The British Empire looted cultures around the world. It is almost comical (if not terrifying) how many priceless and sacred artifacts from the Americas, Asia, and Africa are currently stored away in the bowels of the British museum or shown behind glass as prominent sites of conquest. And yet across time and genre, literature often features these objects without reverence or pride.
Take Wilkie Collin’s The Moonstone, for example. The narrative introduces its titular gemstone through the language of historical myth, wherein “The deity [Vishnu] predicted certain disaster to the presumptuous mortal who laid hand on the sacred gem, and to all of his house and name who received it after him.” (Collins 12). Although the narrator expresses skepticism towards the Indian tale, he states “I am influenced by a certain superstition of my own in this matter. It is my conviction, or my delusion, no matter which, that crime brings its own fatality … [Herncastle] will live to regret it, if he keeps the Diamond; and the others will live to regret taking it from him, if he gives the Diamond away.” (Collins 16). Regardless of whether the moonstone holds any actual curse, this language foreshadows future conflict similar to a curse. In doing so, the narrative communicates some sort of cosmic anti-colonial and vengeful power that deters the diamond from invading forces. This should raise several key questions: Why does the language of curses and mysticism appear alongside colonial artifacts? How does the language of curses reflect and critique ongoing and past colonialism? How did colonialism affect the British cultural psyche regarding the emergent capitalist ideals of property and ownership?
In order to avoid a tangent on its full history and extensive controversy, let us start with capitalism. When I speak of the capitalist ideals in Victorian society, I posit two core values: 1) Profit in the form of capital serves as a measure of social and economic quality. 2) Respect in the private property rights attributed to Individual entities.
Colonial curses represent a repressed anxiety over wrongful land acquisition. The act of conquest undermines respect for private property, in and of itself, and loot from conquests serves as the most visible representation of imperialism for the British public. For example, a British citizen would not have to travel to India in order to see the Koh-I-Noor Diamond after Victoria put it in her crown. These physical objects, such as the moonstone, become sites in which British Imperialism and Capitalist values come at odds. At the same time that the working classes of England saw factories, tools, and large plots of land fall into private enterprise through either legal or financial means, they also witnessed facets of Empire consistently returning to the mainland. As products of conquest, these objects represent the potential force has in acquiring and usurping power, including landed power. And as such, their presence in England creates tension between core capitalist values and imperialist attitudes. In short, this brand of imperialism is inconsistent with the capitalist ideology imposed upon the British public, and so these objects must be cursed.