Have the British ever returned any valuables "obtained" during colonialism?

With the death of the queen, there is talk in Indian circles for the return of the Kohinoor diamond With Queen Elizabeth's Death, Indians Want Kohinoor Returned | Time

I have read earlier reports that the British are still hoarding treasures they “obtained” during the course of gruesome colonialism. Like this one : Why Britain Won't Return Ethiopia's Sacred Treasures - The Atlantic

Wondering if the Brits have ever returned any such valuable to the formerly colonized country ?

…as part of an ongoing (international) process New Zealand has had over 600 repatriations, (return of kōiwi and kōimi tangata, Māori and Moriori skeletal remains) many of them from Britain.

Thank you. Is there an actual list of items repatriated by the Brits ?

…they were our kōiwi and kōimi tangata, our ancestors, our people. They are valuable to us, but they are not “items.” A list of places they were repatriated from is on the cite.

So very sorry; I did not read the link carefully. I understand now, these were human remains :cry: This is just barbaric.

May there be peace and healing amongst you and your people.

…all good :smiley:

Better late than never.

A lovely museum, by the way - way down in the wilds of south London but their collections of musical instruments and taxidermied animals are excellent.

Mind you, good luck getting the British Museum to relinquish anything but the smallest trinkets…

As are Egyptian mummies in museums all over the world. OTOH, the Cairo Museum had a room full of royal mummies. What’s the difference between “in the British Museum” and “in a local museum”?

However, I assume the Maori remains were given a proper (re)burial which is different.

There’s a range of different reasons that people / nations might want their stuff back:

  • It was stolen - i.e. things belonging to other people removed without permission or obtaining consent or at point of a gun

  • It has a strong spiritual / emotional connection and the world is no longer right - someone’s ancestor is dug up and their head removed to be kept in a lab

  • Its interpreted and displayed in specific ways which reduce the owner culture to the status of a lab rat, a novelty, ‘proof’ of the relative inferiority of their culture and evidence to justify the act of colonisation

  • Inability to retrieve stuff just reinforces your own powerlessness [your neighbour won’t return your mower, and every time you ask he tells you to fuck yourself and all you can do is slink off - that’s how that feels, all day every day]

And the list of harms and affronts goes on. All apply to material held by the British and acquired in the past few centuries. Many of the arguments to justify their retention can be unpacked to show they have no validity. As an archaeologist now the entire profession lives with a large black rain cloud that follows us about, because we are very aware of our own role in this process and consciously work to not let it happen again. Some museums, private trade in antiquities and a political desire to avoid recognising how colonialism actually works make this a very hard role.

The French have been far more active and nationally proactive in recognising the way colonialism hoovered up ‘treasures’ and relics, and also recognising that there is a minefield to be walked between acknowledging what happened and getting the best outcome possible.

Then there’s the question of how things were obtained. The Elgin marbles were gleefully sold to Lord Elgin by the local rulers (Turks) who really didn’t care much about the Parthenon. It’s possible he actually saved them from further destruction. Yes, they are an invaluable part of ancient Greek heritage - but the same applies to everything. If a local for example chose to dig stuff up and sell it abroad, when does it no longer constitute a legitimate sale? The Bayeux Tapestry was for example bought by a local merchant who rescued it from becoming scrap cloth after the French Revolution. Did he do something wrong by buying a country’s heritage? Would it be legitimate for him to keep it?

The past is a complicated place.

I’m against most displays of human remains. It has always struck me as deeply wrong that somebody would be given proper burial by their loved ones and then dug up and displayed naked.

We can debate who is the rightful owner of a pharoah’s treasures. Those I don’t have a problem displaying. What ruler objects to ‘look how rich I was and at all the neat stuff I had!’ ?

This is a complicated issue.

The circumstances by which antiquities were obtained were not always the theft and plunder they are made out to be. Some might be purchased from the government of the time. Some presented as gifts or tribute. Not all would be regarded as treasured heritage items at the time by the locals. The zeal for collecting items for display in public museums was a European and American cultural trend.

