by Amit Roy
ROYAL EXHIBITION TRACES HISTORY OF THE KOHINOOR
A NEW exhibition at London’s Kensington Palace, Victoria Revealed, shows how closely the histories of Britain and India are intertwined.
This will run for the rest of 2018, but next year there will be much more on Queen Victoria because May 24, 2019, will mark the 200th anniversary of her birth.
It is worth remembering that on January 1, 1877, Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservative prime minister, gave in to Queen Victoria’s insistent demands and proclaimed her “Empress of India”. India had come under direct rule from Whitehall after the 1857 First War of Indian Independence, supplanting the East India Company as the ultimate authority in India.
This bound India even more tightly to Britain, whose first world status derives substantially from the untold wealth it extracted from “the jewel in the Crown”, most fair-minded historians would concede.
Visitors to Kensington Palace can walk through the room where Princess Victoria was born (with important witnesses present to attest this was a royal birth); where she played with her dolls’ house and her toys; and the Red Salon where she met 97 of her privy councillors on becoming Queen at the age of 18 in 1837.
The star of the exhibition is probably a matching suite of jewels given to her by her husband Prince Albert, comprising “a magnificent diamond and emerald diadem, emerald necklace, earrings and brooch”.
Justin Roberts, a jewellery specialist at Sotheby’s, said: “After 25 years in the jewellery business I have not seen a collection of emeralds of that quality.”
Until 1720, diamonds had been sourced from India, and after that from South Africa and Brazil, while Colombia supplied the emeralds, Roberts told Eastern Eye.
Also displayed is “the majestic Fife tiara, given to Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Princess Louise on her wedding day”.
The link between Victoria and India is directly established with the Kohinoor diamond, which the Queen is shown wearing as a brooch in an 1856 painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, who was probably her favourite court artist.
Victoria sat for the oval half-length portrait on May 2, 3, 5, 6 and 8, 1856, and admitted in her diary that Winterhalter “has done really a fine picture of me, & very life like”.
“She had been keeping a diary since the age of 13,” explained Deirdre Murphy, senior curator at Kensington Palace.
Despite the passage of time, many in India still consider the Kohinoor to be stolen property. The BBC journalist, Anita Anand, who has co-authored a book on the “mountain of light” with William Dalrymple, joked that it should remain part of the Crown jewels in the Tower of London, “but with a police tape around it to denote the scene of the crime”.
It is perhaps not rational to judge the events of one and-a-half centuries ago by the moral standards of today. The chances are that had the British not given the Kohinoor to Victoria in 1850 following the annexation of the Punjab, it might well have been lost to history.
In its uncut form, the diamond failed to impress when shown in the Great Exhibition of London in 1851, when, according to The Times, it resembled “a piece of common glass” to the common man. Albert then spent £8,000 on producing a sparking diamond but in the process reducing its weight from 186 carats to 106.
When Victoria died in 1901, she had been on the throne for 63 years, the country’s longest serving monarch, until she was eclipsed two years ago by Queen Elizabeth II.
Victoria, in many ways a radical queen who would not tolerate racism in her own court, never visited India but her reign coincided with cataclysmic changes – some good, many bad – in India.
These will probably be dealt with in exhibitions next year.