On the 9th of April 2002 Britain witnessed the public funeral of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in Westminster Abbey, following her death at the age of 101 years old. Coverage of the funeral spanned the former British Empire and beyond, and we watched as the coffin, with her crown resting on top, draped in her personal standard, was carried into Westminster Abbey, the coronation and burial site for British monarchs. The event was a spectacle of the British monarchy, a spectacle which echoed around the shell of Britain’s former imperial rule, and at the very centre of this spectacle was the Koh-i-Noor Diamond (or Kohinoor), a spoil of imperial conquest set in the centre of the Queen Mother’s crown. The Kohinoor diamond is believed to have been found near Guntur in Anhra Pradesh, India as early as the 13th century, however the origins of the stone have been debated, with different cultures claiming different discoveries. Some Hindus claim that the Lord Krishna wore it around his neck and that it was “stolen from him while sleeping” (Goshray, 2008; 746), and so assign a religious value to the stone. From a purely objective standpoint the stone is not particularly outstanding, it is certainly a large diamond—although it has been recut over the years considerably reducing it from its original size—but it is by no means the largest diamond in the world, nor is it the most brilliant, it is through its cultural significance that it has achieved its value and desirability. The stone itself could be described as a palimpsest of its histories. In Thomas De Quincey’s essay ‘The palimpsest’, he inaugurated the use of palimpsests in a figurative sense. A palimpsest is a parchment or other writing-material written upon twice, in which the original writing is erased or rubbed out to make place for the second. The palimpsest has been used since 1845 in a figurative sense, and the use that I am interested in for this essay is the reipscription of this metaphor by Sarah Dillon (2005) in relation to postcolonial theory, but also in a broader reading of the palimpsest as a metaphor for histories being written over the top of each other. Dillon (2005) describes the archaeological reading of a palimpsest, in which the objective is the resurrection of the underlying script, uncovering the histories that were previously unseen, she also describes the genealogical reading of a palimpsest, coined by Foucault (1971) which traces the connections between the discourses that have been brought to light, the former is a reading of the palimpsest of history and the latter is a palimpsestuous reading of history. Foucault’s palimpsestuous reading of history is useful in postcolonial theory, as it helps us view ‘history’ “not as a natural evolution or progress but as a history of colonial expansion, the violent erasure and superimposition of cultures and the defiant and subversive persistence” (Dillon, 2005; 254). The metaphor of the palimpsest can be applied to the diamond physically, through the different stages of its reshaping process as it has flown through multiple hands of ownership, but more importantly, culturally, as it has taken on cultural value from each of these owners. In this essay I will use the metaphor of the palimpsest and a palimpsestuous reading of the diamond to draw attention, not just to individual layers of its history, but the way these layers of history interact, and how these histories and their interactions have cultural implications now.
Due to the ambiguity of the term culture, I believe its necessary to discuss its conceptualisation, in order to come by a useful interpretation that I can use in this essay. There are contrasting schools of thought when it comes to culture. Traditional cultural geography, known as the ‘Berkeley school’, focussed on the relationship between culture and landscape it was born out of, and the way they shaped each other. This could be quantified as tangible and often material changes in the landscape like architecture. The school of thought that followed this practice, known as ‘New Cultural Geography’, moved the focus away from these tangible, material cultures, to non-material cultures of ideology, power, meaning, identity, and values (Duncan, et al. 2004). Inglis (1993; 38, in Mitchell, 2000) attributed culture to a “system of humanly expressive practices by which values are renewed, created and contested”. Mitchell (2000) finds the degree to which culture is represented as a sphere or a realm, or to use Inglis’ term, a system, can make it somewhat meaningless. The conceptualisation is almost too broad, if it is everything then it means nothing. He believes that studies need to operationalise definitions of culture for culture to be able to do critical work. Mitchell has operationalised culture by offering the thesis that there is no such thing as culture, “only differing arrays of power that organise society in this way, and not that” (2000; 74) and so “there is only a powerful idea of culture, an idea that has developed under specific historical conditions and was later broadened as a means of explaining material differences, social order and relations of power” (2000; 75). From Mitchell’s thesis on culture I take that culture is used as a tool by different agents, who are in possession of the power of culture, and as he puts it, culture is therefore a “socially intentional process”. The palimpsestuous reading in to this would suggest that different actors are in the possession of the power of the idea of culture at different points, and in the case of the Kohinoor, the owner is able to present it in such a way in order to use it as a tool of cultural production, this can then allow for another writing of history for the stone, giving the owner some power to mask the histories that came before it. When powerful actors, like the British Monarchy, exercise their wide reaching influence on culture, they can transform the public perception of a particular symbol of culture. In doing so they can contribute a new layer of history to the palimpsest of that symbol. The British Empire has been accused by commentators of being a hegemonic force in the destruction of the cultures of its colonies. It possesses the power to rebrand a cultural artefact from a foreign land, and, for the British public at least, make it a symbol of empire. When the Kohinoor is set into the Queen Mother’s crown and displayed to the masses, this has cultural implications that are highly variegated, dependent on a whole intersection of factors. The diamond invokes a different response in the viewer, based on their experiences, nationality, religion, class, political orientation, and other factors that interact to make up their beliefs and their ‘culture’. I respect the fluidity and borderlessness of culture, and by attempting to delineate certain cultural implications I am in a sense mapping out culture, attempting to find trends in a fluid concept, and I accept that I am therefore exercising some power. In the next paragraph I will discuss the Kohinoor’s journey to London, and discuss the global cultural implications of its relocation here. Following that I will discuss the cultural implications that the stone has domestically here in Britain, as a powerful symbol of empire set in to the British monarchy.