What would have happened to these antiquities if they were not taken by colonising powers and placed in museums?

Egypt certainly had a vigorous local grave robbing community for hundreds of years. They cared little for conservation. This situation still persists, there is still a trade in antiquities that operates outside of government control in many parts of the world. In the UK there are plenty of people with metal detectors out in the countryside, looking for treasure. There are laws in place to encourage them to officially report their finds and they get a reward if it is regarded as treasure.

Cultural assets obtain value for political reasons. Building a national identity requires some kind of glorious past and repatriation of famous artifacts can become a useful issue for career minded politician. Lambasting the injustices associated with historic colonial exploitation plays well for nationalist politicians. Whether they would be quite so keen to invest cultural institutions to conserve and display antiquities is another matter. Locking them
away in vault would hardly represent progress if they were previously displayed to an international
audience.

However, there is a lot of room for negotiation. Museums are quite keen to loan collections from other museums for special exhibitions. This can be quite a money spinner and raises the profile of the country from which they originated. It can finance the development local museums to conserve other cultural assets.

There is a lot that can be done to address some of the more outrageous examples of historic plunder. But, it does presume an ownership of a past culture by a present day nation. When ISIS was briefly in existence, it made a point of destroying ancient sites that did not fit in with their world view.

So how do you place a value on some artifact or historic site? What if it has international significance? Which current nation or state can claim ownership? What about the rights of indigenous peoples within a nation?

This issue raises a lot of difficult questions and these days there are some technical solutions. Some items may be copied and reproductions displayed. Or museums may become Virtual Reality experiences….

Egypt recently turned moving its ancient mummies of Kings to a new museum into a piece of spectacular theatre. So much in that to unwrap!

I see what you did there.

Search: “The Koh-i-Noor Diamond, the center piece of the Crown Jewels, was taken from India’s alluvial mines thousands of years ago, sifted from the sand. According to Hindu belief, it was revered by gods like Krishna—even though it seemed to carry a curse, if the luck of its owners was anything to go by. The gem, which would come to be known as the Koh-i-Noor Diamond, wove its way through Indian court intrigues before eventually ending up in the British Crown Jewels by the mid-1800s.”

Elgin is dead, as are the people who sold him the artifacts, and their rule is no longer in force. The British Museum is the trustee of the collection. I think it’s reasonable to say that the original transaction (if indeed that really happened - it is disputed and evidence is apparently sketchy) is no longer a relevant factor. Britain has good political relations with Greece; it is clear that Greece would take proper care of them now. They should be returned. Put replicas on display in the British Museum (this is not an unusual thing to do for valuable historical artifacts)

I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “their rule is no longer in force”, but if something like this is the guiding principle, why should many other far more significant assets not be returned? Much of the land in the United States, for example. How do you feel about giving back land that you personally own?

To be clear, I’m not trying to construct an argument that the Elgin Marbles should not be returned, they should. But I’m not convinced that there are really any consistent ethical principles involved - just power, the significance of the asset, balanced against a desire for goodwill.

If my now-deceased grandfather bought a house from someone who is also now deceased, does that mean I should return the house to their descendants?

Moderators - you may please close this thread. My Factual OP has been answered viz-a-viz : Nothing of substance has been returned.

The discussion now has strayed to the IMHO/GD territory and the posters may open a new thread if they want to continue the discussion there.

It seems to me that the OP was always on a fuzzy line between FQ and opinion, since it’s a complex issue and that hinges on exactly what “obtained” in scare quotes means, and a subjective opinion of what qualifies as “valuable”. It sounds to me as though you want to close this thread in order to establish an opinion that you hold as a fact. I’m certainly not seeking to defend British colonial behavior, but why stifle the discussion? Why not just ask that this thread be moved to IMHO for continuity?