The Absurdity of Cultural Patrimony

With the death of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, some South Africans are demanding the return of “The Great Star of Africa” diamond, one of the world’s largest.  They are falsely claiming the diamond was removed from South Africa when it was under colonial rule, and therefore, was not acquired legitimately.  They are claiming the diamond is part of their nations “natural heritage” and should not reside in any other nation. 

This whole concept of cultural patrimony, or natural heritage, is ridiculous and an absurd attempt to equate normal practices of the past with the current morals of some. It is also an attempt by certain countries to acquire objects which were legitimately sold or given to others according to the agreements of the time.

Whether we care to admit it or not, every nation on earth was created as the result of conquest. Initially, stronger clans and tribes of people drove out or assimilated with weaker groups and asserted their dominance. Over time, tribes were replaced by nations and religions, each of whom increased their dominions through conquest. And every time a given group was conquered, their goods (and often, their people) were taken, sometimes through legitimate trade, but more often, through plunder.

Colonialism was one of the more recent forms of conquest. There were certainly elements of colonialism which are considered unacceptable by current standards. But if one were to look at the total historical record, colonialism, as a form of conquest, was far more humane than prior (and in many instances, subsequent) forms of conquest. If one were to carefully look at the events in many post-colonial countries, their governments and actions were far less enlightened than when they were ruled by their prior colonial masters. And almost none of these post-colonial nations are ruled by their original indigenous populations. They just happen to be ruled by groups who engaged in their own forms of conquest, either before or after colonialism.

One of the primary purposed of colonialism was to acquire the resources of the conquered areas. In fact, prior to the advent of mercantilism, and later, capitalism, conquest was the dominant method of gaining access to riches and resources from other nations. Based upon the mores of the times, colonialism was a legitimate method of accessing resources, and those resources were sometimes even accessed through relatively fair trade.

Current “national heritage laws” are a cynical attempt to deny the real history of the past and a way for certain nations to fleece the possessions of others by claiming cultural patrimony rights. Aided by the United Nations, these countries are attempting to secure riches and artifacts, many of doubtful provenance, by claiming they are part of the nation’s historical heritage.

“The Great Star of Africa” diamond was acquired by Great Britain legitimately, according to the customs and laws of the time. It is disingenuous to claim that changes in customs should also require that property be surrendered just because someone claims it to be part of their heritage. Suppose at some point, free trade is later to be found in opposition to futural morals. Should all American couples be forced to surrender engagement rings, because almost all diamonds originated in Africa?

One of the most absurd claims of cultural patrimony involves coins. By their very nature, coins were created to be freely traded as an essential component of commerce. They were meant to circulate across national borders. To now claim that an item created for the sole purpose of circulating throughout the world is part of a specific nation’s “heritage,” and should be returned to that nation, defies belief. Yet, many countries claim any coin minted, or circulated in their geography should be the property of that nation. Even worse, countries that should know better are fleecing their own citizens and forcing them to return these instruments of commerce to their supposed nations of origin, even though these coins were intended to circulate widely.

Acceptable morals change over time, and in specific timeframes, are not even universally agreed upon. There is no need to upend society, and trade, just because certain groups of people or nations claim victimization from events which occurred long before their lifetimes. If an item was legally acquired at the time it was actually acquired, it is the property of the owner. Subsequent changes in laws or morals shouldn’t negate those property rights. Just because someone claims to be a victim, does not necessarily mean they are.