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

Yes. I’ve read 1491 and have a certain skepticism about the extent of this. I don’t recall reading, for example, that the Inca Empire or the Aztecs were either already decimated or became decimated after contact. Not to say they did not have epidemics, some serious - but the concept that they killed off 90% of the population (rather than the Spaniards enslaving them to their purposes) seems to be a detail lacking in history. Plus many of the declined civilizations - mound builders of the Mississippi, the cliff dwellers of the southwest - appear to have failed due to climate change a century or two before the arrival of the Europeans.

Similarly, there is nothing mentioned in the records of the Iroquois nations, a widespread organized group, that they were horribly decimated at about the time the white man arrived. The horrid death of 90% of the people during a short time and the disruption implied would certainly be something memorable and mentioned over the next centuries by them. By the time the Europeans were taking over their lands in the 1700’s, they were a well established populous group with decent agricultural cut-and-burn spreads around each village, despite contact for almost 100 years.

More interesting was a discussion I saw about the smallpox epidemic along the northwest coast from Vancouver to Alaska in the late 1800’s. The records seem to indicate the problem was subsistence lifestyles. A small village would become infected all at once, with nobody able to provide food or water to the feverish - so almost all died, probably of ancillary causes like exposure and dehydration aggravated by smallpox fever. In villages where there was someone already immune - a previously exposed villager or a missionary - the death rate was a lot less, sometimes no worse than the 10% mortality rate in European outbreaks. It wasn’t the bad immune systems, it was lack of any immunity to specific diseases and so lack of support structures.

So… the truth lies somewhere in between.

On reflection, I suspect the biggest confounding factor here is that it’s easy for me to say that I think the Elgin Marbles should be returned - such a thing has no real impact on me. Sure, I’ve visited the museum and seen them, but returning them would not impact me, personally in any tangible way. If the item being proposed for return was the land upon which my home is built, or something less concrete like the monetary value of profits made by my long dead ancestors by means of slavery or colonialism, it immediately seems less reasonable to me that I should just let go of a thing that seems like it has belonged to me always.

Well this thread took a turn.

For the record, I think the Parthenon Marbles (I think the term ‘Elgin’ is out of favour, for obvious reasons) should be returned.

There are proposals for a mutually beneficial compromise.

This is from ‘The Parthenon Project’


It all seems quite reasonable, but I guess it depends on the internal political dynamics of each country.



The British Museum should continue to have a world-leading collection of ancient Greek artefacts

The British Museum is a “museum of the world” and Ancient Greek artefacts have an important role to play. We propose a cultural partnership that would include rotating exhibits of significant artefacts yet unseen in London. An agreement could be reached whereby a new exhibition would be staged every few months in the gallery where the Parthenon sculptures are currently displayed. These would induce fresh interest each time a new visiting collection is announced. The first could be of Mycenaeans artefacts, the next from Classical Greece, then an exhibition on Philip II and Alexander the Great, another on the Hellenistic world, the next of Greek culture in the east and so on.

The Acropolis Museum becomes the permanent home of the entire reunified collection

A cultural partnership is established between the UK and Greece

Technology must be harnessed for educational purposes

The British Museum Act 1963 should be reviewed

A “joint venture” between the British and Acropolis museums should be established


The case of the Benin Bronzes was a clear cut case of plunder following a punitive military raid which was a reprisal.

The Bronzes afterwards ended up in many countries and there is an international initiative to return ownership…and come to an agreement with Nigeria for loaning parts of the collection.

I think the big museums are quite keen in exchanging parts of their collection for special exhibitions with other museums around the world. These can generate great public interest and be real money spinners. It also positively raises the cultural profile of the country from which the objects originated.

However, I guess this favours objects that have some glamour and value as trophies. The paying public might not be so keen on paying to see exhibitions of more mundane objects of cultural significance.

There are some examples of the repatriation process in this document that advises museums on how to go about it. Some museums have collections of material donated by military officers and colonial staff and I guess they are keen to develop a well thought out repatriation policy.

It looks like it is down to individual institutions to formulate policy.