ) Till then it is fascinating in its account of Sikh history but a little cumbersome when it comes to retelling of details about their life in the English countryside and of the young princes and princesses, then the narrative takes off once more. It is as if the author is a little concerned about yoking together all that she has unearthed in her research rather than leave anything out. There were moments when I was dipping into A. N. Wilson’s Queen Victoria ( 2014) to understand facts of this Indian princess’s biography, especially for the period set in the nineteenth century. Having said that Anita Anand has put together a fine biography of a women little understood till now.

Anita Anand Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary Bloomsbury, 2015. 

26 January 2015

A. N. Wilson, “Victoria: A Life”

A. N. Wilson, “Victoria: A Life”

image002“…she kept a gimlet eye on foreign affairs and on domestic politics throughout, even at her lowest moments of despair. But the diurnal tedium of her life, which drove courtiers to distraction, is in itself a very remarkable fact. Apart from being the Queen, she had done so very little. It is one of the things which make her such a completely fascinating figure for a biographer, since she compels us to concentrate upon her, rather than upon her deeds. The tempting thing, when trying to make sense of any human life, whether famous or obscure, is to concentrate upon outward activities. Queen Victoria does not allow us to do that, since, apart from being an expert in watercolours and a fairly avid reader of popular fiction, she did not really ‘do’ anything: certainly not in the second half of her life. What a poet of her times once called ‘those years and years of world without event’ made up her drama. So, as well as her life being that of her own times, as must be the case of a monarch in her position, her life was also that of the inner woman, of whom — from the letters and the journals — we have a vivid sense.” 

(p.553 )

A. N. Wilson’s Queen Victoria: A Life, is the first authorised biography of the Queen. This has been written with permission granted to A. N. Wilson by Queen Elizabeth II to access documents, journals, letters, etc related to Queen Victoria. It is a detailed account of Queen Victoria, with a fine balance achieved between giving a personal history combined with the socio-political events of the time. With a historian, novelist and a fine scholar of the Victorian period such as A.N. Wilson writing this account, it is fascinating. For instance when discussing Queen Victoria’s journals, he says: “She began her journals, when aged thirteen, in the momentous year of the Reform Bill becoming law; she makes no allusion to it, any more than Jane Austen, in her novels, alluded to the Napoleonic Wars.” ( p.63)

Queen Victoria straddles a period in history that was a watershed moment for science, technology, social reform, literature, and politics. Her grandfather’s reign was synonymous with the loss of the colonies in America, but by the time she died in 1901, the British Empire was said to be so vast that the sun never set on it and had been crowned Empress of India. When the queen was attending her first Drawing Room, Charles Darwin was on board The Beagle, headed towards the Galapagos Islands. For her coronation, 28 June 1838, “the crowds were huge. Railways had brought an unprecedented numbers into the capital.” (p.86) During her reign, her husband, Prince Albert organised the Great Exhibition in London ( 1851). –“the largest the world had ever seen, as demonstration of industrial design and expertise”. A fabulous description of the planning involved and range of exhibits at the fair– exhibits from India, snowshoes from Canada, gas fittings, brass bedsteads, buttons, needles and agricultural machinery from a new English countryside, photography, iron works, statues and ceramics, steam engines, globes and clocks, French silks, a model of the Niagara Falls and a mass of zinc from America weighing 16,400 pounds, four decorated rooms from Vienna and a fountain which spurted eau-de-cologne… . “By the time the cheaper rates had been fixed only 200,000 people had attended, but the multitudes soon came – some 6 million visitors before the Exhibiton closed.” And a profit of £200,000 had been made.   ( A friend on Facebook told me when I posted this information as a status, her great grandmother went  from India by ship to attend it!)

