Guest writer of the month
A CAN OF WORMS AT THE CROWNING OF A KING
by Angus Shaw
Former British colonies and protectorates had an eye on all the jewels at the coronation of King Charles III. Diamonds, gold, silver and many precious artifacts were plundered in colonial times and the rightful owners want them back.
A truly gruesome episode in this plunder was of the gold tooth of the Congolese pan-Africanist hero Patrice Lumumba, taken by the Belgians after his assassination as far back as 1961. It was taken from the remains of Lumumba’s body in the acid bath used to totally destroy him and what he stood for. The tooth’s return to Africa sixty years later is a bizarre story in itself.
A colonial era Belgian police commissioner admitted taking it home and only in 2016 was it seized by Belgian authorities from his family during self-recriminations over their horrific colonial past in Africa.
Belgian King Leopold II had ruled the Congo as his personal fiefdom. Millions of people died of starvation and disease and others were murdered or maimed to tell to the populace to work harder to meet Leopold’s insatiable hunger for the country’s richly-endowed mineral wealth.The tooth finally made it home last year and in a full-sized coffin got an elaborate ceremonial funeral. The coffin was placed in a great mausoleum built to honour the ‘father of the nation.’
Now, after King Charles III’s coronation, India has renewed its demands for the return of the infamous
Koh-I-Noor diamond that sits among the crown jewels. The diamond has a chequered history going back to the ancient Mogul and Ottoman dynasties and in the ever-troubled regions known today as Afghanistan, Iran , Iraq, Pakistan and Turkey. It has been fought for over for hundreds of years and, some historians say, Indian warrior peoples kept it after stealing it in the first place in regional sagas likened to ‘Game of Thrones.’
India ceded it to the young Queen Victoria in 1849 after the Second Anglo-Sikh War.
A handful of years earlier than that, the Earl of Elgin stole the Ottoman Greeks’ Parthenon sculptures. Greece wants the Elgin Marbles back. What’s the problem? asks one London commentator. The British Museum could easily reproduce identical copies with 3-D printing technologies available these days.
South Africa want its Cullinan diamond back, worth an estimated $400 million in today’s market. Zimbabwe agitates, too, for the return of our stolen artifacts, like this symbolic Zimbabwe bird, and the bones of tribal chiefs that retain enormous value in the African spirit world.
Our early white settlers stole countless valuables they dug up from burial mounds at Great Zimbabwe, the medieval ‘city of stone’ from which Zimbabwe gets its name. The city was abandoned in the 15th Century with the collapse of the Monomatapa (Munhumutapa) tribal kingdom and its remarkable ancient civilization.
But none of this compares with Lumumba’s tooth, the priceless Koh-I-Nor nor the Elgin Marbles.
Angus Shaw is one of Africa’s best respected journalists, a former AP bureau chief in Zimbabwe and author of two acclaimed novels, Kandaya – Another Time, Another Place (1993) and Mutoko Madness (2013).