History Long Reads

GIMME THE LOOT – Britain’s Art(ifact) Problem

When I first looked at a Benin Bronze hung in the British Museum, their beauty and intricacy floored me. I stared at them for what seemed like hours. Then, of course, I was grateful to see them in my lifetime. Still, there was another feeling that I’ve become accustomed to when viewing art and artifacts from other countries. I had a severe feeling that these bronzes, with their faces so human in their crafting, needed to go home. At the time, I registered this feeling as guilt. I had no clue of its origin. But now, after reading, I know I was right.

“Still there was another feeling that I’ve become accustomed to when viewing art and artifacts from other countries. I had a severe feeling that these Bronzes, with their faces so human in their crafting, needed to go home”

The Kingdom of Dahomey, named by French colonizers as Benin, is now what we would call Nigeria. But then, it was one of the most formidable kingdoms, led by the Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi. He ruled over Benin when the Benin Bronzes made their way over to Britain. How Benin Bronzes were acquired though, is a testament to the violence and psychosis of British Imperialism.

Benin was a kingdom that was strong in its independence. Its trade routes and resources were powerful and much coveted. So, they were desired by the British Empire. It was a kingdom that had managed to retain its independence through the Scramble for Africa. This, of course, angered the colonial countries. The Oba had a monopoly over trade, which angered the Royal Niger Company. Its rich resources, such as palm oil, rubber, and ivory, were wanted by the Empire with its snarling, salivating mouths open.

At first, the British went to Benin City in 1892. Henry Gallwey, the British Vice-Consul of Oil Rivers Protectorate, visited after some failed talk attempts with other British representatives. He wanted to discuss opening up the trade routes and get Britain a slice of the pie. This seemed successful, and a treaty was signed by Gallwey and the Oba, which would give Britain the power to influence the region. However, Gallwey himself said that the Oba was hesitant to sign. As much as historians like to rewrite and say this was for humanitarian efforts, all actual accounts from the British officials say it was more for money than anything else. The treaty gave Britain access to free trade, but the Oba exercised taxes and fees on them, and they couldn’t stand this. They couldn’t take that they were paying “savages”; it also completely turned colonial propaganda on its head. How did “savages” know something as sophisticated as economics?

After the 1894 capture of Chief trader Nana Olomu in Ebrohimi, a prominent trading village in the Benin River district, being enforced by both the Royal Navy and the Niger Coast Protectorate, the Kingdom of Benin increased its military forces on its southern borders. In 1897, Acting Consul General James Phillips asked to go to Benin City to have a conversation with the Oba about opening up trade routes again. There had been price-fixing and traders refusing to pay their fees, so the Oba stopped palm oil resources going to them, which messed up British traders who were calling for the Oba’s exile. The message to the Oba was one of peace, but the Itsekiri trading chiefs sent their own message to the Oba. The White man was bringing war. The Oba decided they should be allowed into the city to show their true intentions. The chiefs ignored this, knowing better, and ambushed the British group, leaving only 2 alive.

News of the ambush gets back to Britain. They are outraged. Mostly because they’ve been outsmarted by people they’ve been telling everyone are “uncivilized savages”. I think this “expedition” that follows was so bloody, sheerly out of spite and covering their own embarrassment.

“THIS is how we got the Benin Bronzes. Through bloodshed, greed for trade and a psychotic reaction to being outsmarted by people Britain had deemed underneath it”

The Benin “expedition” went ahead in February 1897. The British storm Benin City, 1200 strong from the navy. The conflict ensues. They captured the Oba, burn down the city and the Oba’s palace. At that time, the city walls were the largest and most magnificent earthworks of all time. Gone. Burnt in an instant. They killed anyone they could see and looted the palace before burning it down and exiled the Oba to Calabar.

THIS is how we got the Benin Bronzes. Through bloodshed, greed for trade, and a psychotic reaction to being outsmarted by people Britain had deemed underneath it. They brought the bronzes and many artifacts back. But, unfortunately, they exhibited them with complete disrespect, piling them high on tables as if it were a car boot sale. I can only assume many were damaged in the process.

