February 22, 2013

Diamonds are forever… ours… David Cameron’s the anti-returnist’s reasoning behind keeping Koh-i-noor

Posted at 7:40 pm in Similar cases

Most common phrases we here about diamonds today (not least the one used in the title of this post) were created by the De Beers cartel – an organisation that’s main aim is to boost the price & sales of diamonds around the world. Even without De Beers though, diamonds have always been highly valued & sought after by the wealthy.

The fact is though, that there is a long story to the Koh-i-noor – it only became British property relatively recently & was taken in circumstances that many today would see as morally / ethically questionable. It had been valued by others for a long time before Britain got hold of it & various countries still claim that it is theirs. Many analogies / parallels can be drawn with this case, although I personally feel that the comparison to the Parthenon Marbles is a particularly poor one & merely serves to highlight how uneducated David Cameron is about both of the cases.

That said though, the cases can still both be equally valid – and something needs to be done to work towards resolving them rather than merely brushing off requests with flippant remarks.

First Post

Diamonds are forever… British. Why Cameron really can’t give back the Koh-i-noor
by Sandip Roy Feb 22, 2013

Diamonds are forever and they are for your EYES only.

So India, you can look but don’t even dream about getting the Koh-i-noor back.

Instead David Cameron has given India a parting gift – a post-colonial word – returnism.

“I certainly don’t believe in returnism, as it were,” he said. “I don’t think that’s sensible.”

The ever-helpful Cameron had a suggestion for what might be sensible.

“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.”

One is not quite sure how they intend to “properly share” the Koh-i-noor with Indians. Could Pranab-babu wear it when he opens the next session of Parliament?

Anyway I don’t think anyone is planning to ever loan the crown jewels to the erstwhile Jewel in the Crown. But this “returnism”, the misbegotten lovechild of colonialism, is interesting.

Returnism, as far as I can make out translates into something like this. I steal your laptop. Then I get it a spiffy cover and upgrade your anti-virus protection. Then when you ask for it back, I say, “Sorry, I am keeping it. I just have too many files on it now. And look how well I maintained it. I even ran a disk defragmenter on it. But hey, if you are in the neighbourhood, stop by any time and take a look for old times sake. ”

Cameron, of course, has his own logic. He could not apologise for Jallianwala because he fears that once he goes down that route, the apology list would take up the rest of his term as prime minister. Similarly once he returns the Koh-i-noor, other countries might want bits of their heritage back.

“It is the same question with the Elgin Marbles,” said Cameron as if that was a piece of unassailable British logic.

Whoa. It needs a certain chutzpah to justify one bit of imperial thievery with another bit of colonial skullduggery.

It’s true that if Britain really did start giving everything that it acquired questionably back to the rightful claimants, that would leave it with very little of its own other than some John Constable paintings of the English countryside.

It does, however beg the question, how much of the British Museum is really British?

The list of things affected by “returnism” would be long – Koh-i-noor, Elgin Marbles, Benin bronzes, Ashanti regalia, the Rosetta Stone.

The Brits are not alone of course. There’s the Nefertiti bust in Berlin, Priam’s treasure in Russia and big chunks of the Louvre in Paris.

But that does not mean “returnism” does not happen. The Louvre returned frescoes to Egypt. The Musee de l’Homme in Paris returned the Hottentot Venus to South Africa. The Kankaria mosaics were returned to the Orthodox Church in Cyprus after a court case in Indianopolis. The Met returned the Euphronius Krater to Italy in exchange for the right to display some comparable artifacts. All the art plundered during the Holocaust is supposed to be returned to the original owners. The Nazis, infamously, had special departments to seize and secure objects of cultural value. But it’s worth remembering that the Germans weren’t the only ones doing the looting. The Allies did their bit as well.

Of course, Britain’s problem is it cannot even do a cultural swap. What could it claim from its old colonies in lieu of the Koh-i-noor? It’s not like it could take back cricket.

Cameron might like to pretend that the United Kingdom is the guardian of the world’s treasures. The fact is colonisers took them because that was a way they could project their power over their subjects. As Napoleon boasted after pillaging Italy, “We now have all that is beautiful in Italy except for a few objects in Turin and Naples.”

How much these guardians of the world’s heritage truly guard them was clear to all when the Americans and British stood by after the toppling of Saddam Hussein and allowed the National Museum of Iraq to be looted. However they showed far more alacrity about securing the building of the Ministry of Oil.

As far as the Koh-i-noor goes, the diamond does have a checkered history and there are many claimants to it. In fact, “there could be other claimants besides the government of India if the “it-belonged-to-me-before-you” principle is taken to its logical conclusion,” says an editorial in the Economic Times. It suggests however that if the economic downturn in Britain gets worse, they may have to resort to selling “the family silver, not to mention the crown jewels.” So India may yet get back the Koh-i-noor.

But India also would need to get its act together. After all, Vishwa Bharati managed to lose Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel medal because the security personnel were busy watching an Indo-Pak cricket match on television while thieves broke into the museum.

However that lapse need not prevent us from coming up with our own term to match Cameron’s returnism. How does Kohinoorism sound, Mr Cameron?

Economic Times

22 Feb, 2013, 04.02AM IST, ET Bureau
Returning Kohinoor to India is easier not said than done

Diamonds are (a bond) forever; that is presumably why India keeps asking Britain to return the Kohinoor and the former Empire strikes back with an inevitable “no”.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the British Prime Minister David Cameron once again replied in the negative about giving back the most famous jewel in the British crown during his visit to India this week.

He had said exactly the same thing here two years ago too. As well he might because if Britain starts acceding to every demand for the repatriation of something by aggrieved countries — evocatively dubbed as ‘returnism’ by Mr Cameron — not only will its museums be emptied of most of their prized exhibits such as the Elgin Marbles, the royal family’s own cache of jewellery would be utterly depleted too.

Returning the Kohinoor also has an additional hitch: the 180-carat diamond had several prominent owners in India since it was mined in the Deccan before the 14th century, so there could be other claimants besides the government of India if the “it-belonged-to-me-before-you” principle is taken to its logical conclusion.

Deciding who finally gets it could take decades, particularly if it goes to court. The consolation is that while India may not get back any of the stuff that the former colonial rulers carried off as booty or ‘presents’, Indians are slowly acquiring that country’s other iconic possessions in situ anyway.

Soon, they may start buying back moveable treasures, like the two Russian billionaires who are procuring the famed Faberge eggs of the erstwhile czars from collections round the world. Of course, if the economic downturn in Britain reaches the point where the family silver — not to mention the crown jewels — have to be sold, India may yet get back the Kohinoor — with interest.

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  1. EricdeMarylebon said,

    02.22.13 at 8:08 pm

    RT @elginism: Blog post: Diamonds are forever… ours… David Cameron’s the anti-returnist’s reasoning behind keeping Koh-i-noor http:/ …

  2. DipenduC said,

    02.23.13 at 8:00 pm

    RT @elginism: Blog post: Diamonds are forever… ours… David Cameron’s the anti-returnist’s reasoning behind keeping Koh-i-noor http:/ …

  3. DR.KWAME OPOKU said,

    02.23.13 at 8:52 pm

    It is depressing that leaders of a country like Great Britain that claims to be leading the world to a more humane world, based on the rule of law,do not hesitate to defend past acts involving stealing and looting of cultural artefacts. Kwame.

  4. Hels said,

    02.26.13 at 11:26 pm

    Perfect timing! I was interested in the diamond in a discussion on the 1851 Exhibition at Crystal Palace, and created a link. Many thanks

    Art and Architecture, mainly

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