Sunday, June 17, 2012

The great diamond robbery

Till the nineteenth century, India and Brazil were the only two countries where diamonds were found and mined. Bijapur and Golconda were the places which had an abundance of diamonds. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a French traveler and merchant, visited these parts in the seventeenth century and has written in detail about the mining and the flourishing diamond trade. (Incidentally, he is also supposed to have stolen the 115-carat uncut stone to France and which later became the Hope diamond, now lodged at the Smithsonian Museum.)

I couldn’t find the translated version of Tavernier’s books, but The “Select Review and Spirit of the Foreign Magazines” published in 1809 quotes him extensively ( page 61-65): 

Here he is quoted describing the mining operations in Golconda:

"Round about the place where the diamonds are found, the ground is sandy and full of rocks, which contain veins from half a finger to a finger wide. These veins are full of earth, or sand, which the miners pick out with instruments on purpose, and carefully deposit in a tub, as it is amongst this earth that the diamonds are found. They are sometimes obliged to break the rock in order to trace the veins for the sake of the earth; and as soon as this is accomplished, and all the sand removed, it is carefully washed two or three times and the diamonds, if there be any, picked out. There are several diamond cutters at this mine, but none of them have above one mill, which is of steel- They never cut more than one stone at a time upon each mill, and use oil and diamond powder to facilitate the operation, at the same time loading the stone with a heavy weight." 

“.. the Indian lapidaries are very expert in cutting the diamonds, and will frequently undertake to divide a stone, which, from its unfavourable appearance, the Europeans will not venture upon. 

..they trade very freely and honestly, the king receiving two per cent, on all that are bought, besides a certain duty from the merchants for leave to dig- When these traders have fixed upon a spot, they begin their search, and employ a number of miners, in proportion to the hurry they may be in. 

Sometimes a hundred men are employed at once; and when this is the case, the merchant pays four pagodas to the king for every day they work, and two when the number is not so great. 

.., the poor people never got above three pagodas for the labour of a year, though they understand their business extremely well. These trifling wages, and the distress they suffer in consequence, make them hide a stone whenever they can find an opportunity. This, it must be confessed, is but seldom, as, besides being strictly guarded, they work almost naked; and therefore, not having any outward protection for their stolen goods, they are sometimes induced to swallow them. When any of these people chance to meet with a large stone, they carry it to the master of the work, who rewards them accordingly. 

Every day, after dinner, the master of the miners brings the diamonds to the lodgings of the merchants, in order to show them and if the stones are large, or sufficiently numerous to amount to more than the sum of two thousand crowns, he will leave them for some days, that the merchants may have time to consider their value, and agree about the price. This, it seems, they are obliged to do before the return of the owner, who will never bring the same stones again, unless mixed with others.

….the diamond traffick is carried on by persons of all ages, and that even children are taught to barter for them. It is very pleasant,to see the young children of the merchants and other people of the country, from the age often to fifteen or sixteen years, who seat themselves on a tree that lies in a void place in the town. Every one of them has his diamond weights in a little bag hanging at one side; on the other his purse, with five or six hundred pagodas in gold in it. There they sit, expecting when any person will come to sell them some diamonds.

 If any person brings them a stone, they put it into the hands of the eldest boy amongst them, who is, as it were, their chief, who looks upon it, and after that gives it to him that is next him; by which means it goes from hand to hand, till it returns to him again, none of the rest speaking a word. After that he demands the price to buy it, if possible; but if he buy it too dear, it is upon his own account. In the evening the children compute what they have laid out; when they look upon their stones, and separate them according to their water, their weight, and clearness. Then they bring them to the principal merchants, who have generally great parcels to match; and the profit is divided among the children equally, only the chief among them has a fourth in the hundred more than the rest. Young as thev are, they so well understand the price of stones, that if one of them has made any purchase, and is willing to lose one half in the hundred, the other will give him his money." 

