Opera singer Pretty Yende and foreign minister Naledi Pandor were not the only South African presence at the coronation of King Charles III. Also there were the stones cut from the Cullinan diamond, the largest gem-quality rough diamond ever found.
The Cullinan, named after Thomas Cullinan, the chairman of the mining company that found it in South Africa, was mined in 1905 and was bought by the Transvaal colony’s government for presentation to King Edward VII in 1907. It was cut into nine stones and another 97 fragments.
The largest of these, Cullinan 1, known as the Star of Africa, was set at the top of the sceptre presented to Charles during the coronation ceremony. Cullinan 2 is set in the front of the crown he wore. Other stones are in the possession of Britain’s royal family too or on display in the Tower of London.
The coronation has led to renewed calls for the return of the stones to South Africa. These calls are part of the growing demands by former colonial people for the return of the cultural artefacts removed from their countries by colonial powers.
What are the justifications for the return of the Cullinan diamonds? What are the complications? And what is the likelihood of return?
Prior to the coronation, there were calls for the return of the diamonds to South Africa. The Economic Freedom Fighters, the country’s third largest political party, led in calling for them to come home. And so has African Transformation Movement’s member of parliament, Vuyolwethu Zungula. In similar fashion, Mothusi Kamanga, a Johannesburg lawyer and activist, promoted an online petition for the diamonds to be returned. It quickly attracted 8,000 signatures.
These demands fall under a much wider global conversation about reparations for items forcefully appropriated as spoils of war and cultural domination. Various items have been returned to their countries of origin by European universities, museums and other bodies which had acquired them over decades past.
Activists view their moral case for the return of the diamonds as unanswerable, but it runs up against many complications.
Complications: ‘given’ not ‘looted’
Let’s go back to 1907, when Louis Botha was prime minister of the Transvaal, one of the two Boer Republics which had been defeated by Britain in the South African War, 1899-1902, but to which “self-government” had now been returned. Botha now suggested buying the Cullinan diamond for Edward VII as a token of the loyalty of the people of the Transvaal to the king.
At face value, this is odd, because Botha had served as a Boer general in the South African War, which had culminated in Boer defeat, but only after a drawn out struggle which had left South Africa devastated.
About 14,000 Boer troops had lost their lives, and some 28,000 Boer men, women and children died in concentration camps, incarcerated by the British to stop them from helping the Boer’s guerrilla forces. Yet Botha refers to the “loyalty and attachment” of the Transvaal “people” (by which he almost certainly meant only white people).
After the war, Botha teamed up with Jan Smuts, another former Boer general. Smuts was instrumental in arguing the case in London for the return of self-government to the former Boer republic of the Transvaal, which after its defeat had been transformed into a colony.
White settler regimes were regarded as troublesome by Whitehall, which was pleased to get rid of them. But self-government was not independence. Britain remained largely in control of foreign policy, and importantly, could declare its “dominions” (as these self-governing territories were termed) as at war if Britain was dragged into an armed conflict.
Both these former Boer generals were realists. They recognised the realities of Boer defeat and the ruin it had brought to South Africa. After the war they had come to preach a gospel of “conciliation”, whose rationale was to unite Boers and Britons into a single white nation, while repairing relations with Britain, whose aid they regarded as necessary for reconstruction.
They also had in mind the Transvaal as heading a drive for the making of a united South Africa – a long-held policy of Britain since the mid-19th century. In any case, Botha and Smuts regarded South Africa’s membership of the Empire and reliance on the British navy as necessary for its defence.
We may question why this persuaded Botha to offer a valuable diamond to the king. Perhaps it was merely gratitude for the grant of self governance. Perhaps it was one of the more spectacular acts of international brown-nosing, to secure Britain’s goodwill towards South Africa.
But in the present debate, it introduces the complication that legally speaking, the Cullinan diamonds were given by a forerunner government of South Africa, rather than having been “looted”.
Likelihood of return
Calls for the return of the diamonds, especially when not backed by any official request by the South African government, are unlikely to make any impression in London. Although King Charles has encouraged investigation into the way the monarchy has benefited from slavery, his enthusiasm is unlikely to extend to the physical deconstruction of the crown jewels.
Such decisions would have to be made by the government of the day. Any thought of doing so would play into the hands of the right wing of the Conservative Party, and its determination to provoke “culture wars” around whiteness and nationalism.
More fundamentally, former colonial powers are wary of issuing apologies for sins past, as taking responsibility for past crimes against humanity implies legal obligations to make reparations, and this they are determined to avoid.
Although Africans were never consulted, British governments are likely to insist that the Cullinan diamonds were not stolen but freely given by Louis Botha. If South Africa wants the diamonds back, it is going to have to put up a very determined fight.