In February 2014, Charles, Prince of Wales launched a new campaign to tackle “the demand for and consumption of specific products from critically endangered wildlife”. Elephants and rhinos in particular were being killed for their tusks and their horns by “organised gangs, terrorist groups and militia”. “Most recently, demand from Asia – particularly China – has fuelled the trade, but we also know that the United States and Europe are contributing to it”, he told heads of states and officials from around 50 countries at a conference held in London. Whilst upholding laws, prosecuting poachers and traders, and confiscating profits made from the illegal trade in critically endangered species continued to be necessary, addressing the underlying demand was vital. “When the buying stops, the killing can too”, Charles’s son Prince William explained, flanked by David Beckham and some computer-generated rhinos, in a video that same week to launch a new organisation, United for Wildlife, convened by William and supported by his charity, The Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry.
David Beckham asking people to stop buying rhino horn and elephant ivory means something different than when Prince Charles and Prince William make the same request. Unlike the British Royal family, David Beckham’s family (as far as I know) neither possesses large amounts of ivory nor has a history of shooting rhinos. Indeed Charles appears to be the first Prince of Wales who, given the opportunity, has chosen not to shoot rhinos, elephants and tigers for fun. Furthermore, unlike members the British Royal family, David Beckham does not principally demand respect and a platform because of who his ancestors were. All power, wealth, influence and indeed political legitimacy that the unelected Charles, William, and Harry possess and wield stems from their genealogy. If you claim power as a birthright, then what your grandmother, great-grandfather, or indeed great-great-uncle did really matters in a way that it doesn’t for other politicians’ legitimacy. Former US Presidents may well have shot rhinos, for instance, but the US President does not typically claim power by virtue of being the descendant of a former President.
Following the rebellion of 1857, the British East India Company was dissolved and much of the Indian subcontinent came under direct Crown control. Shooting rhinos, pig-sticking, and shooting tigers whilst mounted on elephants, at huge expense, became an essential rite of passage for all Princes of Wales. In the 1890s, the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, used to entertain guests at Sandringham surrounded by tiger skins and elephant tusks, “a good record of the travels of his Royal Highness”. The most significant of these travels had been his grand hunting trip to India and Ceylon in 1875-76. On the first day of hunting the Prince shot six tigers, one of which was a female pregnant with 6 cubs. As John MacKenzie describes it in The Empire of Nature: Hunting, Conservation and British Imperialism (1988), it was reported back home that the Prince’s “wonderful sport” made “an impression of manly vigour and power of endurance which pleased everyone, Europeans and natives alike”. “Royal qualities of courage, energy and physical power” showed that he was “the incarnation of the British Raj”.
Edward’s son, whilst Duke of York and then from 1901 Prince of Wales, was regarded as one of the best shots in the Empire. He hunted in India in 1905, and returned in 1911 following his coronation as George V: 18 rhinoceroses were killed during the King’s hunting party in Nepal, during which his rifle handling skills led him to be proclaimed in the dedication of one book to be “a great shikari”.
His son, the future Edward VIII, as Prince of Wales shot a rhino on the second day of his extensive December 1921 hunting party in Nepal. As the Royal tent already had a wastepaper basket made from the lower joint of a rhino leg, it’s perhaps doubtful why he needed to shoot another. If ever there was a exemplar for the word “overkill”, it is surely a rhino leg wastepaper basket within a mess tent set up for the purposes of killing more rhinos:
The floor of the mess tent was carpeted with leopard skins, pieced together as a great mat; the effect, as can be gathered, was extremely rich and striking. The very appointments of HRH’s writing table were all mementos of sport in Nepal, being made up from rhino hoofs, horns and hide, and even the waste-paper basket was made from the lower joint of a rhino’s leg.
