Crown Adorned With Spoils of War: Countries Demand Britain Return Their Treasures
14:45 GMT 13.09.2022 (Updated: 10:50 GMT 26.10.2022)
Queen Elizabeth died peacefully at 96 on September 8, after living a long and comfortable life surrounded by the most beautiful things conceived by mankind. From world's biggest diamonds, to archaeological artifacts - British rulers took it all from their colonies and now those countries want their treasures back.
Even during Queen Elizabeth's life, questions were raised regarding the treasures in her palaces and British museums. Despite some British historians' assurances that most of these treasures were gifts given by the locals, there are numerous accounts and research that shows otherwise.
As British colonial rule spread across the globe, so did the stealing of great treasures that did not belong to them.
Last week, shortly after the Queen’s death was announced, the word "Kohinoor" started trending on Indian Twitter.
This was a reference to the Kohinoor diamond, considered the world’s most expensive diamond, which can be found on display in the Tower of London, set in the Queen Mother's crown.
The history of Kohinoor diamond goes back to more than 5000 years. In Persian, the word means "Mountain of Light." Back in 1813 it had belonged to ruler Ranjit Singh (the founder of the Sikh Empire) and it was in his family's possession in Lahore Fort, in Pakistan, when the British took it in 1849 and brought it to London.
The Coronation Necklace, a magnificent diamond necklace with large set diamonds, that Queen Elizabeth wore on her coronation in 1952, also came from Lahore.
The necklace was originally created for Queen Victoria in 1858 by the British jeweler Garrard. It was also stolen in 1849 when the British breached the Lahore Fort and found treasure that was considered more valuable than anything they had acquired before.
The necklace was made from 28 stones, with the central gem known as the Lahore diamond weighing almost 23 carats by itself. The whole necklace adds up to 161 carats and it became the most expensive necklace in the world with nine of its largest stones weighing between 8 and 11 carats.
Currently, the coronation necklace and earrings are priced at £300,000 and are on display in the Lantern Lobby of Windsor Castle.
Back in 1849, the administrator of the Lahore Fort, Dr. John Login catalogued the treasures that were taken from the treasure house also known as Toshakhana. Some of the riches included five bags of diamonds, 134 large trunks of gold jewelry and precious stones, and a whole room full of expensive and rare Cashmere shawls.
The Lahore Fort, also known as Shahi Qila, was home to Mughal emperors. This historic fort was built in the 11th century and then was rebuilt in the 17th century. The hallmarks of Mughal emperors' style was luxurious vivid coloured silk clothes, intricate craftsmanship of their jewellery and cross-cultural influences of India and Persia, which was seen in their carpets, furniture and architecture. Their lifestyle is best seen in the miniature paintings and jewellery of that period.
They used to wear ropes of pearls and diamonds sprinkled with emeralds and rubies around their necks, wrists and, even in their turbans. One Mughal ruler, Shah Jahan, was known to always wear his belt which was embedded with large table cut diamonds and a central ruby, which was reportedly size of an egg.
Sir Thomas Roe’s description of another famous Mughal ruler, Jehangir, arriving at court reads, "Here attended the nobility, all sitting about on carpets, until the king came, who at last appeared, clothed, or rather laden with diamonds, rubies, pearls and other precious varieties—so great, so glorious."
Meanwhile, French traveller François Bernier, who arrived at the court of Shah Jahan’s successor, Aurangzeb, was spellbound by the opulence of the Mughal rulers.
"The king appeared seated upon his throne at the end of the great hall in the most magnificent attire. The turban of gold cloth had an aigrette whose base was composed of diamonds of an extraordinary size and value. A necklace of immense pearls suspended from his neck reached his stomach," Bernier wrote in his accounts.
He even described the throne on which Aurangzeb was seated, saying that it was supported by six [massy] feet, and was said to be of solid gold, sprinkled over with rubies, emeralds and diamonds.
"I cannot tell you with accuracy the number or value of this vast collection of precious stones, because no person may approach sufficiently near to reckon them, or judge of their water and clearness; but I can assure you that there is a confusion of diamonds," Bernier had written.