THE ELGIN MARBLES

But this isn’t the only story of Britain taking what was not theirs. The Elgin Marbles, part of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, were taken during the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and ambassador to the Empire, was concerned about the damage to them under “Ottoman indifference”. In the early 19th Century, the sculptures found their way to Britain. There was a massive outcry, even by some of Elgin’s peers, including Lord Byron. A few years later, the crown purchased them all (Elgin couldn’t have cared that much if he sold them so shortly after), and they were displayed in the British Museum. There are a few things that make this disrespectful.

First, the “ottoman indifference” became a non-starter when the Empire recognized Greece as an independent nation in 1832. With this in place, the marbles could go home, Greece could protect them and do with them what was their right. Moreover, they would be appreciated and treated as such by people who shared the Greek culture.

Second, the Elgin Marble collection was never returned. The British were adamant that there were no Greek museums suitable to take them and look after them. In 2009, a huge museum, costing 200 million and 21,000 square meters, was built near the base of the Acropolis. Still, Britain refused.

“As long as they are on our soil, they stand as a testament to a psychosis that people still haven’t woken up from”

Third, at one point in episode 1284 in “Have You Got the Audacity?”, Britain offered to loan the marbles to Greece to display, as long as Greece fully acknowledge Britain’s full ownership over them. Naturally, Greece said no, and they remain in the British Museum.

THE ROSETTA STONE

But Britain doesn’t just keep artistic artifacts. The empire also keeps artifacts that have lead to astounding historical discoveries. The Rosetta Stone is here. Do you know the program of the same name that teaches you how to speak another language? It’s a real stone, and it’s marvellous. It’s a huge slab of rock (granitoid) with the same message written in Egyptian Hieroglyphics, used by priests in Ancient Egyptian society, everyday Egyptian or Egyptian Demotic and Ancient Greek. Because scholars knew Ancient Greek, they could decipher the message and then learn to read hieroglyphics. Exciting right? It was located in the town of Rashid during Napoleon’s “campaign” in 1799. When the British defeated Napoleon in Egypt, two years later, it came into the Empire’s possession. Egypt has been fighting for it to be returned for DECADES. Even Egyptian archaeologists have tried tirelessly to convince the British Museum to return it. They ignore them.

THE MOAI

Okay, this one angers me because I love Easter Island. Those beautiful and wonderous heads? You guessed it; we have one. Rapa Nui, known as Easter Island, and the carved stone heads, known as the Moai, have a wonderful connection. They started being made around 110 AD, and we reckon stopped around 1600 AD. After that, they became more and more complex in detail, and whole crowds of stone heads were made. They have their backs to the ocean and watch over their homes. Although some are made from tuff and some from basalt, there’s a particular one that is fascinating and heartbreaking. Hakananai’a, or “stolen friend”, was crafted between 1000 AD and 1200 AD and remained in its home, Rapa Nui, for hundreds of years.

Then, in 1869, it was lifted away from its home and presented to Queen Victoria. It went to the British Museum and has remained there since. But there’s something deeper here. The Moai are more than carved stone to the culture and people they belong to. There is a deeply held belief that the Moai have the spirits of their ancestors. So we have an ancestor sitting trapped in the British Museum while people gawk at it. The governor of Rapa Nui came in 2018 to negotiate their return, even if just for a loan. The British Museum refused. The governor is quoted as saying, “We all came here, but we are just the body—England people have our soul.

“We all came here, but we are just the body—England people have our soul”

Tarita Alarcón Rapu, governor of Easter Island

THE GWEAGAL SHIELD

250 years ago, and this one is an absolute belter, explorer James Cook arrived in what we know now as Botany Bay, Australia. Two locals met him and his men with spears and shields. As the British decided these men were armed, James Cook’s henchmen opened fire on them, wounding them, and they had to flee, leaving some things and what the British Museum calls the Gweagal Shield. When James Cook met with the local people, he clearly hadn’t understood any of their cultures. Without asking for permission from the people who LIVED there, his deeply offensive entrance ended in a rightfully hostile meeting. This permission had to be done; it was sacred. Sometimes it happened through dialogue, sometimes through spiritual ceremonies, a sign of deep respect.

James Cook didn’t care, so he came back with the shield. Then it was displayed, amongst a lot of other things, in the British Museum. Rodney Kelly, a possible descendant of the man who dropped the shield, has been fighting for the shield to be returned. Since 2016, he’s made repeated trips to England to get it back. They’ve ignored him.

