Did Queen Elizabeth II Own ‘Stolen’ Diamond Named Great Star of Africa?

We looked for the truth behind a claim involving Queen Elizabeth II and what is believed to be the largest diamond of its kind in the world.

  • Published
A rumor said that Queen Elizabeth II owned a stolen diamond known as the Great Star of Africa that came from South Africa.
Image via Francis G. Mayer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

On the morning of Queen Elizabeth II’s death at the age of 96, before the news was made public, the Twitter account @Africa_Archives tweeted, “Queen Elizabeth II owns the largest clear-cut diamond in the world known as the Great Star of Africa. The 530-carat gem was mined in South Africa back in 1905. It was stolen from South Africa. It has an estimated worth of $400 million.”

The rumor then continued in a second tweet that said, “The British claim that it was given to them as a symbol of friendship and peace yet it was during colonialism. The British then replaced the name the Great Star of Africa with name of chairman of [the] mine, Thomas Cullinan.”

In this story we’ll take a look at all of the facts regarding the history of the diamond, including its discovery, purchase, transfer, and controversy.

The Cullinan Diamond

On Jan. 26, 1905, a 3,106-carat diamond was discovered in the Premier Mine in the Transvaal province of South Africa. It was given the name Cullinan after the mine’s chairman, Thomas Cullinan. Cullinan was born in South Africa, according to author Nigel Helme’s 1974 biography of the diamond magnate.

According to Brittanica.com, the original, uncut Cullinan diamond was then “purchased by the [local] Transvaal government and was presented [in 1907] to the reigning British monarch, King Edward VII.” The 1907 purchase was made for 150,000 pounds, Cullinan-Diamond.com reported. (In Helme’s biography of Cullinan, he wrote that the original, uncut diamond was sent to London in April 1905 and was “officially presented to King Edward VII” on Nov. 9, 1907.)

In 1908, Asscher’s of Amsterdam cut and polished the diamond into nine large stones and about 100 smaller ones. All of the stones are now part of British regalia, according to Brittanica.com.

Great Star of Africa

The Great Star of Africa was the largest stone cut from the Cullinan diamond. At 530.2 carats, it is the largest clear-cut diamond in the world. According to historical records, it is also known as Cullinan I, First Star of Africa, or simply just Star of Africa. It’s unclear when each of these names originated.

It’s true that the queen owned the Great Star of Africa. The diamond, part of the British crown jewels, is currently part of the Sovereign’s Sceptre, also sometimes referred to as the Imperial Sceptre or Royal Sceptre.

A rumor said that Queen Elizabeth II owned a stolen diamond known as the Great Star of Africa that came from South Africa.
This photograph showing the Great Star of Africa in the sceptre and other crown jewels was captured around the coronation of Elizabeth II in June 1953. (Courtesy: Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images)

The 317.4-carat Lesser Star of Africa, also known as Cullinan II, also was cut from the Cullinan diamond and is part of the British-owned Imperial State Crown.

A Google search produced varying estimates for the value of the Great Star of Africa such as $400 million and $2 billion. Its approximate worth is unclear. However, yes, the largest diamond of its kind in the world is worth a lot of money, to say the least.

Was the Diamond ‘Stolen’?

As for the accusation that the Great Star of Africa was “stolen,” this rumor needs some context. As previously mentioned, historical records indicated that the Transvaal government in South Africa purchased the original diamond and then presented it to the British monarchy. An article printed in 1995 by The Birmingham Post summarized the controversy and included a statement from Buckingham Palace:

Give back Great Star of Africa, say townships

Black township leaders in South Africa yesterday called on the queen to give back the priceless “Great Star of Africa” diamond which is set in the crown jewels’ Royal Sceptre.

The Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo) claims the diamond was “stolen from the treasures of the Azanian (African) soil.”

Azapo spokesman Zithulele Nxawe said: “She (the queen) must be reminded that the diamond belongs to the Black people of this country, and to them alone.”

The “Great Star of Africa” was bought by the Transvaal Republic from the Premier Mine and presented to King Edward VII as a gift in 1907, said a Buckingham Palace spokeswoman.

It’s true that the jewels originated in African soil, just as the organization had claimed. Whether or not all of the details surrounding the purported purchase and transfer of the jewels constituted a theft would appear to be a matter of opinion.

The Legend of the Jewels’ Delivery

How did the jewels safely make the voyage from South Africa all the way to Europe? According to The Associated Press, there’s a legend that it was supposedly simply just sent in the mail:

One piece, the royal scepter, contains the 516-carat Star of Africa, cut from the 3,106-carat Cullinan, the biggest diamond ever found. Legend has it that mine chairman Thomas Cullinan sent it to King Edward VII from South Africa in the early 1900s by parcel post.

“I know the Royal Mail was very reliable in those days,” said Shirley Bury, who helped catalog the jewels, “but I have my doubts about that.”

In sum, it’s true that the queen owned the diamond known as the Great Star of Africa. As for the controversy over whether or not it was “stolen” from South Africa, as we mentioned, that matter is perhaps a bit more complicated. This story will be updated with any further data or developments that may help inform readers about the subject.

Sources:

“Cullinan Diamond.” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Cullinan-Diamond.

Davies, Karin. “Queen’s Regalia Placed in Safest Place in England.” AP News, 9 Jan. 1994, https://apnews.com/article/5a327fbb2817118e512e798b696a647f.

Google Books. https://books.google.com/.

Heathcote, Graham. “Crown Jewels Book Published in U.K.” AP News, 14 Aug. 1998, https://apnews.com/article/97bcb88ccfa11e9ff4fd34bc6c854a7a.

Helme, Nigel. Thomas Major Cullinan: A Biography. McGraw-Hill, 1974.

Landers, Ann. “Fascination with Priest Is Unhealthy.” The New Mexican via Newspapers.com, 18 Nov. 1985, https://www.newspapers.com/image/legacy/582391572/.

“Largest Modern Diamond Unveiled.” The Victoria Advocate via Newspapers.com, 2 May 1991, https://www.newspapers.com/image/legacy/432307871/.

“Show Gems at Coronation.” The De Kalb Daily Chronicle via Newspapers.com, 29 Dec. 1952, https://www.newspapers.com/image/legacy/126588650/.

“South Africans Lay Bare Their Love for the Queen.” The Birmingham Post via Newspapers.com, 23 Mar. 1995, https://www.newspapers.com/image/legacy/823753223/.