The Kohinoor’s predecessors from Madras

November 20, 2015 03:20 pm | Updated November 28, 2021 09:11 pm IST - Chennai

Sketch of Pitts diamond by Sir Charles Lawson of the Madras Mail Photo: Special Arrangement

Sketch of Pitts diamond by Sir Charles Lawson of the Madras Mail Photo: Special Arrangement

The Prime Minister’s recent visit to the United Kingdom set off speculations in social media as to whether India would demand the return of the Kohinoor diamond. Forgotten are several gems from Madras now scattered across the world, each with a history.

Elihu Yale, Governor of Madras in the 1680s, is believed to have cheated the King of Siam (now Thailand) of a huge sum of money, on the promise of delivering rubies of high quality. The money was paid, but when the stones reached the king, they were found to be inferior. Yale accused the ruler’s agents of substituting the gems he sent with cheap imitations, but tongues wagged about the sudden increase in his wealth thereafter. Nobody knows what happened to the originals, if they ever existed.

The bigger and better-documented story is that of Governor Thomas Pitt’s diamond. In 1700, a labourer in the Golconda mines came upon it and secreted it away in a bandage tied to his leg. What happened to him thereafter is not known, but the stone, weighing 426 carats, came into the possession of Ramchund, the biggest jeweller of this region. After some bargaining by Pitt, Ramchund sold the diamond to him for 48,000 pagodas, the rough equivalent of 24,000 pounds sterling. When later asked if he ought not to have purchased it on behalf of the East India Company, Pitt countered by stating that the directors frowned on trade in precious stones. He had earlier purchased a diamond weighing 58 carats and sent it to England, only to have the ship carrying it sink en route.

The second purchase was to prove luckier. It was despatched with his son Robert, arriving in England in 1703. But it was not until 1717 that Pitt found time to look for a buyer. The French Government eventually purchased the diamond for 125,000 pounds, the money coming in useful for two later Pitts to become Prime Ministers of England. The diamond, named The Regent, was set in Louis XV’s crown. It had a chequered history thereafter, but still remains with the French Government. Another diamond with a French connection was the Orloff, stolen from the Srirangam temple by a deserter from Dupleix’s army, sold to Prince Orloff and finally gifted by him to Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia.

The story of the smaller Pigot diamond is more mysterious. A ‘gift’ from either the Rajah of Tanjore or the Nawab of Arcot (he also sent Queen Charlotte five diamonds known as The Arcots), both of whom had reason to be beholden to Governor Pigot, it was willed to his sisters and brother. Sold to the firm Rundell and Bridge in 1800, it was bought by Ali Pasha, ruler of Albania for 30,000 pounds. It is said that he ordered the diamond to be crushed to pieces at his death, which was faithfully followed. Or was it? There is a theory that it still exists at Topkapi Palace, Istanbul.

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