At Large  May 11, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

The Star Of Africa Diamond: Symbol of Monarchy, Colonization, or Both?

Wikimedia Commons

King Charles III and Camilla Waving from Buckingham Palace Balcony

Since antiquity, fine jewels have been worn by royalty, to symbolize their power, opulence, and dignity as rulers of nations and empires. The Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom are a collection of royal ceremonial objects, many of which were displayed at this past weekend’s Coronation of King Charles III. Though these jewels are property of the state and kept in the Tower of London, they are symbolic of the eight-hundred years of monarchy. Among the treasures worn by Charles and his family was the Star of Africa, a diamond that adorns the Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross. Cut from the Cullinan Diamond, the largest gem-quality diamond ever found, the Star of Africa was discovered in South Africa in 1905 and presented to King Edward VII. Ever since it has been part of the coronation reception atop the scepter held by the monarch as a token of his temporal power as head of state. But this magnificent gem has become the subject of many calls and petitions because of its South African heritage. Gifted to the English King when South Africa was under British rule, activists believe that the diamond should be repatriated.

Wikimedia Commons

The head of the Sovereign's Sceptre with Cross

 

The return of the diamond would be an act of justice and cultural restitution. These demands stem from a broader global conversation surrounding the restitution of cultural artifacts and treasures acquired through colonization (think Benin Bronzes or almost anything in the British Museum). Returning these types of artifacts serve as a step toward healing historical wounds and acknowledging the importance of preserving heritage in its rightful context.

Mothusi Kamanga, a lawyer and activist in Johannesburg who has promoted an online petition said in a quote to CNN, “The diamond needs to come to South Africa. It needs to be a sign of our pride, our heritage, our culture.” Kamanga, whose petition has gathered about 8,000 signatures, continued, “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.”

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St Edward's Crown, the centrepiece of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom

Other than watching the coronation on TV or visiting the Crown Jewels in London, the only way for South Africans to see their gem is through a fake, a replica on display at the Cape Town Diamond Museum. 

But, as with all repatriation cases, there isn’t a clear answer. Others don’t think it matters much anymore. A local Johannesburg resident Dieketseng Nzhadzhaba told CNN, “Things have changed, we’re evolving.” And on the British side, many support retaining the diamond within the British crown jewels, arguing that it represents an integral part of Britain’s history and tradition. Since 1905, the diamond has made cultural and historical connections in English history, along with the meticulous preservation and safeguarding of the crown jewels within the Tower of London.

Wikimedia Commons

Nine largest stones split from the rough Cullinan diamond

So how can we find a middle ground? Where can heritage, history, and justice be considered with equal weight? Is there a world in which the South Africans and the British collaborated, exploring ways to honor the historical significance of the diamond? Perhaps there could be temporary and traveling exhibitions, cultural exchanges, or joint initiatives that celebrate the diamond’s origins and emphasis shared by both nations. Such collaborative efforts could serve as platforms for not only cultural education, but also understanding, and a deeper appreciation of the complexities surrounding historical artifacts

As discussions surrounding cultural restitution continue to evolve, finding a balanced approach that respects both the heritage of the diamond within the British monarchy and the aspirations for justice and cultural preservation is vital. The Star of Africa diamond stands as a testament to the ongoing discourse surrounding the return of cultural artifacts and the need for nuanced and inclusive conversations about our shared history.

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