Koh-i-Noor

The last one of probably so many more is the Koh-i-Noor. It’s a stone that was mined around the golden age of diamonds in India. Before 1725, when diamonds were discovered in Brazil, India was the only prominent source of them. The diamond and mining business was huge in India. Gemstones, in general, had a gigantic place in Indian culture. The world’s oldest texts on gems have so much based in India, and they were huge symbols of status in Indian courts. Different gems resembled different levels of hierarchy. The Koh-i-Noor was originally an amazing 743 carat. Then, it was cut down to 183 carats and was under the ownership of the Kakatiya Dynasty.

“An empire built on spoils from murder and a spiteful tendency to destroy any cultural, historical, or intellectual significance these spectacular civilizations gave us in art, science, maths, literature, and everything else”

But when India was under Mughal rule, it was used as part of the jewel-encrusted Peacock Throne. It took seven years to build, and it cost four times as much as the Taj Mahal (can you imagine!?). The throne was then taken to what we now know as Afghanistan.

The diamond changed hands many times due to conflicts and wars. Still, then, in 1849, as the British Empire raised its bloodthirsty head, the empire signed a treaty that would see this diamond become the property of the Empire. But, unfortunately, it was signed by a king who was only 10 years old who gave up his sovereignty in the process.

When it came back to England, Queen Victoria put it under her possession and displayed it to the public. The public was a little underwhelmed and just saw it as “a piece of glass.” After that, the diamond was cut and polished, losing over 80 carats, and is now part of the crown jewels.

With this diamond, India, Pakistan, and even the Taliban (if you can believe it) have demanded it to be returned to no avail.

So why do the British Museum and the crown refuse? Well, that’s both a systemic and cultural issue. Systemically, there are laws written that make it illegal to return these. That’s how deep this is. The British Museum Act 1963 prohibits the British Museum from “permanently disposing of its holdings, except in rare circumstances.”

But why write a law about artifacts? Is it this deep? Yes. Because of what they represent.

When you look upon a Benin Bronze, you see a kingdom burnt to the ground in all its glory, an Oba dispossessed and exiled, a massive monument to architecture destroyed.

When you look at the Gweagal Shield, you are looking upon England’s deep ignorance of other sacred cultures, fuelled by the arrogance that we are “civilized” and they are not, so we don’t need to know.

When you look upon Hakananai’a, you are looking at a lost ancestor, thousands of miles away from home, dying to watch over their island.

“Or is this their fate, to be trapped behind a glass case of voyeurism, looked upon by people that do not understand them or the life and culture they lived in, whilst their soul becomes weary of never crossing over?

Looking upon the severely cut down Koh-i-Noor, we see a diamond that has seen many conflicts, rises and falls of empires, sat on a glorious throne, and marks a time of great innovation; a testament that India never needed England.

Reading along the beautiful lines of the Rosetta Stone, you come face to face with a selfish and spiteful Empire that must hoard its stolen treasures, even if we can’t learn anything new from them.

When you trace the lines of the Elgin Marbles, you’re met with the audacity of ego, imperial mindset and have to question why anyone would name marbles that weren’t theirs and aren’t from their country after themselves.

When you look at a mummy encased in a glass prison, you must wonder, did they ever make it to the afterlife? Or is this their fate, to be trapped behind a glass case of voyeurism, looked upon by people that do not understand them or the life and culture they lived in, whilst their soul becomes weary of never crossing over?

These artifacts are astonishing. They give us a portal into new worlds. More than this, they give us a portal into the very ground we stand on. We were born on. An empire built on spoils from murder and a spiteful tendency to destroy any cultural, historical, or intellectual significance these spectacular civilizations gave us in art, science, maths, literature, and everything else. As long as they are on our soil, they stand as a testament to a psychosis that people still haven’t woken up from. There is no reason they can not go home. There’s no reason they can not be toured collaboratively and respectfully with the countries that do own them. If the countries say no, we must accept this as an apparent tolerant and respectable country. It is the rightful respect and appreciation for other cultures and customs that we are told we have.

There has been much pain and devastation, all in the name of the Empire. If our institutions, hiding behind empty PR campaigns, marketing strategies of doing better, and we are listening, are what they say they are trying to be. Then listen. Hear them.

Hear Nigeria.

Hear Egypt.

Hear India.

Hear Rapa Nui.

Hear Greece.

Hear Australia.

And send them home, safely.

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