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The world will be watching as King Charles III formally ascends the British throne in a coronation ceremony Saturday, just as his own mother, Elizabeth II, did 70 years ago. From monarch to monarch now passes the crown – actually, a few of them.
The jewels that adorn that regalia, including some of the largest diamonds in the world, are seen as some of Britain’s greatest treasures and help lend powerful symbolism to this ancient ritual. But their histories tell a more complicated story – some steeped in the legacy of colonialism.
READ MORE: What to know about calls for reparations for Britain’s legacy of slavery in the Caribbean
A new petition in South Africa has collected 8,000 signatures so far demanding that the largest Cullinan Diamond – known as the Great Star of Africa and part of the coronation scepter – be sent back to its home of origin. While the South African government has not made a formal claim to it, politicians and activists have demanded its return in the past.
Among European monarchs, gemstones have long been used as a show of power and status, passed down again and again from ruler to successor, said Justin Vovk, a doctoral fellow in history at McMaster University in Ontario.
Queen Elizabeth II with crown, orb and scepter at her coronation in June 1953. Photo by The Print Collector/Heritage Images via Getty Images
“Monarchies use tradition and consistency as a way of claiming legitimacy, so the same stones and jewels started being reused. If a particularly beloved king had used a certain jewel or crown, his successors would do likewise to associate their reigns with his,” Vovk said.
On Saturday, King Charles will hold the Sovereign’s sceptre and orb, and wear two crowns, including the Imperial State Crown, which contains – among many other sparkling rocks – the Black Prince Ruby. Not actually a ruby, but a massive red spinel, the gem was allegedly given to an English prince in the 14th century by the King of Castile (who himself had taken it from a Muslim King of Granada). It was worn by Henry V during the Battle of Agincourt, and on down through time.
During Europe’s colonial expansion, unique gemstones became “symbols of imperial power,” Vovk said, promoting “the idea that sovereign authority extended around the world.”
The Cullinan Diamond was mined in 1905 in current day South Africa, in a region that was then known as the Transvaal Colony. It was, and remains, the largest diamond ever discovered.
Megan McGrew/ PBS NewsHour
After going unsold for two years, the Traansvaal Colony, which had recently come under British rule, purchased the diamond and gifted it to the British King Edward VII. The original rough stone was cut into nine numbered diamonds. The largest, Cullinan I, is known as the Great Star of Africa, and is now part of the sceptre King Charles will hold. After the coronation, when the king steps out onto a balcony to greet the public, he will wear the Imperial State Crown, which contains the Cullinan II – the next largest jewel of the original diamond. Accompanying him will be Queen Consort Camilia, wearing Queen Mary’s Crown, which uses the Cullinan III and IV, as well as Cullinan V, which will replace the controversial Koh-i-Noor diamond.
At the time of the Cullinan Diamond’s discovery, the Second Anglo-Boer war had recently ended with a peace between the British, who held colonies around the coast, and the Boers, descendents of Dutch settlers who had moved north to establish independent republics.
READ MORE: How to watch King Charles III’s coronation
Leaders in London were “very keen” to bring about the integration of the Boer and English colonies in South Africa, said Robert Southall, a professor of history at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Britain was also consolidating colonial territories in Australia and Canada at the time.
Some Boer leaders in South Africa, such as Transvaal Colony leader Louis Botha, were eager to reconcile with the British Empire and secure economic advantages for the future.
The Transvaal, which was one of several colonies in the region, led a process of negotiation with the others, Southall said, “because the Transvaal wanted to dominate the economy and it wanted access to the sea which meant going through Natal [a British colony].”
Two years after Edward received the Cullinan diamonds as a gift, the British Parliament passed the South Africa Act, creating a unified South Africa. Botha was named its first prime minister.
This union, Southall points out, politically excluded Black Africans, who made up the majority of South Africa’s population. They were disenfranchised by the new South African government as well as the European powers that preceded it, including being left out of mining rights and profits, as well as the decision to give the Cullinan away. That diamonds were discovered on lands owned by Europeans was itself the result of steady colonization during the 19th century.
“I think you must recognize that the whole diamond industry in South Africa was based on cheap labor and terrible conditions,” Southall said. Black South Africans “were not allowed to own their own claims so they had no ownership in the industry.”
The Cullinan diamonds “are certainly, I would say, blood diamonds,” said Annie St. John-Stark, a history professor at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia. And yet, she noted, “we see them as more legitimate” compared to other jewels because “they come from more of the business end of acquiring these possessions.””
When Camilia is crowned on Saturday, she will break with tradition by reusing an existing crown. Traditionally, a new crown is made for every new Queen Consort, but she will wear one owned by Charles’ grandmother, Queen Mary. The Royal Family has said this will be done for sustainability reasons. But there will be another conspicuous change: She will not be donning the Koh-i-noor diamond.