The secrecy which the Indians observe in their dealings with each other is singular enough; for they will contrive to sell the same parcel of diamonds several times to each other without speaking a word; so that no by stander can possibly tell what they have been doing. "The buyer and seller sit one before another like two tailors; and the seller, opening his girdle, takes the right hand of the purchaser, and conveys it, together with his own, beneath his girdle, where the bargain is secretly driven in the presence of many merchants, without the knowledge of any one. The parties never speak or make any signs with their mouths or eyes, but only converse with their hands; and this is managed in the following manner. 'When the seller takes the purchaser by the whole hand, it signifies a thousand; and as often as he squeezes it, it means so many thousand pagodas or rupees, according to the money in question. If he takes but half, to the knuckle of the middle finger, that is as much as to say fifty; the small end of the finger to the first knuckle signifies ten. When he grasps five fingers, it signifies five hundred; but if one finger, one hundred." 

After quoting Tavernier thus, the article goes on: 

Magellan tells us, that the greatest diamond ever known in the world is one belonging to the king of Portugal, which was found in Brasil, and is still uncut. This gentleman was informed, irom good authority, that it was once of a larger size, but that a piece was cleaved or broken by the ignorant countryman who chanced to find the gem, and tried its hardness by a stroke of a large hammer upon an anvil. This prodigious diamond weighs 1,680 carats and although it is uncut, Rome de l'lsle says, it is valued at 224 millions sterling. 

The diamond which is next in value adorns the sceptre of the emperour of Russia, and is placed under the eagle at the top of it. This stone weighs 779 carats, and is worth, at least, 4,854,720' pounds sterling, although it hardly cost 135,417 guineas. A singular history is attached to this diamond. It was formerly one of the eyes of a Malabarian idol, named Scheringham. A French grenadier, who had deserted from the Indian service, contrived to become one of the priests of that idol, and, watching his opportunity, stole its eye, and ran away to the English at Trinchinapeuly, from whence he carried it to Madras. A ship captain bought it for twenty thousand rupees; afterwards a Jew gave seventeen or eighteen thousand pounds for it; at last, a Greek merchant, named Gregory Suffras, offered it to sale at Amsterdam, in the year 1766, where it was bought by prince Orion" for his sovereign, the empress of Russia. The figure and size of this diamond is preserved in the British Museum.

The diamond of the Great Mogul weighs 279 carats, and is said to be worth 380,000 guineas. This diamond has a small flaw underneath near the bottom. Before this stone was cut, Tavernier tells us it weighed 900 carats; consequently its loss in cutting must be considerable. 

Another diamond, in the possession of the king of Portugal, which weighs 215 carats, is extremely fine, and worth at least 369,800/.

The famous diamond which belonged to the late king of France, called the Pitt, or 'Regent, weighs nearly 137 carats, and has been valued at 208,333 guineas, although it did not cost above half that sum. This beautiful gem was found in the diamond mines at the foot of the Gaut mountains, about twenty miles from Golconda. Another diamond belonging to the same monarch, called the Sancy, was reckoned a very fine stone, though it weighs only 55 carats. It cost 25,000 guineas, but is said to he worth a much larger sum. We must not omit to mention the diamond of the emperour of Germany, which weighs 139 carats, and is valued at 109,520 guineas. It is of a light citron colour. 

So, the diamond from the idol of the Srirangam temple was stolen by the French grenadier posing as a priest ( I don’t know how he managed to do that among the brown skins), sold to the English for 20000 rupees, and finally ended up with the Russians.

Update: Do also read this " Account of the Diamond Mines in India" from a book by one Benjamin Heyne published in 1810. ( page 92-106)

Update 190612: Reader Thiru points me to this Wiki link on the Srirangam diamond which ended us as the "Orlav Diamond"


THIRU said...

I think he planned it for several years.
Please check the wiki link

"The man held responsible for its removal was a French deserter, a grenadier from the Carnatic wars who apparently converted to the Hindu faith and worshipped at the temple for many years. Whether the deserter did this sincerely or solely to gain access to the statue is not known. The temple, situated on an island in the Cauvery River, was surrounded by seven enclosures; no Christians were ever permitted farther than the fourth. Once having pilfered the stone from its sacred home around 1750, perhaps after untold years of patient planning, the deserter fled to Madras[2] (now Chennai) where he would find protection with the British Army, as well as a buyer"



Raj said...

Thiru, thanks for the pointer. That was quite interesting.