Will colonised countries ever be able to retrieve their treasures?

The British sucked up an estimated $45 trillion from India, 20 times the UK's current GDP. Any path to reparation or restitution will leave it broke

By Chidanand Rajghatta

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The Imperial State Crown. Photo: AFP
The Imperial State Crown. Photo: AFP

Published: Wed 14 Sep 2022, 10:19 PM

Last updated: Wed 14 Sep 2022, 11:01 PM

In 1947, just around the time of India's Independence, Mary Frances Gerety, a young copywriter at the N W Ayer advertising agency in Philadelphia, coined the tagline A Diamond is Forever for the South African mining company, De Beers, which had hired the firm for a marketing campaign aimed at boosting the sale of diamonds after the Great Depression. Scribbled on a piece of paper late one night and frowned on by her colleagues the next morning for its dodgy grammar, it would go on to become one of the great ad slogans in history, eventually commemorated in a James Bond movie. It would also give a massive boost to the diamond industry, pushing sales from a paltry $25 million in the 1930s to nearly $100 billion today.

While diamonds may be forever, De Beers itself was founded only in 1888 after discoveries of the precious stones were made in South Africa. Till early in the century, the Indian subcontinent was the world's only known source of diamonds. The legendary Golconda was the Indian El Dorado, a fabled outpost whose streets, so to say, were paved with precious stones. In fact, even today, if you look at the world’s largest and most famous diamonds, many of them are of Indian origin.

There is the Regent, for long the world's biggest bauble, which weighed more than 410 carats when discovered by a ‘slave’ near Golconda in the 18th century. It was later owned by William Pitt, the British prime minister who sold it to the Duke of Orleans, the regent of France (hence The Regent). Louis XV wore it at his coronation, and it adorned the hat of Marie Antoinette. After the French Revolution, it was owned by Napoleon who set it in the hilt of his sword. It is now on display at the Louvre.

Then there is the Blue Hope, which is the smaller among the ‘large’ diamonds but has few peers for sheer mystique. The 44-carat stone is believed to carry a curse. Many of its owners have died in misery. It was once owned by Louis XIV. Stolen during the French Revolution, it showed up again in 1830 and was bought by Henry Philip Hope of London (hence Hope Diamond), and later by Harry Winston of New York, who donated it to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, where it now resides.

There is the diamond Ahmedabad, more famously known later as Star of the East. The history of this 94.80 carat pear-shaped stone starts in the mid seventeenth century, when French gem merchant Tavernier purchased it rough at 157 carats during his travels in India. It surfaced in the possession of Sultan Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire, was reclaimed by Indian nobility and was owned by the Gaekwads of Baroda in 1908, before it made its way west again, snaffled by some American neo-rich.

There are many other storied stones which originated from India – the Great Mogul, the Nizam, the Orloff, Dresden, Nassak, etc, each with its own tale of passion, intrigue, deceit and the usual hoopla attributed to famous stones. But few diamonds have had the aura and mystique of the Koh-i-Noor, which adorns the crown of the British monarch, and which is currently in the news with demands from Indian nationalists that it be returned to India following the death of Queen Elizabeth.

The incipient movement to retrieve it comes at an intriguing time in history, when some former colonial powers have recognised the rapacious pillage of their forbears and pledged to return what they acknowledge as stolen treasures. The leader in this regard is the Netherlands, whose culture minister recently said “there is no place in the Dutch State Collection for cultural heritage objects that were acquired through theft” and  “If a country wants them back, we will give them back…even if it meant a painful confrontation with the injustices in our past”. French President Emmanuel Macron too said some years ago that  “African cultural heritage can no longer remain a prisoner of European museums”. Even the United States, both a victim and perpetrator of colonialism, has been working vigorously to return stolen treasures and antiques to Egypt, Iraq, Cambodia, and India among other countries.

These are still baby steps. Beyond the prominent baubles and bronzes that make headlines, Western museums and auction houses are replete with sketchily acquired treasures and artifacts pilfered or purloined from poor countries. Human rights barrister Geoffrey Robinson once called the British Museum “the world’s largest receiver of stolen goods” which, along with institutions such as the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan in New York,  “lock up the precious legacy of other lands, stolen from their people by wars of aggression, theft and duplicity”. The irony is many of these museums are visited by tourists from the formerly colonised and exploited countries who pay top dollar to gawk at their own heritage.

Will the treasures ever be returned in full? Fat chance. Why? Because it is a slippery slope which has no bottom. The British sucked up an estimated $45 trillion from India, 20 times the UK's current GDP. Any path to reparation or restitution will leave it broke. Returning the Koh-i-Noor, if it ever happens, will be a symbolic gesture.

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