WORLD — Latest reckoning for slavery and colonialism: reclaiming looted national treasures – By Mohamed Hamaludin

By MOHAMED HAMALUDIN

The Rosetta Stone – British Museum

The British conquered all of India in 100 years and then ruled for another century. Economic exploitation was so massive “that its share of the global GDP went from 24.4 percent to 4.2 percent,” the New Yorker’s Sam Knight reported, citing a 2003 estimate by British economist Angus Maddison.

Untold numbers of cultural treasures were stolen, an act known in Hindi as “lut,” translated into loot. English soldier Robert Clive and his family looted several important artifacts which, Knight reported, are kept in the Clive Museum in England. But the British National Trust acquired around 90 percent of the collection.

Worldwide calls for slavery reparations are being matched with demands for the return of such looted cultural treasures, including the 26-piece “Abomey Treasures.” They were stolen from the 700-year-old Benin Empire, which the British sacked and burned in 1897; they ended up in British museums six months later.           

French invaders also stole some of Benin’s cultural artifacts, which went on display at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris. Still more stolen Benin artifacts went on display in 161 museums in Europe and the United States, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At least 90,000 artifacts looted from sub-Saharan Africa are still being kept in France, The Washington Post’s Jennifer Hassan wrote, citing a 2018 report commissioned by the French government. Around13 artifacts were stolen from Ethiopia, including “an intricately latticed processional cross, a richly colored triptych depicting Jesus’ crucifixion,” looted in 1868 after the battle of Maqdala between the invading British and the Ethiopian empire.

And the Rosetta Stone, whose discovery eventually led to the decoding of hieroglyphics, as Joan Acocella wrote in the New Yorker, was looted by the British in 1799 from the port city of Rosetta — now Rashid – in Egypt. It was taken to England and presented to King George III, who donated it to the British Museum. In 2003, Egypt asked that the artifact, created around 196 BC, be repatriated. The British refused, claiming the Rosetta Stone belonged to the world and, anyhow, the Egyptians would not be able to care for it.  – Read more about the Rosetta Stone here.

Looted artifacts and Africa’s cultural heritage was the theme of the African Union conference this year, the Institute for Security Studies reported. A special commission comprising scholars Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy has recommended that the 90,000 stolen objects be repatriated.

Elsewhere, Britain invaded Tibet in 1903, killing around 3,000 Tibetans and, according to the memoirs of a soldier, carried off painted scrolls, thankas, lamas’ robes, gold crowns, paintings, weapons and manuscripts. Some ended up in the British Museum and the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Knight reported, citing the book “Empireland” by London Times reporter Sathnam Sanghera.

Meanwhile, U.S. Indigenous tribes called on the British Museum to return sacred objects taken by the “Pilgrims,” Davis Sanderson of the Times of London reported. The demand came amidst plans to mark the 400th anniversary of the departure of the Mayflower from Plymouth last September.

Demands for repatriation of such artifacts have been met with some success. Germany announced it would return hundreds of items to Nigeria because of a sense of “moral responsibility,” the Associated Press (AP) reported. The Benin artifacts taken to France were recently sent to the Ouidah Museum of History in Benin and will eventually be housed in a Museum of the Saga of the Amazons and the Dahomey Kings which the French government is helping to fund.

A looted 8th century statue of a goat-headed goddess, which ended up covered in moss in an English garden, will be returned to India, Dalya Alberge reported in the Observer. Residents of Lokhari village in Uttar Pradesh, from where it was stolen, prayed for more than 20 years for its return.

However, the British Museum, which has around 900 looted objects, is legally barred from any repatriation unless the British Parliament, which controls its inventory, votes to do so. The Horniman Museum in London, which has 15, said in March that it would look into “the possible return” of anything plundered, The Washington Post said. The National Museum of Ireland announced it would send 21 items back to Nigeria and the University of Aberdeen in Scotland said it would repatriate the bust of a Benin ruler.

Meanwhile, trafficking in looted artifacts is very lucrative business. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s office, which is actively pursuing dealers and recovering their loot, repatriated about 250 antiquities to India in October, the AP reported.

Some 2,500 artifacts allegedly smuggled into the U.S. from India and Southeast Asia by dealer Subhash Kapoor have been recovered. HuffPost reported that billionaire Michael Steinhardt, accused of having a “rapacious appetite for plundered artifacts,” surrendered180 objects looted and smuggled out of 11 countries. He was banned for life from collecting any more relics.

Vance’s office also cracked down on another billionaire, Englishman Douglas Latchford, who, starting in the 1970s, amassed one of the world’s largest private collection of cultural treasures from Cambodia, some dating back thousands of years to the Khmer Empire. The theft ranks among the most devastating cultural looting of the 20th century, The Washington Post said.

The U.S., also this year, began repatriating more than 17,000 ancient artifacts stolen from Iraq after the American invasion in 2003, Al Jazeera reported. The looted items included 3,500-year-old clay tablet bearing part of the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” an ancient Sumerian tale regarded as one of the world’s first literary works.

Theft of such cultural treasures is “like losing the spirits of our ancestors” because they “are not just decorations but have spirits and are considered as lives,” Cambodia’s minister of culture and fine arts Phoeurng Sackona has said.

And, said Teferi Meles, Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, “If there is no treasure, it means there is no history; if there is no history, there is no nation.”

Yes, indeed: slavery, rape of women, economic domination, cultural suppression and looting of national treasures. The reckoning is underway.

Mohamed Hamaludin is a Guyana-born journalist who worked for several years at The Guyana Chronicle in the 1970s and on publications in the Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands before emigrating in 1984 to the United States, where he worked at The Miami Times, the Miami Herald and the South Florida Times.  Though now retired, he writes a column for The South Florida Times (sfltimes.com) in which the above column first appeared. He may be reached at hamal1942@gmail.com.

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