In 1849, Maharaja Daleep Singh held court for the final time, when his province of Punjab was annexed by the British East India Company under the direction of the Earl of Dalhousie, who had recently been appointed Governor General of East India Company.
After the fort fell to the British, the Toshakhana, or treasury house, of Maharaja Ranjit Singh came into the possession of the East India Company. One of the most famous of these possessions was the Kohinoor diamond, was given to the Queen, and that was a particular point of pride for general Dalhousie.
"It is not every day," he wrote in 1849, "that an officer of their Government adds four millions of subjects to the British Empire, and places the historical jewel of the Mughal Emperors in the Crown of his Sovereign," as stated in the Victorian Review by Anne Murphy.
According to a renowned economist, Utsa Patnaik, whose research was recently published by Columbia University Press; nearly two centuries of detailed data on tax and trade that went on between India and Britain, shows that Britain drained a total of nearly $45 trillion from India during the period 1765 to 1938.
This is a staggering number and contradicts the narrative that powerful Britons like to promote, in which they explain how "Britain helped develop India" or how "Colonization of India was not a major economic win for Britain."
The truth is that, "Britain didn’t develop India. Quite the contrary – as Patnaik’s work makes clear – India developed Britain," economic anthropologist Jason Hickel said.
During the 200-year history of British rule in India, there was almost no increase in per capita income, as Patnaik's research suggests. Furthermore, during the last half of the 19th century – the primetime of British raj over India – income in the country dropped by half and the average life expectancy of Indians fell by a fifth from 1870 to 1920.
"Tens of millions died needlessly of policy-induced famine," according to Hickel.
Today, there is not enough money in all of Britain to cover the sums that Patnaik identifies, so there is no way Britain will ever be able to pay back to the Indian subcontinent and its people. However, it is important to set the facts straight, at least.
"We need to recognise that Britain retained control of India not out of benevolence but for the sake of plunder and that Britain’s industrial rise didn’t emerge sui generis from the steam engine and strong institutions, as our schoolbooks would have it, but depended on violent theft from other lands and other peoples," according to economic anthropologist, Jason Hickel.
This is just the Indian subcontinent that is in question, but British colonialism had its claws spread far and wide. Other countries are also becoming more vocal about how their national treasures were plundered by the British commanders and should now be returned back.
One example is the Rosetta Stone, which is a very important Egyptian artifact. It is a basalt block 114 cm high and 72 cm wide made by pharaoh Ptolemy of granodiorite, and it dates back to 196 BC!
The Rosetta Stone was vital in decoding of Egyptian hieroglyphics. It was taken by Napoleon Bonaparte from Egypt and was later acquired by the British after the defeat of the French army in the early 1800s.
For many years, the Egyptian officials have been asking Britain to return Rosetta Stone, but to no avail. Currently it is displayed at the British Museum in London.
Then there are the Benin Bronzes, that came from modern-day Nigeria, which was known as the Kingdom of Benin back then. The country was a proud owner of the 13th-century Bronze Scriptures created by artists of the Edo people.
In 1897, British forces raided Benin City and stole more than 3,000 objects. Some of these precious artifacts were awarded to acting officers, while others were sold at auction or given to museums.
In 1803, British Lord Elgin took off marble from the 2,500-year-old Parthenon Wall and brought it to London!
He claimed that he took the marble with due permission, but was unable to proof any of his claims by a legal document. Greece has been asking Britain for decades to return the marbles, but they are still in the British Museum.
There are countless examples of historical and expensive things taken by the British during their colonial rule and now British museums and the royal family are facing increased pressure to return the treasures to the rightful owners.
According to art historian, Alice Procter, British institutions would increasingly be forced into "soul-searching" about the place of origin of their items – and whether they should be returned.
She further said that this is a really critical time for museums to work out where they stand as they will have to stop hiding behind historical acts. "They have little justification for continuing to cite something like the British Museum Act," Procter said.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Sputnik.