The rhino leg wastepaper basket has probably long been lost, discarded or forgotten, one of the many things that made up the pampered world of the man who went on to be – briefly – King of the United Kingdom and Emperor of India. Nevertheless, large amounts of elephant and rhino products historically collected and possessed by the British Royal family survive. For instance, here’s an elephant ivory fan in the Royal Collection bearing the Prince of Wales’s coat of arms, made in China for export to England in the 1790s for the then Prince of Wales, later George IV. And here’s an ivory, silver gilt and jewelled cup also in the Royal Collection. The cup depicts Diana, goddess of the hunt; when George IV purchased it, he had added extra emeralds, rubies and turquoises. And, here’s a ivory-veneered throne chair and footstool in the Royal Collection, made in India in 1850. Searching for “ivory” within the Royal Collection’s public facing database brings up 2,303 results, which is quite a lot of ivory. There’s less, but still a few, products made from rhinos: rhino-skin shields, for instance, and several walking sticks made of rhinoceros horn such as this one that belonged to Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales.
What do Charles and William think about all this stuff? According to an exclusive in The Independent on Sunday a couple of days after his February 2014 wildlife plea, the Prince of Wales “has reportedly asked for ivory items at Clarence House and Highgrove to be put out of sight over the last few years”. The same article quoted veteran primatologist Jane Goodall as claiming that William has gone further, and that he would “like to see all the ivory owned by Buckingham Palace destroyed”. Although The IoS noted that “a spokesman for the Duke of Cambridge refused to either confirm or deny private comments Prince William is said to have made”, there was no shortage of animal welfare and wildlife charity representatives willing to praise the Duke’s alleged stance; multimillionaire Tory MP Zac Goldsmith furthermore told the IoS that “it’s difficult to imagine a stronger symbol of the horrors of ivory than Buckingham Palace publicly destroying its own”. The destruction of ivory in a public display has precedents. In 1989 Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi lit a bonfire made of twelve tons of elephant tusks confiscated from poachers, an act of destruction broadcast around the world. More recently, in 2015 Mayor of New York Bill De Blasio oversaw in Times Square an equally public and theatrical crushing of one ton of confiscated ivory tusks and finished goods.
Prince William’s is certainly a very radical suggestion, if it is true, but in any case, as was pointed out in many places, it’s not his ivory to destroy. The Royal Collection is displayed within 13 royal residences and former residences across the UK, one of which is Buckingham Palace. “The Royal Collection is held in trust by The Queen as Sovereign for her successors and the nation. It is not owned by her as a private individual”, the FAQ on the Collection’s website insists: if it is not exactly owned by the Sovereign, then it’s definitely not owned by Prince William.
Of course it is possible that there are items made of ivory within Buckingham Palace and other royal residences which are not part of the Royal Collection, but are rather the private property of members of the Royal Family. Prince William could probably destroy those if he wanted to and Grandma said it was okay. Distinguishing between items in Buckingham Palace that are part of the Royal Collection and items in Buckingham Palace that are not is, however, not straightforward. The Collection is not the same thing as the residence or residences, and just as the issue of who owns it is a bit fuzzy, so is the question of what is its extent, scope and content.
Furthermore, of the 13 residences where the Royal Collection is displayed, some are members of the Accreditation Scheme, formerly the Museum Registration Scheme, which sets nationally-agreed standards for collections management at UK museums, and some are not. Hampton Court Palace, Osborne House, the Tower of London, and Kensington Palace State Apartments and Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection have all been fully Accredited since 2010, whilst Windsor Castle, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and Buckingham Palace are neither Accredited nor registered as working towards Accreditation at the time of writing. It is not clear whether items from the Royal Collection on display or in storage at Buckingham Palace are subject to the same collections management standards as those on display or in storage at, for instance, Hampton Court.
All of this is particularly relevant because one of the things the Accreditation Scheme is particularly clear on is the issue of disposal of items within a collection. The Museums Association and the UK Accreditation partnership has published a very detailed Disposal Toolkit to encourage best practice within the sector. Disposal of items within a collection on an ad hoc basis is characterised as unacceptable; Accredited museums wishing to dispose of accessioned objects in their collections must demonstrate how the long-term local and general public interest is served through disposal, and base decisions to dispose on clear, published criteria as part of the institution’s long-term collections development policy. Disposal of an item is not appropriate merely because the item is embarrassing or distasteful, and indeed disposal because the item has become unfashionable is specifically flagged as cause for proceeding with caution.
