In the last few days, it has emerged that Bollywood stars and businessmen have united to instruct lawyers to begin legal proceedings in London’s High Court to return the Koh-i-Noor diamond to India. This is, as these things always are, a contentious issue, and one I don't want to delve into here. All I will say is that I find it very, very, unlikely that the diamond, much like the Elgin Marbles, will leave Britain any time soon.
The diamond in situ
What I do want to talk about it the response. It will be as no surprise to learn that the most idiotic of these was printed by the Mail on Sunday, quoting ‘historian Andrew Roberts’. Again, I don't want to go into what I think of this historian, the fact is he has sold more books and has more readers than I will likely ever have. So whatever his merits, what he says matters. Which is why it is such a disappointment that what he came out with was such utter rubbish. Here is the quotation (so you don't have to give the Mail any more traffic):
Those involved in this ludicrous case should recognise that the British Crown Jewels is precisely the right place for the Koh-i-Noor diamond to reside, in grateful recognition for over three centuries of British involvement in India, which led to the modernisation, development, protection, agrarian advance, linguistic unification and ultimately the democratisation of the sub-continent.’
Now, the moral balance sheet of empire is a much discussed thing, and one can make points which suggest that as well as the horrors it perhaps did some good for some (and generally this is when we think about a counterfactual history of British colonies under other European rule). But to white wash (and perhaps this is an apt phrase) all horrors as Roberts has done is no just irresponsible but a downright lie.
The last thing on the minds of those working for the East India Company, the men who first took Indian land for Britain, was the good of the indigenous population. William Dalrymple argues brilliantly here as to why the Company were in fact ‘the original corporate raiders’: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/04/east-india-company-original-corporate-raiders. It is true that some Indians did well out of the British involvement, but again, this was to facilitate British rule. There was no other way do few white men could control such a large population than to integrate existing elite into its own power structure. But, and this is the crucial point, these were side effects of policies which allowed Britain to keep control of India whilst exacting as much from it as possible. If one wants an example of how much the British really cared for indigenous Indians, you only have to turn to the Bengal famine, which killed some ten million people. I would hardly call that agrarian advance. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Bengal_famine_of_1770)
Roberts also points to the linguistic uniting of India as a blessing from the British. Whilst this is a rather odd thing to see as an advantage (who is to say that this is better than the situation before?) it also ignores the fact that many of the geopolitical and religious problems in Asia are Britain’s fault. One only has to look at Kashmir, where the division made by the British left a majority Muslim population under the control of a Sikh power, to realise that Britain can hardly be lauded for its state making here. Moreover, one could argue that the Indian nationalism - at the very heart of state building in a cultural sense - was caused in opposition to British rule. I don't need to point out here why that opposition might have occurred.
What makes me most angry - and apologies that this is turning somewhat into a rant - is not that it is Roberts, and not those asking for the diamond back that is, to use his term, ‘ludicrous’, but that he is perpetuating this ridiculous myth to a public eager to lap it up. Nearly all those I know who have taught imperial history have had students who cannot comprehend why anyone would think it a bad thing. ‘But we gave them railways, a civil service, democracy’ we hear. This is a nineteenth century understanding of empire. It offers those people invaded and ruled against their will no agency. The white man knew best and brought them civilisation. And, of course, it ignores the major reason why the colonial powers brought these things. To line their own pockets, and to bolster their own control.