Calls are growing in South Africa for Britain’s royal family to return the world’s largest known clear-cut diamond in the wake of Queen Elizabeth II’s death.
Known as the Great Star of Africa or Cullinan I, the diamond is cut from a larger gem that was mined in South Africa in 1905 and handed over to the British royal family by South Africa’s colonial authorities. It is currently mounted on a royal scepter belonging to the Queen.
Demands for the return of the Great Star of Africa and other diamonds – along with calls for repatriations – have intensified since the Queen’s death. Many South Africans view Britain’s acquisition of the jewels as illegitimate.
The Queen’s death has opened up a conversation about colonialism and how it relates to her legacy. South African media has been debating ownership of the gem, along with demands for the payment of reparations.
“The Cullinan Diamond must be returned to South Africa with immediate effect,” activist Thanduxolo Sabelo told local media, adding that: “The minerals of our country and other countries continue to benefit Britain at the expense of our people.”
More than 6,000 people have signed a petition asking for the Great Star of Africa to be returned and displayed in a South African museum.
A member of the South African parliament, Vuyolwethu Zungula, urged his country to “demand reparations for all the harm done by Britain” and also “demand the return of all the gold, diamonds stolen by Britain.”
When South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa posted a tweet eulogizing the Queen, some South Africans hijacked the post to complain about the return of the Great Star diamond.
One wrote,” Did you ask her when would she bring back the South African diamond?,” while another posted reacting to King Charles III’s ascension that his “First call of duty return South Africa’s diamond!”
A royal gift or a ‘stolen’ diamond?
According to the Royal Collection Trust, which oversees the royal collection of the British royal family, the Cullinan diamond was presented to King Edward VII (the British monarch at the time) in 1907, two years after its discovery in a private mine in South Africa’s old Transvaal province.
“It was sent to Asscher of Amsterdam to be cleft in 1908,” it added.
Weighing around 3,106 carats in its natural form, the original diamond was “the size of a human heart,” the Royal Asscher says.
Supporting the British monarchy’s claim to the precious stone, the Royal Asscher explains that the gem was purchased by South Africa’s Transvaal government (run by British rule) and presented to King Edward VII as a birthday gift.
A University of South Africa professor of African politics, Everisto Benyera, rejects this narrative. He told CNN that “colonial transactions are illegitimate and immoral.”
“Our narrative is that the whole Transvaal and Union of South Africa governments and the concomitant mining syndicates were illegal,” Benyera said, arguing that: “Receiving a stolen diamond does not exonerate the receiver. The Great Star is a blood diamond … The private (mining) company, the Transvaal government, and the British Empire were part of a larger network of coloniality.”
According to the Royal Asscher, the Cullinan diamond was cut into nine large stones and 96 smaller pieces. The largest of the stones was named the Great Star of Africa by King Edward VII, who also named the second largest cut stone the Smaller Star of Africa.
The larger diamond was set in the Sovereign’s Scepter with Cross and the second cut stone was mounted in the Imperial Crown. Queen Elizabeth II has been seen in many portraits wearing these diamonds.
“The late Queen of England has flaunted these (diamonds) for over half a century,” said Leigh-Ann Mathys, a national spokeswoman for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a South African opposition political party, to CNN.
Mathys accused British colonial powers of stealing lands and appropriating mines that belonged to native people.
“Our call is for repatriations for all colonial theft, which the theft of the Great Star of Africa is a part of,” she said.
“We don’t call for its return, as this implies that there was a valid agreement in terms of which the British royal family was borrowed the diamond. It is in their possession purely as a result of colonial tenacities that suffocated natives in this country and elsewhere,” Mathys told CNN.
African countries have persistently fought to recover cultural artifacts pillaged by colonial troops. Last month, a London museum agreed to return 72 objects looted from the Kingdom of Benin, in southern Nigeria, during a British military operation in 1897.