India Denied Koh-i-Noor Diamond
Historic gem to remain in British hands
The Koh-i-Noor diamond is one of the most contested relics of history, and this past Thursday, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced the British government’s decision not to return the gem to India.
On the final day of a three-day trip to India to foster trade and investments, Cameron spoke to reporters, claiming that he had no plans to return the diamond, which now resides in the Tower of London as part of the royal crown that belonged to the current Queen Elizabeth’s late mother. “The right answer is for the British Museum and other cultural institutions to do exactly what they do, which is to link up with other institutions around the world to make sure that the things which we have and look after so well are properly shared with people around the world,” he said, adding “I certainly don’t believe in ‘returnism’, as it were. I don’t think that’s sensible.”
His refusal is only the latest in a long string of refusals to return the Koh-i-Noor, the last being in 1997 when a number of Indian officials asked Queen Elizabeth II for the diamond during her visit to the country on the 50th anniversary of India’s independence.
The Koh-i-Noor diamond has a long and bloody history. Though the first recorded instance of the diamond’s existence occurs in 1526, rumors and stories of its existence reportedly go back for thousands of years. For this reason, many groups argue that the diamond is rightfully theirs, as it has passed through the hands of Iranian, Mughal, Afghan, Sikh and Hindu rulers. When the British conquered the Punjab in 1849, the diamond was taken as part of the Treaty of Lahore and presented, along with the Timur ruby, to Queen Victoria by a then sixteen-year-old Prince Dul?p Singh. British officials have used this technicality over the years to argue that the diamond was a gift and not forcibly taken. However, today it is largely acknowledged by government officials that the Koh-i-Noor was not a gift to Victoria. The issue is thus whether or not the British should return the diamond to its previous owners, or keep it in the museum where it is currently held.
The dispute over the Koh-i-Noor diamond is not an isolated one; it is part of a much larger issue. Many artifacts currently residing in British museums and many other museums in the Western world were stolen or otherwise forcibly taken from their places of origin.
Cameron compared the diamond to the Elgin Marbles, which he also said Britain would not be returning. The Marbles, an extensive collection of ancient Greek sculptures, have often been requested by the Greek government since they were taken in the early 19th century. The British have refused to return artifacts for so long because they are fearful of the precedent it would set. They worry that if one artifact is relinquished from British hands, more countries would demand that their items be returned, significantly draining the stock of British museums.
Though many artifacts currently held in Western museums or private collections have dubious histories, some have been returned. Until recently, a set of Egyptian frescoes that were taken from the Valley of the Kings in the 1980s were housed in France at the Louvre.
In 2009, when the Egyptian government threatened to cut all ties to the museum, the frescoes were promptly returned—and a representative from the museum even claimed that they were unaware the items were stolen.
Similarly, the Egyptian government demanded the return of the mummy of Pharaoh Ramses I from a North American museum. When an Atlanta museum used carbon dating to confirm that the mummy originated from the time period of Ramses I, they offered to return the mummy to Egypt and it is now housed in the Egyptian Luxor museum. This is all part of an initiative by the Egyptian government to secure the return of culturally significant items that were seized by foreign hands. However, for every incidence in which an item is given back, there are many that do not get returned, like the Koh-i-Noor diamond.
Cameron claims he does not believe in “returnism,” and that, since the diamond has passed through so many hands, Britain has the same right to it as its previous owners. Yet, similar items have been returned without consequence, and with the continued modernization of foreign museums, the argument that they are safer in the Western world weakens. Perhaps the next time Cameron has his wallet stolen, he will change his mind. After all, a pound passes through many hands, so does the thief not have just as much a right to it as anyone?