Offering objects for transference to, in the first instance, other Accredited museums or collections, preferably by gift, is strongly emphasised in the guiding principles on disposal. An Accredited institution which has established a clear reason for wishing to dispose of its ivory collection would be obliged to offer the objects firstly to other Accredited museums, secondly to non-accredited institutions within the public domain, thirdly to individuals or (least preferably) bodies outside of the public domain. The standard way to inform the museum sector and relevant organisations that an object is intended to be disposed of is to place a notice either in the Museums Journal or on the Museum Association’s Find an Object web list allowing at least two months for other institutions to express an interest in taking possession of the object. The guidelines for disposal suggests that recycling of an item can go ahead only if no new location can be found, and that destruction should only take place if an item poses a risk to the health and safety of individuals or the rest of the collection.
Needless to say, taking out a small ad in the back pages of the Museums Journal and then arranging to transfer items to another museum is probably not what either Prince Charles or Prince William have in mind for their embarrassing ivory collection. Putting entirely to one side either the question of destroying often unique things, or indeed the question of what exactly is intended to be achieved by, for instance, crushing or burning a pile of manufactured goods, it really is quite hard to destroy an object in a collection if best practice is followed. The Museums Association guidelines do note that although “a range of views should be sought in the process”, the final decision about whether an item is to be disposed from a collection rests with the governing body; as far as I can tell this would be the Royal Collection Trust, a charity which has several aims including broadening access, making appropriate acquisitions, and ensuring that objects remain available to future generations. There are six trustees, who meet three times a year under the Chairmanship of the Prince of Wales; I suppose this gives him final say.
Ivory’s durability and colour made it a desirable substance at many points in British history, and its widespread availability in Britain as a raw material and as finished goods at certain points in British history tells us important things about the history of the British presence in India, most obviously. Its abundance in collections today, its sheer physical presence, functions as an important and permanent historical record. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s offsite storage at Blythe House in West London, for instance, contains an astonishing number of finished goods containing ivory, stored, catalogued and conserved. From brooches to statues to the dials of navigation devices to the keys of pianos, accredited, nonaccredited, public and private collections are full of ivory goods, some very old indeed. Objects in collections don’t just illustrate historical arguments, but rather they make and assert historical arguments, their continuing existence being evidence and proof of past practices.
The ivory items in the Royal Collection, just like all the jewels and the crowns and the gold and the furs and the paintings and the furniture and the property, records the extraordinary wealth of the Royal family. They furthermore record the specific history of the ritual and symbolic use of objects and collections by monarchs to dazzle and to control. Wishing to destroy Grandma’s ghastly trinkets here would be motivated in part by a desire to suppress the historical evidence of how his ancestors fashioned their identities through the collection, display and consumption of goods and things. This is surely part of the motivation for Charles’s reported strategy of removing ivory objects from display, “out of sight”, at his private residences. This quiet, discreet concealment of aspects of his family’s history that he finds distasteful is characteristic of a would-be ruler who is happy to draw on his genealogy and make ritual use of objects when it suits him, but seeks suppression at other times. Better would be an exhibition about his family’s long tradition of shooting rare animals for fun, perhaps with an audio guide narrated by William. I quite like the idea of making a big, very public pile of ivory goods, not out of sight but rather highly visible, not crushed or burnt but rather prominently redisplayed, obviously only after appropriate collections care considerations and risk assessments have been made to ensure that being in a pile does not damage the objects.
It was of course perhaps-not-brilliant PR that the week before launching United for Wildlife, William had been on a widely-reported holiday shooting wild boar and stags on an enormous private estate in Spain owned by the Duke of Westminster, presumably satisfying his own “demand for and consumption of specific products” such as horns and antlers. Is it hypocritical for William regularly and enthusiastically to shoot wild boar, stags and pheasants whilst, as he did in 2013, branding those who shoot rhinos as “ignorant, selfish and wrong”? Not really, because sincerely believing that different rules apply for a select few by virtue of breeding and inheritance is constitutive of the whole business of a monarchy. Rhinos are critically endangered, and deer and wild boar are not, of course, and an argument could be made that there is no contradiction in protecting one whilst shooting the other. But this is largely only the case because shooting these forms of “game” remains the privilege of a wealthy elite: if everybody shot them for fun in the manner that Prince William does then deer and boar would rapidly become endangered or extinct. It’s not so much hypocritical for a Prince to shoot for fun whilst condemning others that do the same thing; rather, it’s constitutive of being a Prince to consider it correct and natural that different rules apply.
