How a forgetful British civil servant nearly lost Koh-i-Noor

John Lawrence kept the stone in his pocket and forgot all about it


THE KOH-I-NOOR got lost twice. The first instance was when Mughal emperor Humayun forgot his bag of jewels on a riverbank in Iran. An observant boy saved Humayun the heartburn. And the next was when John Lawrence, a senior British civil servant who later became famous as the saviour of Punjab, misplaced it.

Governor general Lord Dalhousie wanted to keep the diamond safe before it was sent over to Britain. He entrusted the task to Sir Henry Lawrence, the former resident of Lahore and the founder of the three Lawrence Schools in India, his younger brother John and another civil servant familiar with Punjab. According to the book Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, John was “the most charismatic and contrary” of the lot.

As the story goes, John was surprised that he was chosen for the job as he was least impressed by the “princely baubles”. However, the orders from the governor general came just before Christmas in 1849. And the diamond was transferred to John’s custody. While there is no historical evidence—certainly it does not find any mention in Reginald Bosworth Smith’s Life of Lord Lawrence—a story has been passed down generations suggesting that it must have been a really ‘spirited’ Christmas with so much revelry involved that John dropped the diamond into his waistcoat pocket and forgot all about it.

Six weeks later, Dalhousie sent a letter asking for the Koh-i-Noor to be sent to Queen Victoria. “As Henry finished reading out the letter containing their latest orders, John responded with a solemn but stirring ‘Send for it at once.’ No sooner had the words left his lips than his brother exploded with an incredulous: ‘Why, you’ve got it!”, according to Kohinoor: The Story...

John did his best to hide his panic, but had no memory of what happened to the most prized jewel. He reached home “with his heart in his mouth” and sent for his old bearer and asked whether he had seen a small box which was in his waistcoat a while ago. The bearer had indeed found it and kept it in a large tin box. When he fetched it, John asked him to open it and see what was inside. “There is nothing here sahib, but a bit of glass,” said the bearer. John must have thanked his stars and the Koh-i-Noor was soon on its way to London.