It is as big as a duck egg, cures afflictions and brings luck to its owner. The priceless red ruby once belonged to Burma’s last king until it mysteriously disappeared in the process of the country’s colonization by Britain in 1885. It has not been sighted since. The story of the hunt for the jewel is a convolution of fact, inference, suspicion and rumour that well demonstrates the enduring power of missing treasures to compel us to find them.
It was November 1885 when the British, worried about the security of their prized Indian possession, brought the Third Anglo-Burmese War to an end by invading the country and deposing its monarch. The king and his family were unceremoniously bundled out of their country to exile on the west coast of India. The monarch never returned to the country we now know, on and off, as Myanmar. Amongst the usual looting of antiquities and treasures that were the customary spoils of colonisers, Colonel Edward Sladen was entrusted with the political smoothing of the monarch’s removal. According to legend, he asked the king if he could inspect the fabled jewel, known as the Nga Mauk, examined it for a while then casually put it in his pocket.
Some claim the 80 caret-plus jewel was returned or that Sladen was simply holding the jewel for safekeeping. Whatever the truth of the matter, the ruby has disappeared. Sladen was knighted several months later. Since then, the Burmese royal family and subsequent generations of concerned Burmese have been trying to trace and retrieve their gem through decades of official obfuscation and indifference.
So, whereabouts is this treasure?
According to some, it is now part of the Crown Jewels shining out from the Imperial State Crown worn by the British monarch on ceremonial occasions. Others point out that this jewel is not the Burmese ruby, but a stone that adorned Henry V’s helmet at Agincourt. Another suggestion is that the ruby was cut into four and then emblazoned the Imperial Crown of India, made in 1911 when George V and Queen Mary were proclaimed Emperor and Empress of British India.
Or there is the story that Sladen simply gave the prize to his Queen. This possibility has generated yet another enigmatic trail in the quest for the Nga Mauk. According to this story, Queen Victoria had the ruby in her personal collection in the form of a bracelet and willed it to one of her daughters, the Duchess of Argyll, Princess Louise. The current descendants of the Princess have no knowledge of the piece and Princess Louise’s will is sealed, as is the practice for deceased members of the reigning royals.
There are many with a deep interest in locating and, hopefully recovering the Nga Mauk. For Burmese it is a vital symbol of a lost past and a continuing identity, which many in modern Myanmar wish to preserve. Wherever the ruby may be, it does not belong there, but to the people of that still-troubled country.
Alex Bescoby, ‘Who Stole Burma’s Royal Ruby?’, 2 November 2017 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/who_stole_burmas_royal_ruby, accessed February 2018.