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The Koh-i-Noor and Cullinan diamonds: British crown jewels have fraught history

For decades, Britain has been giving back its spoils of empire: the Stone of Scone to Scotland in 1996, Hong Kong to China in 1997 and, most recently, some of the Benin bronzes, with perhaps more to follow.

But, so far, that spirit of returning what was taken has not extended to the British crown jewels — specifically to the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which will be kept out of sight during King Charles III’s coronation Saturday, and the Cullinan diamonds, which will feature heavily.

Where the Koh-i-Noor diamond was first pulled from the earth is unknown, although it probably came from southern India, according to William Dalrymple and Anita Anand in their book “Koh-i-Noor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond.” For centuries, the 186-carat rock traveled through Central and South Asia from one empire to another: the Mughals, the Persians, the Afghans. Koh-i-Noor is Persian for “mountain of light.”

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By the 1810s, it had passed to Maharajah Ranjit Singh, the leader of the Sikh Empire in Punjab, a region now split between India and Pakistan. When Singh died in 1839, a years-long power struggle ensued before the throne, and the diamond, came to Singh’s 5-year-old son Duleep Singh. His mother served as regent.

By this time, the British East India Company controlled the territory adjacent to the Sikh Empire and — well aware of the diamond and its value — invaded. The empire fell, and in 1846, Duleep Singh, now 7, surrendered the Koh-i-Noor to the Queen Victoria when he signed the Treaty of Lahore. Within months, his mother was imprisoned, and the boy was raised by British military “protectors.”

In London, the matte finish on the diamond did not impress, so it was recut to its current size, about 105 carats.

India has demanded the return of the diamond since Indian independence in 1947, as have Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The British government maintains the treaty was legal, even if it was signed by a child under duress. Duleep Singh did not see his mother for 13 years after she was taken away; he lived a largely sad life in England and died in 1893.

Queen Victoria wore the Koh-i-Noor as a brooch, and Queens Alexandra, Mary and Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) wore it mounted into their crowns, according to the Royal Collection Trust. It was last seen in public at the Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002.

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Amid speculation, Buckingham Palace confirmed this year that Queen Camilla would not wear the Koh-i-Noor during the coronation. Instead, she will wear Queen Mary’s crown set with stones cut from the Cullinan Diamond, the largest gem-quality colorless diamond ever found. Other gems cut from the Cullinan Diamond are mounted on the “sovereign’s scepter” and on Charles’s Imperial State Crown, which will both makes appearances during the coronation.

The Cullinan Diamond does not have a kidnapped child or a head of state demanding its return attached to it. But it is still mired in some deeply unflattering British history, including violence, racism and even concentration camps.

The history of South Africa is complex, but to keep it very simple: The region was home to many African societies, including the Khoisan, Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana and Ndebele. The Dutch established a settlement in the 1600s, clashing with Khoisan and bringing enslaved people in from other parts of Africa.

The British took over in 1815, bringing their own European settlers, plus South Asian indentured laborers, and clashing with the Xhosa. Some of the Dutch settlers, called Boers, moved farther inland, sparking gruesome conflicts with the Zulu, Tswana and Ndebele peoples, and declared themselves independent republics. At same time, a semi-nomadic group of mixed-race people called the Griqua settled nearby.

In the late 1860s, diamonds were discovered on Griqua land. The Boers took control and flooded into the region. Soon, the British declared themselves in charge and flooded in, too. Both pressed tens of thousands of African migrant laborers to do the harrowing work of mining. By this time, Black Africans across British- and Boer-controlled South Africa were not permitted to go anywhere without a “pass,” setting the stage for the apartheid regime of the future.

The struggle for control culminated in the Anglo-Boer Wars of 1880-1881 and 1899-1902. The second is often noted for the development of the concentration camp, but it was, at its most basic level, a fight between two White powers over which would make a fortune digging up land that it did not own.

An estimated 20,000 to 28,000 Boer women and children died in British concentration camps during the conflict; an estimated 14,000 to 20,000 Black Africans died in separate concentration camps, also maintained by the British, who won the war in 1902.

So that is how the Irish British businessman Thomas Cullinan came to open a diamond mine near Pretoria — and how, three years later, in 1905, mining manager Frederick Wells found a 3,106-carat diamond buried 18-feet underground. He named it after his boss.

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Cullinan sent the eponymous diamond to London to be sold, but it was too expensive to draw serious offers.

Two years later, Louis Botha, a Boer war hero, became prime minister of what was now called the Transvaal Colony under British control. Botha proposed that the colonial government buy the diamond and make a gift of it to King Edward VII as a symbol of the Boers’ newfound loyalty to the British crown. So, in what now might be described as a dizzying case of “self-dealing,” the British colonial government paid Cullinan the equivalent today of $29 million, the British Treasury took back a 60 percent mining tax, and Edward received the biggest diamond in the world as a birthday present on Nov. 9, 1907.

The diamond was cut into nine major gems and nearly 100 smaller ones. The largest, called Cullinan I or the “Great Star of Africa,” was mounted to the Sovereign’s Scepter with Cross and was first used at the coronation of Charles’s great-grandfather, King George V, in 1911. At 530.2 carats, it remains the largest cut diamond in the world. The scepter made its last appearance atop Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin last year; Charles will carry it during his coronation.

Cullinan II, at 317.4 carats, is mounted on the front of the Imperial State Crown, which Charles will wear for much of the coronation. Cullinans III, IV and V — together weighing 176.8 carats — will grace Camilla’s crown. Elizabeth is widely reported to have referred to Cullinans III and IV as “Granny’s chips.”

After decades of struggle, South Africa became a multiracial democracy in 1994. Despite some progress, huge disparities remain between the Black majority and White minority in the country.

Although they do not have the backing of the South African government, many South Africans want the Cullinan stones back. Members of the South African Parliament, scholars and activists have demanded their return ahead of the coronation, and thousands have signed a petition addressed to the British High Commission. (In Commonwealth countries, other Commonwealth nations’ embassies are called high commissions, and ambassadors are called high commissioners.)

“The diamond needs to come to South Africa. It needs to be a sign of our pride, our heritage and our culture,” the lawyer and activist Mothusi Kamanga told Reuters on Thursday. “I think generally the African people are starting to realize that to decolonize is not just to let people have certain freedoms, but it’s also to take back what has been expropriated from us.”

“Receiving a stolen diamond does not exonerate the receiver. The Great Star [of Africa] is a blood diamond,” Everisto Benyera, a South African politics professor, told CNN.

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When Queen Elizabeth II died in September, the opposition party Economic Freedom Fighters told Times Live it would not mourn her, because she was “a reminder of a very tragic period in this country and Africa’s history.”

South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has not joined these calls. Although invited to the coronation, he declined for a scheduling conflict and is expected to send his foreign minister in his place, according to Sowetan Live. Once union leader for South African miners, Ramaphosa became a shareholder of the Lonmin mining company and is blamed by many for the massacre of 34 striking miners in 2012.

The mine from which the Cullinan Diamond was taken is still in operation, now 79 acres wide and owned by the British-based Petra Diamonds, and is part of the British De Beers diamond consortium.

Conditions in and around South Africa’s mines are still harrowing for the largely Black workforce and nearby residents. Days after Queen Elizabeth’s death, a dam holding back mine waste collapsed in Jagersfontein, killing one and destroying more than 160 homes with a tsunami of toxic sludge. It was the same mine where, in 1870, De Beers uncovered the sixth-largest diamond in the world; it was named the Jubilee Diamond in honor of Queen Victoria.


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