Tourists gather around the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Returning the UK’s stolen artefacts

By Zainab Mahmod

Writer Zainab Mahmod explores the UK’s continual colonial habits by investigating the history of stolen artefacts in the British Museum.

The Koh-I-Noor, meaning ‘Mountain of Light’ in Persian, is a 105.6-carat diamond that resides at the centre of the consort crown jewels of the British Monarchy. The origins of the diamond are disputed as there are potentially Mesopotamian records from 3200BC, however, India is a high contender as the mining of diamonds was exclusive to the region until the 18th century. While the name comes from Persian origin, it is most likely the diamond was taken as spoils of war. The Koh-I-Noor has seen much bloodshed in its lifetime. It was taken from Punjab, India in 1849, by the infamous British East India Company. Britain has repeatedly claimed that the diamond was given under the ‘Treaty of Lahore’. The same treaty was signed by Duleep Singh, a 10-year-old prince whose mother Rani Jindan was imprisoned while he was forced to give up all claims to sovereignty. 

Unfortunately, the magnificent Koh-I-Noor is not the only artefact stolen by British colonialism. Among those is the Rosetta Stone, a decree written over 2000 years old. The Rosetta stone is native to Egypt and contains Hieroglyphics, Ancient Greek and Demotic. The stone has been essential in deciphering other Ancient Egyptian scripts and has allowed scholars to translate documents that had been incomprehensible for centuries. It was stolen in 1801 by the British forces after they defeated the French. The Rosetta stone has not been in Egypt for 220 years despite various efforts by many Egyptian governments to return it. 

Other artefacts that have been displayed in the British Museum are the ‘Elgin Marbles’, a collection of various objects from Athens’ Parthenon, dating back more than 2200 years. The collection was stolen by a man named Lord Elgin who in 1801 claimed to have negotiated with the Ottoman Empire for the ownership of the artefacts. Greece was under Ottoman rule however has held independence since 1829 invaliding the document under the prospects of it even being viable. Greece has since requested the return of the marbles but in 2021, former prime minister Boris Johnson rejected the proposal despite allegations of the British Museum’s mismanagement towards the artefacts. 

In 2021, a momentous feat occurred:  The UK returned the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria after 125 years. The Benin Bronzes are an exquisitely crafted collection of approximately 5000 pieces dating from 13th to 16thcentury Benin City. After more than 70 years, the mission to reclaim the pieces has finally succeeded. While it is a vast achievement, there are still far too many artefacts that have yet to be returned. 

At its height, the British Empire ruled over 20% of the world’s population and as with most large empires throughout history, the truths of that empire are only coming to light after its fall. Under British rule in India, research has shown that 12 famines took place. Overall, it is estimated that 12-29 million people died in India from starvation under British rule. The British Empire did not only take artefacts, but it also took resources, food, capital, and lives. A study published by Columbia University Press found that from the period 1765-1938, Britain exhausted India of $45 trillion – all while Indians were subjected to war, famine and colonial control.

The bleakness and horror of the British Empire are only a reminder that the chains of colonialism are still present. Returning artefacts to countries they were stolen from should not be opposed. Keeping the spoils of an era in which slavery, oppression, and various war crimes were carried out can encourage a sense of pride towards that same era. An apology is not enough to forgive the bloodshed and tyranny that Britain’s colonies were subjected to, and any reparations would be far too bizarre a sum to think about. At the very minimum, British museums should return artefacts that are stolen.

Why is the location of the artefacts important? It isn’t as if these museums are claiming the heritage of these objects or changing their history. Besides, maybe they’re safer in the British Museum. It is often argued that many of the countries demanding their artefacts back are incapable of maintaining and possessing them. This may be due to a variety of reasons, such as political instability, economic volatility, and negligence. These reasons have a basis. For example, in 2015 at Mosul’s Central Museum in Iraq, several artefacts dating back to the 7th century BC were destroyed by ISIS militants. These artefacts had existed for thousands of years, allowing scholars to study and understand life from the Babylonian, Akkadian, and Assyrian eras. These artefacts came from the first civilisations in the world and in a short period, were destroyed. 

However, this also alludes to a different issue. Colonial power still exists, in nuanced measures where countries are not allowed to have control over their own artefacts. If there is concern over the maintenance of these artefacts, then countries like the UK can aid in building museums where they are stored correctly. Such reparations are a crucial part of healing Britain’s colonial past.

Artefacts show us glimpses of history we would otherwise have no insight into. They allow us to see how our ancestors lived, their language, and their traditions. They are a physical, tangible form of history. Having artefacts is an essential part of culture. There is significance in the insight they provide into how humans evolved, how we developed such different cultures and how this will affect our progression in the future. Allowing these objects to return to their origin only feels natural. 

After the death of Queen Elizabeth II, this debate has only become more prominent, as many people hope this era, associated with the monarchy, has been put to rest. The late Queen’s reign oversaw many political changes in terms of colonisation, but it is important to remember the crimes carried out by the British Empire happened less than 100 years ago. There has been little justice since then and in many ways, further oppression. Many of the countries Britain had colonies in have been depleted ever since, unable to progress, and it’s hard to imagine concentration camps, partition and famine won’t leave generational lesions. Artefacts are objects that give people hope and a sense of pride towards the country’s achievements. Artefacts build bridges between people who lived centuries ago and people who are alive now. At the core of these bridges is identity. It’s time for all pieces of history to be returned to their home when they can be truly appreciated for their importance.


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