Good Reading : April 2017
UP CLOSE 3 Jacob purposely spun a web of lies about his origins and his past, mostly to enhance the aura of mystery he liked to cultivate.’ Everything about Jacob is tangled with speculation, from his hazy origins to his ambiguous nationality. Some described him as a ‘pseudo-Arabic genius’, others as a ‘pure-blooded Persian’, an Armenian, a Greek, a Pole, an Italian, a Turk and a Gypsy. The one thing that John is sure of is that Jacob arrived in India in 1865 without a rupee to his name. But by the 1870s he had established himself in the city of Simla, amassed a bazaar of priceless artefacts and jewel-encrusted relics and had princes eating out of his hand. ‘It was said that going to Simla without seeing Jacob was like going to India without seeing the Taj Mahal,’ says John. One visitor to his musk-scented shop described Tibetan ghost daggers, samovars crammed with turquoise, bangles and necklaces made of jade, and ivory crucifixes among ‘a thousand other oddments’. Most treasured of all, however, was Jacob’s reputation; he was determined to keep himself shrouded in tantalising mystery. He also trained himself as a conjurer and an illusionist, which helped him to beguile his clients. ‘We know that Jacob dabbled in sleight-of-hand magic and he would have used this to great effect as a way of impressing his clients, particularly India’s rather superstitious princes,’ explains John. ‘We also know that he was a Mason, that he believed in the occult properties of precious stones and dabbled in black magic.’ One acquaintance who Jacob greatly inspired was novelist Rudyard Kipling, who based his character Lurgan Sahib – ‘the healer of sick pearls’ in the novel Kim – on Jacob. ‘Kipling spent the hot season in Simla from 1883 onwards when he was reporter for the Civil and Military Gazette,’ says John. ‘He would have passed Jacob’s shop every time he walked up the Mall to Scandal Point, as it was called, where every aspiring cub reporter went to pick up some juicy gossip. Kipling had a fascination for the dark side of India and it was this dark underbelly that Jacob networked with, so the two had much in common. The wonderfully evocative description of Lurgan Sahib’s shop in Kim is exactly how others have described Jacob’s shop.’ Jacob’s downfall was set in motion from the moment an officer working at South Africa’s Kimberly Mine discovered a 457- carat hunk of uncut diamond poking out of the dirt. The officer sold it to smugglers for little more than 3000 pounds. It fell into the hands of a specialised diamond cutter in Europe, who spent almost a year crafting the uncut gem into the world’s largest brilliant-cut diamond. As the world neared the 20th century, Alexander Malcolm Jacob acquired the diamond and attempted to sell the gemstone to the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, Mahboob Ali Khan – grandfather of the sheep farmer Mukarram Jah. In the process of making the 50-million-pound deal, Jacob was accused of fraud. He became embroiled in a world-famous legal case that would destroy his reputation and strip him of a fortune. It was a sad end for one of the world’s most enigmatic figures. Researching the life of Jacob has proved immensely frustrating at times for John, yet some of his discoveries were so outlandish that he felt as if he were wr iting fiction. ‘This is the story of a man who arrived penniless in India in the 1860s yet within a couple of decades was trying to pull off the largest diamond deal in history. He also dabbled in magic and did some spying on the side for the British. So extraordinary was his story that I had to keep reminding myself that this was a real historical figure.’ The Mysterious Mr Jacob by John Zubrzycki is published by Transit Lounge, rrp $29.99. GOOD READING APRIL 2017 47 Journalist JOHN ZUBRZYCKI tells gr about Alexander Malcolm Jacob, the shady figure he uncovered to write The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond merchant, magician and spy, who attempted to sell one of the world’s largest diamonds to Indian royalty with disastrous consequences.