In the wake of Queen Elizabeth’s death, the debate over who is the rightful owner of the famed Kohinoor diamond has once again been reignited in India.
As the historian William Dalrymple pointed out, establishing ownership is far from straightforward but to many Indians, returning the Kohinoor is seen less as a referendum on the origins of the diamond itself and more as a statement of apology for the harms caused by colonial rule.
The Kohinoor is part of a larger conversation regarding reparations owed to the descendants of colonized people. To some, modern Europe is built on the backs of slavery, subjugation and forced labour. They argue that the practice hampered the economic and social growth of colonies even long after their former masters relinquished control. To bridge the gap between the developed and developing world therefore, reparations, whether symbolic, monetary, or otherwise, are much overdue.
However, for others, the rise and fall of empires is part of the natural course of history, and for realistic, legal, and moral reasons, reparations are not only impractical but also unnecessary.
According to estimates from French art historians, 90 per cent of Africa’s cultural heritage is believed to be in Europe. These include artefacts that were seized forcibly, gifted and inaccurately represented.
In 1897, James Phillips, a British official, visited the coast of Nigeria, demanding to meet the oba, or ruler, of the Kingdom of Benin. Despite being told that the oba couldn’t meet with him due to a religious festival, Phillips persevered, hoping to convince the man to stop interrupting British trade.
Phillips and his colleagues never returned home.
In response, less than a month later, Britain sent 1200 soldiers to Nigeria to avenge the killing of Phillips and his men. Within weeks, the British forces seized control of Benin city to much colonial applause. However, what the newspapers at the time failed to mention was that the British forces also raided the city, violently looting its prized artifacts.
One British officer, Captain Herbert Sutherland Walker, wrote in his diary that British soldiers were “wandering round with a chisel and hammer, knocking off brass figures and collecting all sorts of rubbish as loot.” Additionally, he claimed that “all the stuff of any value found in the King’s palace, and surrounding houses, has been collected.”
Today, the Benin Bronzes, as they have come to be known, are spread out across the globe. Most are owned by museums but several also belong to private collectors and educational institutions.
Contrary to what their name suggests, the Benin Bronzes are neither from the country of Benin (originating instead from southern Nigeria,) and are not made solely from bronze. The various artifacts, believed to number over 3000, include wooden heads, ivory statues and brass plates.
Pressure to return these objects has arisen across the UK and the US. In 2016, students at Jesus College, Cambridge, campaigned to have a statue of a cockerel removed from its halls. At the Rhode Island School of Design in Massachusetts, students protested the presence of Benin Bronzes. Both institutions have pledged to return the items but have stressed that establishing ownership would be a challenging task.
After calls for the return of artifacts were amplified by the Benin Dialogue Group in 2010, the Nigerian local government agreed to open a museum in Benin City in 2023 featuring at least 300 Benin Bronzes. Those pieces will come from the collections of 10 European museums, including the British Museum, on a three year loan.
Similarly, calls have been made for the Victoria and Albert Museum in the UK to return the famed Tipu Sultan’s Tiger. Created to adorn the throne of Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Indian state of Mysore until East India Company troops besieged its capital in 1799. The sculpture depicts a British soldier being mauled by a tiger, his mouth frozen in shock as the beast sinks his teeth into his chest. If you turn the handle on its side, the soldier’s arms flail in agony and cries of terror erupt out of it.
After defeating Sultan, the British forces routinely hunted tigers, both to emulate the practices of the Mughal court and to symbolise the defeat of those who stood in the way of British domination. Tipu’s Tiger, much like the man himself, represented Indian opposition to British colonialism and remains as one of the most popular attractions at the museum.
While the Benin Bronzes and Tipu’s Tiger are widely acknowledged to have been seized in an act of war, other colonial artifacts have a far more complicated history. Both the Kohinoor and the Cullinan diamond are believed to have been gifted to the British, albeit potentially in order to placate colonial forces and prevent any future bloodshed.
The Cullinan diamond, mined in South Africa in 1905, is the largest gem-quality uncut diamond ever discovered.