When Brits of today see the large diamond set into the Queen Mother’s crown they may just see it as a symbol of power and grandeur for the British monarchy. It’s possible that they don’t know its history as a symbol of imperial conquest, or its previous histories. The diamond was mined during the rule of the Kakatiya dynasty, and it was passed from one ruling dynasty to the next. Possession of the Kohinoor lead to murder, torture and mutilation and this became known as the curse of the diamond. The curse of the diamond dates back to a Hindu text in 1306, that reads “he who owns this diamond will own the world but will also know all its misfortunes. Only God, or a woman, can wear it with impunity” (Kaud, 2014). These are the original writings on its palimpsest, and show a deep historical, religious and cultural value attributed to the stone. In 1849 the British East India Company acted on behalf of the Crown when they exerted sufficient military prowess to oversee the annexation of the Sikh empire of Punjab. The crown had been establishing increased control over the British East India Company by passing various acts dating back to the Regulating Act of 1773, and so it became almost an operational arm of the Crown in the expansion of the British Empire. During the decisive battle in the Second Anglo-Sikh War, the Battle of Gujrat, the Sikh army was defeated by the forces of the British East India Company. Two weeks later, on the 29th of March 1849, the Last Treaty of Lahore was signed by the 10 year old ruler of the Sikh Empire. Maharaja Duleep Singh agreed to the annexation of Punjab, as he was stripped of his “sovereignty, leadership, and wealth, including the Koh-i-Noor” (Goshray, 2008; 749). The ruler was coerced into the deal by the British Parliamentarian Marquis Dalhousie who made it clear that he wanted the diamond to be surrendered to Queen Victoria as a spoil of war. Under Dalhousie’s leadership the conquering British wouldn’t stop until they had achieved the “destruction of the very powerful Sikh region in India” and their remit “included leaving no valuables and no reminisces of the powerful historical legacy of the Sikhs.” (Goshray, 2008; 750) Dalhousie himself wrote, “the task before me is the utter destruction and prostration of the Sikh power, the subversion of its dynasty and the subjection of its people. This must be done promptly, fully and finally” (Goshray, 2008; 751), this objective is like Dalhousie attempting erase the previous writings of the diamond’s palimpsest, and inscribe it with a new history of the British empire. In some senses the diamond’s history has been rewritten, as the viewer sees it as a glorious display of the riches of the Monarchy, but if we analyse the palimpsest archaeologically, we can see the rich cultures that are embedded in it. These histories are still being contested and discussed today and this has surfaced in the form of modern day attempts at repatriation of the stone from India, Pakistan and even the Taliban (Goshray, 2008; 753). The former Prime Minister of Pakistan has also demanded that the Kohinoor be returned to there, as the region it was surrendered in is now present day Pakistan. The issue with the legal structures that would facilitate the repatriation of the stone lies in the fact that the “laws related to repatriation and return of cultural artefacts have been designed to protect the commercial interests of the possessing countries. This is due to the influence of colonial powers in the formation of international law” (Goshray, 2008, 744). The power structures that were embedded in imperialism are still in place today, and this is why the focus of the useful discourse on postcolonialism is not simply a discussion of the periods after colonialism, but it is the discussion of how the geographies of colonialism persist (Nash, 2002; 220). This is where Dillon’s (2005) palimpsest is useful as a tool in postcolonial discourse, as it uses a palimpsestuous lens to see how the actions undertaken during colonialism impact the present day. Efforts to repatriate the stone are founded on the basis that these nations have a claim to the cultural value they assign to the stone. Cultural artefacts like the diamond represent “a composite kaleidoscope of unique historical significance that transcends the temporal boundaries of not only the individual race but all of mankind” (Goshray, 2007; 744). One of the recurring themes of the British Empire is that the top layer of this palimpsest has a way of shrouding the layers beneath, and the cultures of the oppressed can be overshadowed.