The Koh-i-noor is a little smaller than a golf ball, and has a long history in India and Afghanistan as a prize seized by rulers during wars of conquest. In the 19th century, it wound up in the hands of Sikh rulers in what is now Pakistan and India. After a period of turmoil and two wars with Britain, the last leader of the Sikh Empire, Duleep Singh, was forced to agree to give the Koh-i-noor to Queen Victoria in person as part of a treaty. He was only 10 years old.
“That transfer of the Koh-i-noor is painted as an act of friendship from one monarch to another, but it is done so in terms of a power dynamic in this relationship,” Vovk said. It reinforces that “as a non-European and as a child, there is still this sense of inferiority.”
Contemporaneous accounts of the “diamond’s history [tell] us specifically that the government itself, in the 19th century, called that diamond a spoil of war,” St. John-Stark said.
“The Koh-i-noor certainly has an ingredient of brutality, not that the Cullinan diamonds don’t,” she added.
The young Maharaja Duleep Singh submits to Sir Henry Hardinge at the end of the 1st Sikh War in 1846. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The original diamond was much larger, almost twice the size at 191 karats. But disappointment with its appearance led Prince Albert, husband to Queen Victoria, to commission its recutting to its current size and shape.
The diamond was eventually added to the crown of Queen Mary, who was Queen Consort to George V, the grandparents of Elizabeth II. Later, it was removed and added to the Queen Mother’s crown. Later this month, it will be exhibited at the Tower of London with greater context about its “story as a symbol of conquest,” according to a statement.
“Most people in Britain are not even all that aware of the history of the Koh-i-noor, or the history of the Cullinan, or any other so-called spoils of war. They just know that it’s part of the symbology of their monarch,” St. John-Stark said.
Since gaining independence in 1946, India has repeatedly requested that the Koh-i-noor be returned. It has been refused. Pakistan, where most of the Sikh Empire in Punjab was located, has also asked for its return. Afghanistan, where a king had won it as a spoil of war from India’s Mughal Dynasty, has also laid claim to the jewel.
For many in South Africa, the Cullinan diamond is only the best-known example of the mineral wealth that was taken from South Africa during the colonial period and the period of white rule that followed. Apartheid enriched Europeans but left Africans with little.
King Charles has in the past used his platform to support favorite causes, such as environmentalism. After a report that a royal ancestor had owned a shares in a slave-trading company, the king last month signaled his support for a research project into the transatlantic slave trade and its links to the monarchy. When it comes to returning such jewels to their countries of origin, some have also called on him to help.
“The monarchy itself, as a separate entity, has to speak to it. I don’t think anything is going to happen until that happens,” St. John-Stark said.
One example of Britain repatriating a culturally important artifact that had been taken as a spoil of war is the Scottish Stone of Scone. The 300-pound “Stone of Destiny” was used to crown Scottish royalty until King Edward I conquered Scotland in 1296. He took the stone and had it set into a chair, which has been used ever since in British coronations.
“This centuries-old piece of the coronation is Scottish,” Vovk said.
King’s Bodyguards for Scotland and members of Royal Company of Archers stand guard by the “Stone of Destiny” in Westminster Abbey in April 2023 during a welcome ceremony. The stone, an ancient symbol of Scotland’s monarchy, will play a central role in the coronation of King Charles III. Photo by Susannah Ireland/ POOL/ AFP via Getty Images
The stone had remained a point of contention between Scotland and England as recently as the 1950s, when a group of students stole the stone in the middle of the night as an act of Scottish nationalism. It was later recovered in Scotland and returned to England.
But by the 1990s there were debates around devolution, returning more power to the United Kingdom’s constituent states of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, as well as the demand by some that Scotland break away. Britain agreed to essentially share the stone by returning it to Scotland with the understanding that it would be sent back to England for coronations.
But other countries “don’t necessarily have leverage for reclaiming items or objects,” Vovk said.
Nations such as South Africa and India continue to deal with the legacy of colonialism, which broke down existing societies and reorganized them to benefit Europe, including extracting wealth in the form of natural resources and trade and human capital, through the transatlantic slave trade. In many former colonies, independent governments have struggled to reshape economies that were designed to benefit European business.
Dr. Dilip Menon, the Mellon Chair in Indian Studies at the University of Witwatersrand, believes that discussions about repatriation of the Cullinan diamond or Koh-i-noor are a “distraction” from larger structural issues created by European colonialism, such as racism that still informs immigration and labor exploitation.
“Returning the Koh-i-noor, if it is done, makes it seem as though there has been rethinking on the issue of colonial exploitation and expropriation, when there has been no substantial change,” Menon said. And that, he added, “allows ex-colonial powers like the United Kingdom to be let off easily.”
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