A couple of years after it was found, the diamond was gifted to King Edward VII by the Government of the Transvaal (South Africa), according to the Royal Collection Trust. Its plaque reads that the gift was “a symbolic gesture intended to heal the rift between Britain and South Africa following the Boer War. After initial hesitation, the King accepted the gift on the recommendation of the British Government.”
Despite its weight and value, the stone was famously transported by post from South Africa to Britain. It was then cut into nine large gemstones, each given s name Cullinan I to IX. 96 smaller diamonds were also produced from the stone. The largest of the lot is the 530 carat Cullinan I, also known as the Star of Africa, which now lies on the royal scepter of the British Crown Jewels. It is the largest colourless cut diamond in the world.
While the heritage of the Cullinan diamond and Tipu’s Tiger is well displayed, the same cannot be said of other looted artifacts. Most controversial of the lot is perhaps the Nigerian Chibok arrows.
In 1906, around 170 British soldiers launched an expedition against the Nigerian town of Chibok, now best known as being the setting for the kidnapping of 276 schoolchildren by terrorist group Boko Haram. Back then, Chibok represented arguably the greatest threat to British interests.
In defence against the British assault, the Chibok townsmen fought valiantly against invading troops, firing them with poisoned arrows and holding them off for 11 days. According to a report to Britain’s parliament at the time, the “Chibok savages” as they were described, had been “the most determined lot of fighters” ever encountered in what is now modern-day Nigeria.
It was only after the British forces discovered Chiibok’s natural water sources several months later, and subsequently starved them out, did they manage to annex the region. The arrows and spears used by the townsmen were then collected and sent to London where they remain in storage today. However, the British Museum offers no description of how the artifacts were seized, nor of the exploits of the brave Chibok townspeople.
Perhaps most notably, CARICOM, an organisation of Caribbean states, has issued a ten-point plan outlying how reparations should be issued. As a starting point, the group has called for European governments to pay USD 50 billion for the stolen labour and resources that facilitated Europe’s rise at the expense of the colonized world.
Hilary Beckles, chairman of the reparations commission for CARICOM, insists that the sum is merely a drop in the ocean, estimating the European debt to the region at seven trillion British pounds.
The commission is also calling for a formal apology, rehabilitation programs, the development of cultural institutions, international debt forgiveness and investments in health and educational institutions.
Other countries have made similar demands.
Jamaica is seeking USD10.6 billion from the British, equivalent to the fees that Britain paid slave owners to populate the island.
Burundi asked for USD43 billion from Germany and Belgium, a figure calculated on the basis of the economic toll imposed by decades of violence and forced labour.
Congolese officials, while not setting an official price, have demanded that Belgium pay reparations for its brutal rule over the country, estimated to be so violent that it resulted in millions of deaths. According to one survey, nine of Belgium’s 23 richest families still trace their fortunes to the Congo.
Rwanda for its part has accused Belgium of having taken the body of their former king after he was exiled in 1931. They are now making a case for the return of his remains.
Famously, Indian politician Shashi Tharoor made an impassioned case for reparations during a debate at the Oxford Union in 2015. While he dismissed the feasibility of the British ever being able to compensate India fully for colonial rule, he argued that a symbolic gesture would do much to repair the fractures that exist between the two nations. Towards that end, he suggested that the UK government pay India a sum of GBP1 per annum for 200 years to represent the same period of colonial occupation.
The most widely known example of international reparations is that of Germany after the Second World War, when the German government agreed to issue reparations to neighbouring states and individual survivors of the Holocaust. As per the terms agreed at the Yalta Conference, the reparations would not be paid in money, but instead through the transfer of German industrial assets as well as forced labour to the Allied powers.
Nearly half of payments were allotted towards France, the UK, and the US. Germany also paid Israel three billion marks over 14 years to compensate the families of Jews killed during the Holocaust. The USSR received payments from German allies including Italy, Finland, Hungary, and Romania.
Germany is no stranger to the reparations process itself, having extracted payments from the French after the Franco-Prussian war of 1970.
Britain, for its part, has compensated the survivors of the Amritsar massacre of 1919, paying nearly 2000 victims a mere total of USD30,000 at the time. More recently, families who suffered during an infamous 1950s crackdown in Kenya also successfully lobbied the British government for USD30 million in reparations in 2013.
