The curtain has fallen on the pomp and pageantry of the past two weeks, which included the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and the transition period between the second Elizabethan reign to the reign of King Charles II. We have seen it all – a gun carriage carrying the monarch’s coffin, marching bands, the Household Cavalry, members of the Royal Family standing vigil and, of course, the Queue.
But what really caught my eye during the proceedings was the Orb, Sceptre and, of course, the Imperial State Crown that adorned Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin. The stunning crown is formed from an openwork gold frame, mounted with three huge stones, and set with 2,868 diamonds in silver mounts, and coloured stones in gold mounts, including 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and 269 pearls.
At the front of the crown band is the large cushion-shaped, brilliant Cullinan II, the second largest stone cut from the Cullianan Diamond, which is also known as the Second Star of Africa. This crown was made for the coronation of King George VI in 1937 but is closely based on a crown designed for Queen Victoria in 1838 by the crown jewellers of the time, Rundell, Bridge & Rundell. Set in the Sceptre is Cullinan I, also known as the Great Star of Africa. The diamond is cut from a larger gem that was mined in South Africa in 1905, weighs around 3,106 carats in its original state and is thought to be the size of an average human heart.
The death of the Queen and the fact that the Crown Jewels were so clearly on display has reignited conversations on Queen Elizabeth II’s reign and its legacy of colonialism. These conversations have led to calls for these diamonds to be returned to South Africa with immediate effect. Social media has been awash with users demanding the diamonds be returned and displayed in a South African museum, and for reparations to be paid. More than 6,000 people have signed a petition asking for the diamonds to be given back to South Africa by the British Royal Family immediately.
The diamonds have a dubious history. They were discovered in a mine in 1905, and were swiftly bought by South Africa’s Transvaal government, which was controlled by the British at the time, and then presented to the then monarch King Edward VII as a birthday gift. Many say that the mining networks at that time were illegal because of colonial rule – the British appropriated the mine and stole lands that belonged to local people. The Royal Family in effect received a diamond that was stolen in the first place, and now is the time for it to be returned.
There are also calls for the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which is set in a crown made for Queen Elizabeth I, to be returned to India also after it was taken by the British East India Company under duress in the 1840s.
It was part of an exhibition in 1851 and a few people dared to point out that the diamond was part of a plundering operation of India by the British but these calls were largely ignored.
Prince Consort Albert had the diamond cut to mitigate the scandal and it then became the focal point of the crowns of Queen Alexandra and Queen Mary before the stunning jewel was eventually set in the Queen Mother’s crown in 1937. It has been part of the Crown Jewels ever since.
Some might say that this is an insensitive time to discuss requests for certain Crown Jewels, but is there ever a good time to discuss topics that are uncomfortable? If there is one thing about such a public and collective outpouring of grief it’s that it shakes you, and creates space for uncomfortable conversations. What cannot be ignored is legitimate concerns by citizens of the countries from which the diamonds originated that they have been appropriated by colonialism and therefore should be returned.
Earlier this year, the Horniman Museum in London said that it would return a collection of 72 items called the Benin Bronzes to the Nigerian government. The Horniman’s collection is a small part of the 3,000 to 5,000 artefacts taken from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 when British soldiers attacked and occupied Benin City as Britain expanded its political and commercial influence in West Africa.
The British Museum alone holds more than 900 objects from Benin, and National Museums Scotland has another 74. Others were distributed to museums around the world. They are also facing increased pressure to return these items to Nigeria where they will be displayed in the Edo Museum of West African Art, which is due to open in 2025.
The case of the Benin bronzes shows that with proper consultation and conversation artifacts can be returned to their rightful homes.
I’m not saying that we raid the Tower of London and dish out the Crown Jewels, but on the cusp of this new era of the Monarchy, it’s time for King Charles III and his heir Prince William, the new Prince of Wales, to look at the Royal Family’s colonial past and the riches acquired by that and whether those items have a place in their realm’s multicultural future.
Returning jewels and artifacts to where they belong is a good place to start.