Fact Check

Does King Charles' Scepter Contain Controversial 'Great Star of Africa' Diamond?

Critics of the royal family believe the gem represents British colonization, claiming it was "stolen" from South Africa more than a century ago.

Published May 15, 2023

 (Gareth Cattermole/AFP via Getty Image)
Image courtesy of Gareth Cattermole/AFP via Getty Image
Claim:
King Charles' scepter, which he held at his coronation on May 6, 2023, contains a piece of a controversial diamond known as the Great Star of Africa.
Context

Controversy surrounds the diamond, which critics of the royal family say was "stolen" from South Africa during the colonial era; the British reject that accusation.

The coronation of King Charles III on May 6, 2023, reignited criticism of the British royal family's collection of gems and jewels. Among the pieces is a jewel adorning Charles' scepter, which he held during the coronation ceremony and which internet observers claimed to be the controversial diamond known as the Great Star of Africa.

For the purpose of this fact check, we sought evidence to confirm, or disprove, whether Charles' scepter, which he held at his coronation, contains a piece of that diamond. We determined that claim to be true.

Claims regarding the diamond's allegedly "stolen" status or purported price tag have circulated for years. For instance, we looked at the gem's history in response to such rumors that surfaced following Queen Elizabeth II's death in September 2022.

Called the Star of Africa or Cullinan I (named after Thomas Cullinan, the chairman of the mining company behind the discovery), in 1905, the diamond was mined from a region in the former province of Transvaal (what is now South Africa), which had become a British crown colony just three years earlier, in 1902. The British restored internal self-government to the region in 1906.

Many South Africans view the British ownership of the diamond as illegitimate given the circumstances under which it was handed over. They argue, given they were subjects of a colonial power that stripped the region of its resources and exploited Black African labor to enrich the British, such transactions of precious gems mined from their land should be considered theft.

The diamond was gifted to the British royal family by the Transvaal colonial government in 1907. It was then cut and polished before it was mounted on the scepter in 1910, according to the Royal Collection Trust, which catalogues the royal family's art collection and historic materials. 

The Royal Collection Trust described the process of cutting the diamond as a "considerable challenge." It was sent to leading diamond cutters at the time, the Asscher family in Amsterdam, and they cut and polished nine large stones from the original piece. The Royal Collection Trust described what happened with the various stones (emphasis, ours):

After King Edward's death in 1910, King George V had Cullinan I and II set in the Sovereign's Sceptre and Imperial State Crown respectively. Both these stones are still in the regalia today. The remaining numbered diamonds were kept by Asschers as payment for their work. Cullinan VI and VIII were later brought privately by King Edward VII as a gift for Queen Alexandra, and the others were acquired by the South African Government and given to Queen Mary in 1910, in memory of the Inauguration of the Union. They were bequeathed to Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

The Royal Collection Trust also detailed how the in-question diamond made it into the scepter as part of an alteration to the staff:

The sceptre was originally made for Charles II, but has undergone a number of alterations, particularly in 1820 for the coronation of George IV, when an enamelled rose, thistle and shamrock were all added to the monde. The major alteration was made in 1910, when the sceptre was altered to receive the great Cullinan diamond. The structure which holds the diamond is hinged so that the stone may be removed and worn separately, although this has been done rarely. The sceptre also had to be reinforced as the weight of the diamond is so large.

Cullinan I, which is mounted in the sceptre, is the largest stone cut from the great Cullinan Diamond, the largest diamond ever discovered. 

History.com confirmed this account, describing the diamond as having been sold by Cullinan, the owner of the diamond mine, to the Transvaal provincial government. Then, according to History.com and other sources, the stone was supposedly presented to King Edward VII as a birthday gift. 

The Cape Town Diamond Museum described the diamond as a "gift of goodwill" to Edward after the Anglo-Boer War (also known as the Second Boer War) and said the diamond's journey to the royals came with "extreme measures to keep it safe":

The magnificent diamond was insured for R17 million before it was carefully transported to England. Here a Premier London agent named Sigismund Neumann kept the large diamond for safe keeping. When they transported the large diamond, they had to take extreme measures to keep it safe. The Cullinan was sent in a plain box via parcel post while detectives from London were asked to transport a replica as a decoy publically.

The Royal Asscher — which is run by descendants of the original Asschers family — supports the British claim to the stone. According to that organization's website, the diamond was purchased by the colonial Transvaal government and given to Edward for his birthday to commemorate five years of peace between the two countries following the Second Boer War's end in 1902.

