Crowned Without the Koh-i-Noor

With the King anointed and the coronation complete, it is worth reflecting on some underlying concerns.

With the King anointed and the coronation complete, it is worth reflecting on some underlying concerns. Two early decisions of the Palace suggest that the new reign might be rather more prone to wokedom than the late Queen’s. One is the decision to support research into royal links with slavery; the other to remove the iconic Koh-i-Noor diamond from the Queen’s crown. Camilla was instead crowned with the South African Cullinan diamonds, whose mining history might be just as controversial, though less politically charged.

The Koh-i-Noor, literally “Mountain of Light” in Persian, has reached London by a highly circuitous route, and a judicial investigation of its ownership would keep lawyers across the world in work for generations. Mined from the riverbeds of Golconda in India’s southern Deccan region way back in the thirteenth century, it was acquired by the Mughal emperors of Delhi when they annexed the local sultanate three centuries later. When the Persian invader Nadir Shah captured and plundered India in 1739, he left with both the Mughal peacock throne and the Koh-i-Noor, believed to be set in it, in his baggage. The throne was later broken up and the diamond gifted by Iran to the Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali, whose descendant in turn gifted it to Ranjit Singh, founder of the short-lived Sikh kingdom of Punjab. Finally, Ranjit’s son, the child Maharaja Duleep Singh, gifted it to Queen Victoria in 1851, after British annexation of the Punjab. It was proudly displayed at the Great Exhibition, and Victoria later wore it as a brooch.

This mind-boggling royal lineage reminds us that iconic art and jewellery have travelled the globe for millennia, whether by donation, purchase or conquest, with possession ending up as nine-tenths of the law. If the British crown relinquished its ownership of the diamond today, its most logical successor might be the Government of India, as current occupant of the former Sikh kingdom, its most recent previous owner. But India has an appalling record of not bothering to exhibit such treasures. Its government, having acquired the fabulous jewel collection of the Nizam of Hyderabad, India’s premier prince under the British, exhibited it very briefly in triumph at Delhi’s National Museum, before burying it in safe deposit vaults ever since. The official reason has been that the collection would be too expensive to insure, an argument almost certain to be applied to the Koh-i-Noor, which would probably end up buried in a vault, never to be seen again.

Given its complex provenance, the diamond would almost certainly also be claimed by Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and possibly even the Indian state of Telengana, where it was first mined. What this highlights is the fact that the world’s great art treasures ultimately belong to us all, so the strongest claim should always be to make them most easily accessible and visible to the maximum number of people. How and where they were first manufactured and their progress since is always geographically and historically interesting, though hardly a strong claim to legal ownership, let alone ethical legitimacy. Whether we’re considering the Koh-i-Noor or that other great bone of contention, the Elgin marbles, both were undoubtedly the product of mostly forced and/or enslaved labour in despotic regimes, like 5th century BCE Athens or 13th century Golconda. The prime ethical justification for them in our own egalitarian times is surely the enormous aesthetic pleasure they give the maximum number of viewers, wherever located. And in our digital age, is physical access as important as in the past?

Had the Koh-i-Noor remained where it was last seen, in the Queen’s state crown, it would have been enjoyed not just by those lining the coronation route, but by the many millions who watched on their TV screens. That pleasure is now reserved for the far smaller numbers who visit the crown jewels at the Tower of London, hardly the greatest good of the greatest number. Nor is it yet clear how the diamond, once removed from its current setting, will be displayed, if at all. What is curious about the royal decision not to risk wearing the diamond is that there is no current demand by the Indian government for its return, nor any formal objection to its use in a coronation. What the palace did was to pre-empt any such demand. Might it not instead have proceeded as normal, insisting if necessary that it was merely following royal custom?

Had it done so, it was unlikely to have been met by any more opposition than that of a small coterie of people who call for reparations. Indeed, the Koh-i-Noor decision might well boomerang on the palace if it reinforces a parallel demand for reparations, emerging as it probably will from the research into its slavery links. Since slavery, however abhorrent to us now, was a normal part of global capitalism until Britain led its abolition, it is highly unlikely that it would have had no links, however remote, with royal investment portfolios.

The decision on the diamond was part of an emerging “diversification” of the coronation procession and process, replacing some of the role of both the Anglican church and peers of the realm with various other faith leaders and social or political ethnic minority figures. Most of this is harmless tokenism. But the palace might discover that pandering to wokedom exacts a heavy price if its links to historic slavery or its acquisition of crown jewels become the subjects of future litigation.

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