The palace is dripping in diamonds, so why bring out the disputed Koh-i-noor? | Catherine Bennett

The jewel in the last queen consort’s crown was plundered from India. Camilla doesn’t have to wear it

On 3 July 1850, Queen Victoria was visited by two members of the East India Company. They wanted to give her something recently prised off Duleep Singh, the boy maharaja of Lahore. “They delivered up to me,” she recorded, “with a short speech, the celebrated Koh-i-noor, the largest diamond in the world.” She wasn’t mad about it: “Unfortunately it is not set ‘à jour’, & badly cut, which spoils the effect.”

The diamond went off to the Great Exhibition, where visitors also regretted the unsparkliness of a stone that had been described when it was carried off as “the historical emblem of conquest in India”. The Illustrated London News said: “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.”

If the slighted diamond is now getting its due, as a “fabulous” centrepiece on one of the royal crowns, “one of the grandest and most valuable gemstones in the world”, according to Professor Robert Tombs, then thanks are due in particular to the royal traditionalists currently alerting the public to the potential offensiveness of its appearance at Charles’s coronation. They seem to have been the first – albeit from a protective perspective – to recognise that a stone that might have looked acceptable on the Queen Mother’s head in the Britain of 1937 would look utterly indefensible on Camilla’s, next May. Its return has been sought, after all, since India’s independence; in a climate now more friendly towards cultural restitution, the exhibition of a jewel described by its curators (at the Tower of London) as a “symbol of conquest” could easily be mistaken for crass provocation.

While a claimed threat to its appearance from a museum-purging “motley crew of woke obsessives” appears, at this point, to be a routine, imaginary stage in an attempted culture war, it has certainly spared the “woke mob” (Professor Tombs again) the trouble of alerting the public to the dismal details of the Koh-i-noor’s acquisition. Had it not been for recent extravagant claims for the stone’s contribution to British life, many people could easily have imagined that it was decently obtained, rather than extracted from a coerced child whom the East India Company had separated from his mother.

In fact, it was thanks to Tombs’s romantic account of the young Singh’s determination to personally hand the diamond to Queen Victoria that I learned that it was presented to her, as above, by the East India Company. It was four years before the boy came to England and informally gave her the (re-cut and smaller) stone after being asked if he would like to see it again. Lady Login, an appointed guardian, recorded: “It was to me one of the most excruciatingly uncomfortable quarters-of-an-hour that I ever passed! … seeing him stand there turning and turning the stone about in his hands, as if unable to part with it again, now he had it once more in his possession!”

Camilla, since she’d be wearing it, might want to bear in mind that Singh later called Victoria “Mrs Fagin”, after Dickens’s receiver of stolen goods. The more you discover, prompted by Tombs, about the status of the Koh-i-noor, the more it makes the Parthenon removals look almost legit – and they’d been identified as vandalism by 1811.

Already, in what must be the easiest victory in the history of woke-mobbery, the palace is said to be considering other crowns: disappointing for Charles, who reportedly minds about his consort wearing Singh’s surrendered jewel. But massive old crowns, as testified in every photograph, are hard enough to pull off at the best of times; a faintly less preposterous, pillage-free version could be the ideal way to bring about that oxymoron he is also said to want, a modern coronation. Along with other diadems, many hardly worn, the couple have the option of putting something less embarrassing where the Koh-i-noor now sits, in a crown made for the Queen Mother in 1937.

As with the Queen’s funeral, at which the gun carriage-dragging ritual turned out to have originated in 1901, recent attempts to kindle Koh-i-noor hostilities have underlined the incredible youthfulness of many cherished royal traditions. The traditional royal grandchild vigil (shorter than many a wait for the 43 to Friern Barnet) seems to date, for instance, all the way back to the Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002.

The Koh-i-noor’s relatively hallowed role in three 20th-century coronations allows its possible absence from the next one – for no better reason than its association with some of the most shaming episodes in British history – to be portrayed as an unconscionable crime against custom, of which only those who hate their country and wish to empty every single one of its museums would be capable.

What next, after “rushing down a slippery slope”, as Koh-i-noor loyalists portray Camilla forced to wear a different crown? Will successful exclusion of this diamond prompt the woke mob to demand the removal of the Cullinan diamond from the sceptre to which it was attached as anciently as 1910? Actually, since no black South Africans were involved in that donation it doesn’t seem like a terrible idea to put the sceptre back to how it was when commissioned for the restoration, its predecessor having been melted down in 1649. Though that might mean forfeiting another pair of clunking “chips” from the original Cullinan stone, which the Queen liked to wear as a brooch.

An enhanced appreciation of the royals’ Smaug-like treasure trove is a further benefit of this attempted cultural skirmish, though not necessarily for champions of the Koh-i-noor. Out of all the available bling, what makes the most obviously objectionable the perfect coronation choice?

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

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Catherine Bennett

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