For the first time there is insight on the Prince Consort, Prince Albert and the influence he wielded in court, over Victoria, in politics, science, and as a patron of the Arts. “When he was dead, Victoria found herself making lists of all the things Albert had been good at — his construction of the beautiful new dairy at Windsor, the laying out of the superb kitchen gardens, the brilliance at the piano, the musical compositions, the building up of the royal art collection, the Great Exhibition of 1851, the creation of the Royal Horticultural Garden, the Kensington Museums, the foundation of Wellington College… And there was all his political involvement, both in Germany and in Britain. This was not to mention his productive work as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, his programmes of social housing in Kennington, his fascination with scientific discovery, and his wide reading in contemporary literature and in philosophy.” (p.218-9) Throughout the book there are details of Prince Albert’s meticulous planning, sharp political moves, his active participation in England and yet, for most of his life he was perceived as a foreigner, who had come from Germany just as the other two notable Germans now living in England — Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Prince Albert’s sense that the social and economic injustices of the industrial towns of ‘England’ would lead to communism, meanwhile were shared by two young German exiles who arrived in England during the same year — Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Perhaps the three Germans — Albert, Marx and Engels — were in a better position to get a perspective on the British Isles than some of its longer-standing inhabitants. ( p.146) 

Queen Victoria has been the longest serving monarch in England ( 63 years and 7 months), mother of nine children and grandmother of forty-two and matriarch of Royal Europe, through the marriages of her children.When an authorised biography of a queen has been commissioned during the reign of another monarch, it is impossible not to compare the life written about with the present queen and her experiences. The fact that such a book has been published, allowing personal accounts of the royal family to be made public, making a realistic portrait as far as possible, including references to the scandal-prone Prince Eddy, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, the queen’s grandson. For instance, A. N. Wilson writes, “There was never any firm evidence that Eddy was bisexual, let alone homosexual, but he was the sort of man to whom scandalous stories stuck like burrs. ( In 1962, upon no evidence whatsoever, it was even claimed that he was Jack the Ripper.)” (p.488) Reporting such incidents of indiscretion amongst the members of the Royal family would have previously been unheard of, more so in a commissioned project such as this. Yet the inclusion of these episodes is also a reflection of the transformation the British monarchy has had to experience in the current reign of Queen Elizabeth II.  Dwelling upon Queen Victoria’s relationship with John Brown and her Munshi, would probably not have been permissible earlier. But now ample space, well-documented and researched, has been allotted to the significant presence these men had in the queen’s life.

Entrusting a historian with the task of writing a biography implies that there is attention paid to historical details. For instance in the references to the uprising of 1857, A. N. Wilson in his description brings together various lines of thought about how the incident is perceived — a mutiny or an uprising or “as the first rumblings of Indian nationalism, or merely localized expressions of outrage”. (p.213). As for Queen Victoria read the accounts with mounting disgust. There are plenty of examples of such historical accuracy throughout the book — Crimean War, Africa, Afghanistan, etc. Sure there are moments of hagiographical genuflections towards Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. While describing the portrait made of the couple by Brocky when they were twenty-two years old and had already started to have children, A. N. Wilson says “Brocky …immortalizes a couple who are mythological progenitors, like Abraham, the father of many nations”. (p.100) It presents the life of a queen as an twenty-first century reader would expect — a history, personal anecdotes contextualized by socio-historical events, with a strong focus on the queen as a woman too. It scorches rumours for instance of Queen Victoria’s paternity and how she came to be a carrier of Haemophilia. It introduces the Victorian Era to a modern reader, but at the same time forms an informed backdrop to an account of a formidable woman, who was much more than the dumpy woman, usually portrayed in her widow’s garb of a black dress and the white cap.

This is a biography worth reading. It raises the bar of how biographies should be written, with plenty of detail, without making it turgid to read.

Update ( 16 Oct 2014) 

The manuscript was read by a representative of the palace and commented upon. And the publishers had to have their permission to use all of the material which is subject to Royal Copyright.

 

A. N. Wilson Victoria: A Life Atlantic Books, London, 2014. Hb. pp. 580. Rs. 999 ( Distributed by Penguin Books India)