The masking of the previous histories contained in the Koh-i-Noor may be significant in explaining the popularity of the monarchy in Britain today. This powerful symbol of the Crown’s oppressive activity is accepted into the Tower of London, and the monarchy that it belongs to is as popular as it’s ever been. Every year the British public are polled and asked if they would like to retain the monarchy, the result was 76% in favour of the monarchy in 2016,and has been stable around that since 1993. The stone itself is physical representation of a society plundered by the British, and it is paraded around at the centre of the beloved British monarchy. Britain refuses to recognise its misdoings in history, and this is arguably visible in the stable support for the monarchy, and the Royal Family’s refusal to return to the Koh-i-Noor. I find it noteworthy that in a British society that is increasingly pluralist, and in a world where, on the surface at least, the prevalent notion is one of democracy, that there is unfaltering support for a hereditary position of absolute sovereignty, aligned at a Christian faith. Despite the ability of this unelected body to dissolve parliament, to wage war and sign treaties, we still see almost a blind veneration for the royal family in Britain. The symbolic power of the monarchy can provide an explanation here. The monarchy recognise that part of their role is providing a sense of unity across Britain, and they spend a lot of time visiting each of the corners of nations that they rule. Anderson (2006; 6) defines the nation as an “imagined political community”, he believes it is “imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most their fellow-members… yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” The crown facilitates the imagination of a British community, as a central symbol to upholding a culture of traditional British values. We are seeing an interesting pattern in which countries are reacting to an increasingly multicultural and globalised world through a rise in Nationalism. Nationalist rhetoric is one of the key factors that swayed both the election of Donald Trump and the referendum for Britain to leave the European Union. This is reflective of an attempt by people to hold on to their imagined communities. In Britain we have a strange case of this nationalism, in which nations are joined together to give a sense of British nationalism, we have a commitment and loyalty to a British monarchy, a British Parliament, a British navy, a British army, and by extension a British empire (Kumar, 2003; 147). The crown facilities the dissemination of non-material cultures of power and identity, that invoke feelings of pride strong enough for Britons to risk their lives to fight for this imagined community, much as they did during the years of Imperial rule. The powerful sense of pride and unity that the monarchy provides seems to exclude it from public debate over its vast expenditure of taxpayer’s money, but more importantly its persistent celebration of the domination of its former colonies, the plundering of their jewels and the appropriation of their cultures. The Kohinoor is a glistening symbol of this. In a Britain where christians are in the minority, class divisions are decreasing social mobility and we have 2nd and 3rd generation settlers from previously colonised lands, society’s customs, symbols and ceremonies should be reflective of this.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the power embedded in this imagined community is that the culture on which it is built is made up of a composite kaleidoscope of borrowed culture, of which a significant amount was acquired during the global rule of the British empire. These cultures have been repackaged, and commodified to some extent, and they now form part of the basis of unity across Britain. The Koh-i-Noor could not be a better example of this, it acts as a grounded, physical example of a much wider process of cultural appropriation that occurred during the reign of the British empire, and continues to resonate today. As the Koh-i-Noor sits in tower of London, the heart of the Empire, its cultural implications are felt globally and domestically. Globally, the significance of it being in the hand’s of the British monarchy still resonates today, and the previous layers of its palimpsest are surfaced when there are claims to its ownership from the Indian subcontinent. It acts as a metaphor for the continued subjugation of the former colonies in a postcolonial world, playing a role in the “imaginative geographies of colonialism [that] both persist and are reworked in the name of globalisation” (Nash, 2000; 220). Domestically, its Indian history is overpowered by its the current writings, as it is viewed set in to the crown of the Queen Mother, as it was Queen Victoria’s crown, and therefore set in to the crown of the Monarchy of the British Empire, with tourists paying £20 to come and view it in the Jewel House. The image of the Sikhs that lost their lives at the battle of Gujrat as the British empire extended its rule stands in stark contrast to its current representation as a glistening symbol of Christian and British unity. The hands that the stone finds itself in have the ability to display the stone in a way that, implicitly or explicitly suppresses parts of its history that make up its cultural significance and represent it in a totally different light, however in this is the “potential for future reinscriptions of the cultural and historical palimpsest, for shifts in the balances of power” (Dillon, 2005; 255). The current presentation of the Koh-i-Noor allows it to influence British culture by shining a brilliance on the Monarchy and by extension, the times of the British empire in which it was procured.
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