You’re no doubt aware that the British Monarchy is quite literally dripping in diamonds, many of which will be on display at the Coronation of King Charles III. Those rocks have a pretty bloody history, and perhaps none more so than the Koh-I-Noor Diamond.
That’s the diamond at the centre of Queen Mary’s Crown, used by the Queen Mother and Elizabeth II during major events. The 105-carat gemstone is one of the largest diamonds in the world and has, for decades, been at the centre of international disagreement as multiple nations lay claim to it.
Queen Consort Camilla had widely been expected to wear the diamond during the upcoming Coronation, but the Palace has now announced that the Koh-I-Noor will be removed from the Queen Mary crown at her request. However, other controversial stones from Elizabeth II’s collection will be used.
Given the renewed attention on the British Monarchy since the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, their role in the lives of former colonies has come under scrutiny. Last year, Antigua and Barbuda announced plans to hold a referendum on leaving the Commonwealth while Australia’s republican movement gains favour. For those who have already departed, however, many of them are still trying to get their stuff back from the Crown.
The Kohinoor (as it’s sometimes spelled) is just one of a number of controversial items currently in the Royal Family’s possession. While India has renewed its long-standing campaign for the return of the Kohinoor, South Africa too is demanding the return of their precious stone.
The Cullinan I diamond, otherwise known as the Great Star of Africa, was mounted in the sceptre that sat on top of The Queen’s coffin as it was paraded through the streets of London. It is the largest clear-cut diamond in the world and the centre of the Cullinan diamonds, cut from the same rough stone.
Camilla’s reworked Queen Mary Crown, it has been revealed, will feature the Cullinan III, IV, and V stones.
Having been turned over to British authorities in 1905, when South Africa was still under the rule of the British Empire, the Cullinan diamonds are viewed by South Africans as being illegitimately stolen from the country.
The fact that the Royal Family and the museums of Britain are loaded with ill-gotten gains has long been a point of awkwardness for the British Government. In 2010, then Prime Minister David Cameron was “ambushed” on Indian TV when he was asked to return the Kohinoor.
“What tends to happen with these questions is that if you say yes to one, you suddenly find the British Museum will be emptied,” he told NDTV. “I’m afraid this will disappoint viewers, but it’s going to have to stay put”.
While the origin of the Kohinoor diamond is shrouded in mythology, its first recorded account is its use in the jewel-encrusted throne of the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan in 1628. From there, it passed to various rulers, who often claimed it through bloody conquest, and was taken all over the regions that would become Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
By the 1800s, it was held by Sikh Maharajah Duleep Singh — a boy of just 11 years old. He was the ruler of modern-day Punjab, a region that had so far withstood British colonisation. That was until 1849 when, after two bloody wars, the British finally took over the region and made the Kohinoor diamond part of the peace negotiations with the young king. It was presented to Queen Victoria in 1850 and has been a part of the Crown Jewels ever since.
Upon Queen Elizabeth’s death, ‘Kohinoor’ was soon trending on Twitter as Indian people took to the platform to renew their calls for the diamond. Despite claims from Pakistan and the now-ruling Taliban of Afghanistan, India has the most legitimate claim to the diamond and has been asking for it since at least the year 2000 when Indian Parliamentarians signed a letter to the UK requesting it.
“Britain owes us,” Indian MP, Shashi Tharoor, said at the time.
“But, instead of returning the evidence of their rapacity to their rightful owners, the British are flaunting the Kohinoor on the Queen Mother’s crown in the Tower of London. It is a stark reminder of what colonialism truly was: Shameless subjugation, coercion, and misappropriation.”
South Africa has similar feelings about their Cullinan diamonds. More than 8,000 people have recently signed a petition calling for its return, while the South African parliamentarian Vuyolwethu Zungula has urged his country to “demand the return of all the gold, diamonds stolen by Britain.”
A spokesperson for the South African opposition party, Economic Freedom Fighters, explained to CNN that South Africans want the “theft” of British colonisation to be put right.
“We don’t call for its return, as this implies that there was a valid agreement in terms of which the British royal family borrowed the diamond. It is in their possession purely as a result of colonial tenacities that suffocated natives in this country and elsewhere,” they said.
Much of what is contained within the British Museum is contested, not least of all the Elgin Marbles. These statues were carved some 2,500 years ago, and they were taken from the Parthenon by the British Lord Elgin in the early 1800s. The UK and Greece have been in a long-running diplomatic dispute over them ever since.
Last year, the British agreed to return 72 bronze sculptures taken from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897, and there is a growing consensus amongst historians and museum curators that objects which were taken under colonial rule ought to be returned. That’s especially true if those things are human remains.
The Palace is facing fresh demands to return the remains of the Ethiopian Prince Alamayu, who was taken into the care of Queen Victoria after the death of his father during a British attack. He is buried at Windsor Castle, and the Ethiopian Government has been calling for his repatriation for the past three decades while the Crown refuses.
It’s something Australia has experience with. In 2011, Indigenous leader, Ned David, flew from Thursday Island off the tip of Queensland to collect the bones of his ancestors held by the Natural History Museum in London. Since 2000, Britain has had a treaty with Australia to increase the repatriation of Indigenous property back to its rightful owners. However, there is still a lot of power the museums hold in hanging onto “their” collections, and the fight continues to return a lot of these items.
With a new King in place, there is the suggestion that Charles III might be more open to returning some of these stolen items that the Monarchy holds. He is, after all, much more outspoken and conscious of environmental and social issues.
While the Kohinoor diamond will not be worn at the Coronation, it and the Cullinan I will be on display at the Tower of London as part of a new exhibition opening on 26 May to recognise the “symbols of conquest” that the Roayl family possess.
The exhibit will feature histories of the jewels and how they came to be included in the British Crown’s collection. At least there is some contrition here that these things might not be above board but, for now, it looks like the stolen diamonds are going to stay put.