Scrolls & Leaves | The curse of the Koh-i-Noor

Scrolls & Leaves | The curse of the Koh-i-Noor

With the Koh-i-Noor strapped to his arm, the 'Lion of Punjab' was the final stand against the British East India Company

Sikh noblemen on horses in 1858 by Alexis Soltykoff. Credit: Scrolls and Leaves

Maharaja Ranjit Singh was among the last Indian kings to hold off the British in the 19th century. In 2020, he was voted the world’s greatest leader of all time by the BBC World Histories Magazine. He was nominated by a panel of historians as a powerful leader who was a “positive force on humanity,” and voted as “greatest” by readers. African freedom fighter Amílcar Cabral and former British prime minister Winston Churchill came in second and third, respectively. 

In the late 1700s, the Afghans ruled the northwest of the Indian subcontinent. In 1799, Singh conquered Lahore and took over. He was crowned the King of Punjab two years later. At its peak, the Sikh Empire stretched from the Khyber Pass in present-day Afghanistan down to the Thar Desert in Rajasthan. Singh was a diplomat and entered into strategic alliances with the British East India Company, which limited their expansion to the borders of the Sutlej River. 

He was known for being a wise king and much loved by his subjects. People of all faiths could expect fair treatment in his kingdom, according to Mohamed Sheik, author of Emperor of the Five Rivers.

The maharaja ruled for 40 years, and entered into a treaty of friendship with the Company to limit its influence to the borders of the Sikh Empire. But Singh did not put in place a strong succession plan. Upon his death in 1839, his many heirs began fighting for the throne. Finally, only one was left -- 5-year-old Duleep Singh, crowned in 1843. The East India Company saw its chance, flouted the friendship treaty and moved in. After two bloody Anglo-Sikh wars, the Company took over the kingdom and its vast treasury, which included the legendary Koh-i-Noor diamond. 

The Company presented the diamond to Queen Victoria, and it is now part of the British crown jewels.

Listen to the story of Ranjit Singh and the Koh-i-Noor in Episode 3, The Curse of the Koh-i-Noor on Scrolls & Leaves, a world history podcast that re-tells histories from South Asian perspectives. This story is about the diamond and its last Indian owners, and an example of the treachery through which the British extracted India’s wealth. 
 

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox