Title: The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician and Spy
Author: John Zubrzycki
Genre: Non-fiction, biography
Publisher: Transit Lounge
Published: 1st April, 2017
Pages: 304 plus 8 page illustration insert
Synopsis: It was a scandal that rocked the highest echelons of the British Raj. In 1891, a notorious jeweller and curio dealer from Simla offered to sell the world’s largest brilliant-cut diamond to the fabulously wealthy Nizam of Hyderabad. If the audacious deal succeeded it would set the merchant up for life. But the transaction went horribly wrong. The Nizam accused him of fraud, triggering a sensational trial in the Calcutta High Court that made headlines around the world.
The dealer was Alexander Malcolm Jacob, a man of mysterious origins. After arriving penniless in Bombay in 1865, he became the most famous purveyor of precious stones in princely India, and a confidante of Viceroys and Maharajas. Jacob also excelled in the magical arts. He inspired all those who met him, including Rudyard Kipling who immortalised him as Lurgan Sahib, the ‘healer of sick pearls’, in his novel Kim.
Now for the first time, John Zubrzycki, author of The Last Nizam, conveys the page-turning colour, romance and adventure of Jacob’s astonishing life. Starting on the banks of the Tigris in modern-day Turkey where Jacob was born, Zubrzycki strips away the myths and legends. He follows Jacob’s journey from the slums of Bombay, to the fabulous court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, from the hedonistic heights of Simla, the summer capital of the Raj, to the Calcutta High Court. This is a story of India, of strange twists and unexpected outcomes. Most importantly Zubrzycki enters into and truly captures the spirit of the mysterious Mr Jacob, one of the most enigmatic and charismatic figures of his time.
The story of Alexander Malcolm Jacob is one that I did not know until I read John Zubrzycki’s book about him. Following his life in India and the surrounding area, The Mysterious Mr Jacob reveals how Alexander Malcolm Jacob arrived in India, and gradually, grew his diamond trade, using his activities to spy on everyone and report back to various contacts who were often enemies, gaining the best price he could for the diamonds, and following a path that incorporated aspects of magic into his faith. However, these nefarious activities come to a crashing halt in 1891, when Mr Jacob faces fraud charges, and a trial in the Calcutta High Court that would make worldwide headlines.
Alexander Malcolm Jacob’s story is one of mystery and intrigue, in a land that has been written about as an exotic mystery by authors such as Rudyard Kipling, at a time when the mysteries of India were looked at through a lens obscured by fascination of another world, different to the one most British subjects of Victorian England knew. It is also set against the back drop of the British Empire of the nineteenth century that had a far reach across the world, including towards India, and during the time Mr Jacob was operating, Queen Victoria proclaimed herself Empress of India, and took possession of the Koh-I-Noor Diamond.
Jacob’s world at one point is destined to become larger, as a friend invites him to London, where he will have the chance to meet Queen Victoria, and gain citizenship, but his choice to remain behind furthers his career, and ultimately, leads to the 1891 trial with an outcome that most at the time would not have seen coming, and that leads into Jacob’s isolated future until his death in 1921, aged seventy one.
More than just non-fiction, John Zubrzycki’s work is a narrative history, where Jacob’s world is revealed in rich and vivid descriptions, and contrasted against the modern India that the author visited whilst writing the book. We get a vision of two worlds: one trapped by an imperialistic empire forging its own identity in a modern world – through the eyes of Alexander Malcolm Jacob as he traverses India and the surrounding countries in search of diamonds.
It is an intriguing read, and was a surprise addition to my review stack from Transit Lounge and Quikmark Media. The victors and winners, or the figures that become well known write most history. There are some events and figures in history that are famous in spite of the failures, such as Bonnie Prince Charlie and Culloden. It is rare to find stories such as Alexander Malcolm Jacob’s in history books. Books such as John Zubrzycki’s bring to light the stories of lesser known but just as fascinating events and people, and show the diversity of these figures in their backgrounds, their personalities and the lives that they led.