Throughout history, Britain has reckoned with its imperial roots. The country is facing mounting pressure by other nations and activists to repatriate objects they allege were stolen by the British Empire.
From the late 16th century to the 20th century, the British Empire established colonies, dominions, and protectorates across the globe, asserting itself as the largest empire in history at its peak. Although British rule brought with it some aspects of modernization to the nations it colonized, it also stood in the way of self-governance, democracy, and equality for all under the law.
“The Empire itself was a very paradoxical phenomenon that claimed to bring so-called civilization to the colonized people, but at the same time established institutions that were antithetical to modernity,” Chika Okeke-Agulu, an art historian and professor at Princeton University, said.
Many cultural artifacts now on display at museums in Britain were looted from the colonized people, according to repatriation activists. The British Museum, which houses more than 8 million artifacts like the Benin Bronzes and the Parthenon Marbles, possesses the most number of stolen goods, human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson argued.
“All the institutions associated with the emergence of the European middle class, like museums, depended on the extraction of cultural heritage and artifacts from all corners of the empire,” Okeke-Agulu told Insider. “These museums were established in the age of Empire as bragging spaces where they showed off their collections from their imperial holdings.”
The Kingdom of Benin, now modern-day Nigeria, proudly boasted several thousand bronze sculptures that adorned the royal palace, dating back to the 13th century. But in 1897, the British Empire sent troops on a punitive expedition to punish Benin rebels who retaliated against imperial power. The Empire’s soldiers sacked and looted the city, bringing an end to the Kingdom of Benin.
More than 900 historic objects from the former kingdom including more than 200 bronze plaques ended up in the British Museum, now part of its collection of “contested objects.”
Since gaining independence in 1960, Nigeria has sought the return of the bronzes on several occasions. Although the British Museum has agreed to loan the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, it has not gone so far as to agree to fully return them.
“The Museum is committed to active engagement with Nigerian institutions concerning the Benin Bronzes, including pursuing and supporting new initiatives developed in collaboration with Nigerian partners and colleagues,” the British Museum wrote on its website.
Sitting at the top of the velvet-and-platinum crown of the Queen of England is the Koh-i-Noor, one of the largest cut diamonds in the world.
Meaning the “mountain of light,” the jewel originally adorned the Mughal Peacock Throne. It changed hands several times among warring factions until it was ultimately handed over to Queen Victoria after the British annexation of India in 1849.
Because its bloody history involves much fighting between men, the Koh-i-Noor has become wreathed in superstition that it’s a jinx for men, and so is only passed on to the women in the British royal family.
Today, the diamond is on display at the Tower of London’s Jewel House. Though the governments of India, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan have all claimed ownership of the Koh-i-Noor and have demanded its return since India gained independence in 1947, the British government has rejected these claims, arguing that the gem was legally obtained.
The Maqdala Manuscripts are religious texts that were taken from Ethiopians by the British after the Battle of Maqdala. In 1868, a British expeditionary force laid siege to the mountain-top fortress of Maqdala, resulting in the capture of more than a thousand predominantly religious manuscripts that were carried on the backs of 15 elephants and hundreds of mules back to Britain, according to Atlas Obscura. 350 of those manuscripts ended up in the British Library.
Yet many of these manuscripts are not readily available to the public.
“You could think of them as imprisoned, with very little access to the outside world. Why do they keep these objects they can’t even display, when that’s the primary mandate of museums?” Okeke-Agulu said. “There is no intellectual reason why these objects should remain in Britain, when these are objects of great cultural significance and have powerful functions in Ethiopian Christian religious rituals.”
In 1999, the Association For the Return of the Maqdala Ethiopian Treasures (AFROMET) was formed with the mission of returning looted items back to Ethiopia. The organization has been successful in retrieving some objects, though its campaign continues.
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