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Should Britain return the Koh-i-noor diamond?

The Koh-i-noor diamond [1] left India for Britain in 1850 as loot following a Sikh uprising. Since then there have been many calls for it to be returned.

Times Blogs [2]

March 03, 2009
Should Britain give the Koh-i-noor back to India?

It was reported yesterday that a descendant of Mahatma Gandhi has asked Britain to return the Koh-i-noor diamond to India, thereby adding it to a list of treasures which the UK is under pressure to restore to their original homes – most notably the Elgin Marbles. This also comes in a week when France has been asked to send back two bronzes from the collection of Yves Saint Laurent to Beijing, where they were originally looted from the Summer Palace.

The Koh-i-noor is an interesting case because it seems that almost from the moment it arrived in the UK there were doubts about its ownership. It was brought here in 1850 after the defeat of an uprising by the Sikhs in the Punjab, and was initially greeted as fair booty of war in this jingoistic leading article:

Major Mackeson, passenger on Her Majesty’s steam sloop Medea, brings with him that famous diamond of the East called, in the fondness of Asiatic hyperbole, the Koh-i-noor, or Mountain of Light, which, after symbolizing the revolutions of ten generations by its passage from one conqueror to another, comes now, in the third centenary of its discovery, as the forfeit of Oriental faithlessness and the prize of Saxon valour, to the distant shores of England.

Contemporary reports pointed out the diamond’s peripatetic history, passing from one conquerer to another over 400-odd years:

… the “Mountain of light” passed in the train of conquest and as the emblem of dominion, from Golconda to Delhi, from Delhi to Mushed, from Mushed to Cabul, and from Cabul to Lahore … It was prudently secured among the few remaining valuables of the Lahore Treasury at the commencement of the last insurrection, and although even its nominal value would be an inadequate compensation for the cost of the Sikh wars, we may look upon its acquisition as a fitting symbol of that supremacy which we have so fairly won.

But very soon, as The Times reported, questions were asked about whether the diamond’s acquisition was entirely legal. The Punjab had been an independent state, acting as a buffer between the territories of the East India Company and hostile Afghanistan. After the two Sikh wars of the 1840s, as this 1862 report explains, it came under British rule:

It has been questioned whether the annexation of the Punjab was right or desirable … To put the case in a sentence, a Sikh protectorate was no longer possible. If there had ever been a day when a Khalsa kingdom might have been made a protection to our frontiers from the Afghan, that day had ceased when the Sikhs crossed the Sutlej … we had honestly tried our utmost to set a strong Sikh Power between us and Afghanistan … But this hope was gone when the Sirdars of the Regency invited the aid of the Ameer of Cabul, and bore with the violence and brutality of his troops to be rid of ours.
The keys of the north gates of India could not be left any longer with warders who had opened those gates to the foe, and the moralist, equally with the statesman, must approve their appropriation.

But did that rule entitle Britain to the Lahore treasure? In 1851, the Koh-i-noor took its place as a prize exhibit at the 1851 Great Exhibition, where

Fifty times at least every morning are questions asked as to the capture, sale, purchase, or conveyance of this priceless treasure. Nobody appears to know exactly how it passed from the jewel-room of Lahore to its present resting place – whether it became British property by seizure or forfeit, or whether it fell to the Queen by tribute or right.

Questions were asked in Parliament, and The Times summarised the discussion in this slightly inconclusive leading article:

Property captured in war may devolve by conventional regulations on the actual captors, on the force present in the field, on the whole army at large, on the General commanding, on the victorious State, or on its Sovereign. There are precedents for all these decisions. In the case of the Lahore jewels the circumstances were somewhat remarkable.

The battle of Sobraon in 1846 gave us possession of the Punjab, and if Lord Hardinge had marched from the banks of the Sutlej to the gates of Lahore and Umritsir in the guise of a conqueror, the treasures of these cities might have been considered as lawful prize-money. But we conceived our duties to have been accomplished by the defeat of the invaders, and were preparing to retire after having driven them into their own territories, when they earnestly desired us to occupy the Punjab in the capacity of protectors until order could be restored. This we consented to do, and though the Sikh capital was for that purpose garrisoned by British troops,its treasures remained in the possession of their original owners.

So stood matters till 1848, when, upon its becoming apparent that the Sikh chiefs were bent upon hostilities, the political agent at Lahore gave directions to the officer in command of the garrison to impound the Koh-i-noor – an order which was executed accordingly, without bloodshed or commotion. The property, in short, as Lord Ellenborough [Governor-General] justly phrases it, was “taken possession of”.

But was it thus constituted lawful prize? It was no part of the spoils either of a well-fought field or a captured city – it was property seized under a kind of embargo, and, indeed, it can hardly be said that at this particular period we were justified in asserting more than a precautionary lien upon these effects. The Lahore Government was still making professions of submission and amity, nor was it yet clear whether the insurrection was the deliberate work of the Sirdars in Council, or whether it was confined to the ambition of a single feudatory at Mooltan. Under these circumstances, though the property in question certainly passed into the “possession of Her Majesty’s forces and the troops of the East India Company during the late campaigns in the Punjab,” we think it may admit of doubt whether it became incontinently such “booty” as Lord Ellenborough would describe it.

But anyway, it was here now and having been presented to the Queen, could not be included in claims to recompense the Company for the cost of the war, or to pay the soldiers any special bounty. While its notional value was something like £2 million, the leader concluded that such a huge value could never realistically be redeemed and so:

The question of its disposal may have been a doubtful one, but nobody can regret the decision which transferred such a prize to the English Crown, and rendered it what it virtually is at present, the property of the British people for all purposes to which a sparkling bauble can be turned.

So what’s the answer? Does a trophy of war stay with the winner even if that war was one of colonial oppression? When Britain finally ceded independence, should all the booty of the Raj have been returned? How much is the Koh-i-noor a special case? Does its position in a British royal crown suggest continuing arrogance over our colonial past? If we return it, should we ask for our railways back?