Additionally, in 2015, public pressure in Germany over its genocide in Namibia resulted in the Bundestag committing USD1.35 billion in aid to the country, along with a formal acknowledgement of crimes committed there.
In terms of the return of stolen artifacts, governments have been similarly vocal, to limited success.
Under growing pressure, France repatriated 26 pilfered artworks to Benin last year, a small and arguably insignificant gestures considering that a French government audit estimated that the country’s museums hold 90,000 objects looted from Africa alone.
In June, Belgium’s king traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo with one of 84,000 cultural objects being returned. However, his government offered no reparations, and despite repeated demands, no formal apology.
The primary argument in favour of reparations lies in the fact that colonialism was rooted in the desire to extract as many resources as possible from host countries leading to long term economic consequences. This wealth accumulation included extracting valuable natural resources, imposing trade restrictions, and destroying local industries. Since indigenous people were seen as inferior, it was also common to confiscate their lands and homes, enslave them and suppress their local cultures. In many cases, large swaths of the population were killed or died due to economic deprivation.
The economic extraction from colonies continues to have adverse consequences. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue in Why Nations Fail, that colonialism has shaped modern inequality in several fundamental ways. They write that 500 years ago, before the colonial project began, the economic inequality between rich and poor countries amounted to a factor of four. Today, they differ by a factor of more than 40.
Joshua Dwayne Settles, a professor at the University of Tennessee, argued in a 1996 paper that Africa faced similar problems after independence. He states that before the ‘Scramble for Africa,’ African economies were advancing in every area, particularly trade. During colonial rule, European powers pursued self-serving interests, “by encouraging the development of a commodity based trading system, a cash crop agriculture system, and by building a trade network linking the total economic output of a region to the demands of the colonizing state.”
According to Regina Paulose and Ronald Rogo, who wrote an article on reparations for the State Crime Journal in 2018, although most of the colonisers and their victims may no longer be alive, the crimes committed were on behalf of the state. Therefore, while there may not be a case for individual criminal liability, there is one for civil liability of the state.
According to some, the precedent for this already exists. For example, a pan-African conference held in 1993 compared colonial reparations to those issued to victims of the holocaust.
According to Tharoor, international law also concurs with the demand for colonial reparations. He writes that “the obligation to provide reparations arises when a violation of international law takes place, and it continues till a substantial step is taken to atone for the violation. It is not an act of charity, rather a principle founded in international customary law.”
The case for returning artifacts is also a compelling one, laid bare by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy in their book, the Report on the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Sarr and Savoy not only document how artifacts can and should be returned, but also argue passionately for why that is the case. They write that “the youth of Africa, as much as the youth in France or Europe in general, have a right to their artistic and cultural heritage.” Adding that erasing some of the wounds inflicted by colonialism would be achieved by returning cultural objects in aid of reconstructing the identity of subjects and communities.
The main argument cited by those who oppose reparations is that colonisation was a legal and common practice at the time.
As noted historian Edward Said once stated, “partly because of empire, all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogenous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic.”
Simply, neither land nor culture is exclusive to a single state, and the history of mankind has been characterised by the interchange of resources, particularly by force.
Additionally, not all colonies were treated equally and it would be almost impossible to account for everyone’s interests or calculate a fair sum for each. Then there is the matter of where the money would be allocated and whether it would actually address the challenges faced by postcolonial states today.
More practically, the concept of reparations could also set an unwanted and untenable precedent. Although Germany eventually agreed to pay Namibia reparations, Matthias Goldmann, a German legal scholar, said that German leaders initially resisted settling the claim out of a “grave concern that this would give rise to a rule.”
In a 2018 lecture, British scholar Jason Hickel further argued that no country could afford to pay the entirety or even fraction of reparations owed. He said, “chalk up the billions of hours that enslaved Africans worked on British plantations, pay it at a living wage. Tally up compensation for the 60 million souls sacrificed to famine…and you realize that if Britain paid reparations — real, honest, courageous reparations — there would be nothing left.”