The shift with respect to “big game” from hunting to conservation amongst ruling elites is a frequent 20th-century story, but it is not one where said elites show contrition for their behaviour or their ancestors’ behaviour, but rather one where they find new ways to exercise status and power. The final chapter of MacKenzie’s Empire of Nature notes this shift with respect to the British Royal family. The Duke and Duchess of York, the future George VI and Queen Elizabeth, spent their honeymoon in 1924 shooting rhinos on safari in East Africa. In contrast, when in 1986, their daughter, Elizabeth II, and her husband, Prince Philip, visited Nepal, rather than shooting rhinos, they shot film and observed the tranquillising of a rhino named Philip so that it could be fitted with a radio tracking device. Postcolonial promotion of conservation by Elizabeth and now Charles and William should not be mistaken as an apology or an attempt to make amends for the actions of their ancestors, but rather a new way of asserting their claim to special privileges, a new way of claiming a special and unique proprietorial relationship between monarchs and nature.
Prince Harry rather extraordinarily spent the summer of 2015 dehorning rhinos in Namibia, carefully removing the valuable horn from sedated rhinos in the hope of protecting the animals by making them less attractive to potential poachers. “In the hierarchical hunting scheme it was essential that the most notable hunting feats were performed by those at the apex of the social order”, MacKenzie notes. A hundred years ago on the carefully staged-managed hunt the privilege of inflicting the fatal shot was reserved for the Prince. In 2015 the decisive act, here performed with a small chainsaw rather than a rifle, is likewise reserved for the Prince. Like his brother and father Harry is clearly concerned with the embarrassing legacy of his ancestors’ ivory collections and fondness for killing rhinos. His great-grandparents killed rhinos for sport, collecting and displaying the trophies, his grandparents exemplified the trend for shooting film over shooting bullets, his father actively promoted conservation, and he now has revived the role of the princely hunter-collector, personally dehorning rhinos. What will happen to all of those de-horned horns collected in the field by the Prince is not yet clear, but it’s most likely that, as with most other legally removed horns, they have been stockpiled rather than destroyed, a collection of sorts.
Perhaps in one hundred years time Harry’s sojourns to “the continent that has given me thousands of happy memories” will appear to his descendants as embarrassingly neocolonial, or perhaps with the benefit of temporal distance be considered more similar than different to the behaviour of his trigger-happy ancestors, not neocolonial but just colonial. One could imagine a future Prince in 100 years time embarrassed by his ancestor Harry’s treatment of a romanticised Africa as a playground for white saviour princes, and thus seeking to destroy or discreetly remove the physical or indeed electronic evidence “out of sight”. Finding something in a collection distasteful is not in itself sufficient reason to remove it from a collection, and we need to be on guard as to the motivations of those who wish to suppress those things that embarrass them. If William comes to the realisation that there are several good reasons why he cannot destroy the ivory in Buckingham Palace, he might like to think about advocating for Buckingham Palace being turned into a museum that interrogates his family history. Oftentimes the value of an object changes over time; sometimes that it is an object at all is only appreciated in hindsight. The meaning and indeed ontological status of Harry’s chainsaw, or the horns he dehorned in Namibia in 2015, have yet to be determined; in the case of the chainsaw, it may be too late already for it to be collected and conserved. Personally I think the chainsaw in particular would be an excellent object to display at Buckingham Palace, alongside, perhaps in large piles, William and Harry’s ancestors’ fans, goblets, thrones, walking sticks, wastepaper baskets, mounted trophies, shotguns, rifles, and cameras.