What’s in a Curse?

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.

4 thoughts on “What’s in a Curse?”

  1. I never considered how the burgeoning surge of capitalism in 19th century England directly contradicts their imperialist ventures because of the importance of personal property, I found your idea super interesting and informative. I think this very contradiction heightens the ridiculous power structures of Great Britain at the time, as those in power could basically have their cake and eat it too. In my post, I discussed how Pip benefited from these same power structures, but they didn’t allow for a flexible origin of his expectations (sheep money!).

  2. I loved this blog post and thought it was super creative in the questions you ask! The question of why the language of curses and mysticism appears alongside the conquest of colonial artifacts is an interesting one. It made me think about gothic elements like the “supernatural” and how in gothic stories, tropes like the supernatural offer a mystical solution to problems or bring a new conflict to the story, often without the need for explanation or clarity. Perhaps the use of mystical and cursed language is a way to shift blame from colonizers to something supernatural? For me, this language almost deters the blame and underplays the significance of stolen cultural artifacts.

  3. I really liked your blog post and how you present this contradiction between the British Empire’s yearning for other nations’ artifacts and lands, and the preservation of private property in England. In the “Moonstone”, there is no consideration whatsoever whether the Diamond should be taken back to India. The discussion revolves around its value in terms of money and how it should be divided in order to obtain even more profit. No one is concerned about the symbolic and religious value that it had for the people who used to worship it. Funnily enough, they are only concerned about its symbolic/supernatural value when they talk about how the curse might affect them. The curse, then, seems like a discourse strategy to center the blame on the ones who produced the artifact rather than on the ones who stole them.

  4. I think the question that you posed about how the language of mysticism seems to be connected to colonial artifacts is so interesting. Based on the evidence presented in our texts, one answer to this question could be that framing real cultures in terms of ancient myth is a mechanism of erasure practiced by the British empire to justify their crimes against it. This is another form of Othering the culture not only by reproducing the myths perhaps incorrectly because the British rarely took time to understand the cultures, but also because it frames the culture as something of myth and no longer existing, which only justifies the assumption of those objects.

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