However, many South Africans reject these narratives. Everisto Benyera, an associate professor of African politics at the University of South Africa, told CNN in a 2022 interview 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," he said. "Receiving a stolen diamond does not exonerate the receiver."

Historian Martin Meredith, who wrote the book, "Diamonds, Gold and War: The British, The Boers and the Making of South Africa," described the poor conditions in diamond minds around the time of the gem's discovery. In a 2007 interview with NPR, he detailed how these working conditions imposed by British corporations and colonial powers impacted Black South African workers:

South Africa is rich in all kinds of minerals, and so mining is a very broad-based industry, not just confined to diamonds. But certainly, the beginning of diamond mining safety procedures that were employed, well, they're non-existent.

It was routine for both white and black miners to be killed. And indeed, the level of accidents in South African mines has always been very high. That's partly because many of the mines are very deep and conditions therefore are more difficult. But it was also based on the notion that, because black labor was plentiful, they were, in a sense, expendable. There was no real, proper welfare system employed for black labor. The conditions were extremely difficult and dangerous. And indeed in many cases, they still continue to be.

In short, critics of the royal family argue that the Great Star of Africa diamond symbolizes deep-seated issues with how British colonization impacted South Africa.

Many South Africans argue that the policies of the British empire in the 19th century under Victorian rule, with its legacy of mineral extraction, slavery, violent land seizure, and forced labor, is deeply connected to modern-day poverty among Black South Africans. Lawyer and activist Tembeka Ngcukaitobi wrote in the South African newspaper Mail & Guardian in 2022, "All these [policies of the colonial government] have created a life of affluence for British citizens and massive wealth for British corporations. Those legacies have proved extremely difficult to reverse, with conventional policies which do no more than entrench the wealth of white Europeans at the expense of Africans." 

Leigh-Ann Mathys, a spokesperson for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a South African political party, said to CNN in 2022: "Our call is for repatriations for all colonial theft, which the theft of the Great Star of Africa is a part of. [...] We don't call for its return, as this implies that there was a valid agreement in terms of which the British royal family borrowed the diamond. It is in their possession purely as a result of colonial tenacities that suffocated natives in this country and elsewhere." 

Sources

"Diamonds and the Making of South Africa." NPR, 30 Oct. 2007, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15775777. Accessed 12 May 2023.

"For Africans, the British Empire Was Neither Benign nor Good." The Mail & Guardian, 12 Sept. 2022, https://mg.co.za/thoughtleader/opinion/2022-09-12-for-africans-the-british-empire-was-neither-benign-nor-good/. Accessed 12 May 2023.

Liles, Jordan. "Did Queen Elizabeth II Own 'Stolen' Diamond Named Great Star of Africa?" Snopes, 8 Sept. 2022, https://www.snopes.com/news/2022/09/08/queen-diamond-south-africa/. Accessed 12 May 2023.

Princewill, Nimi. "Royal Gift or 'stolen' Gem? Calls for UK to Return 500 Carat Great Star of Africa Diamond." CNN, 15 Sept. 2022, https://www.cnn.com/style/article/great-star-of-africa-diamond-intl-lgs/index.html. Accessed 12 May 2023.

"Sir Robert Vyner (1631-88) - The Sovereigns Sceptre with Cross." Royal Collection Trust. https://www.rct.uk/collection/31712/the-sovereigns-sceptre-with-cross. Accessed 12 May 2023.

"The Cullinan." Royal Asscher, https://royalasscher.com/en-us/blogs/blog/the-cullinan-diamond. Accessed 12 May 2023.

"The Cullinan Diamond." Royal Collection Trust. https://www.rct.uk/collection/themes/trails/the-crown-jewels/the-cullinan-diamond. Accessed 12 May 2023.

"The Cullinan Diamond: A History | CT Diamond Museum." Cape Town Diamond Museum, 18 Jan. 2017, https://www.capetowndiamondmuseum.org/blog/2017/01/worlds-largest-diamond-the-cullinan/. Accessed 12 May 2023.

"Transvaal | History, Government, Map, & Facts." Britannica. 1 May 2023, https://www.britannica.com/place/Transvaal. Accessed 12 May 2023.

"World's Largest Diamond Found." HISTORY, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/worlds-largest-diamond-found. Accessed 12 May 2023.

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.