Should Britain return artefacts to its former colonies?

Many institutions have agreed to return items that came into their possession

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Sun 21 Aug 2022, 10:09 PM

Last updated: Sun 21 Aug 2022, 10:31 PM

The debate has clearly shifted. Until recently, any demand or request that the British should return the large number of artefacts from former colonies currently lodged in museums and elsewhere would be met with a curt refusal. After years of debate, demands to de-colonise curriculum and the more recent Black Lives Movement, there is a growing willingness to at least consider such demands, and in some cases even return items that are of religious or civilisational value.

For example, the University of Cambridge became the first UK institution in October 2021 to return a Benin bronze that was looted by British forces in Nigeria. Earlier this month, Oxford and Cambridge universities agreed to return 213 looted Benin bronzes that came into their possession from various individuals and sources over the years. Other institutions are also in the process of considering returns.

Last week marked another milestone in the return-our-artefacts story: the Glasgow Museum became the first museum to agree to return seven priceless objects in its possession to India. They include a ceremonial Indo-Persian ‘talwar’ (sword) believed to date back to the 14th century and an 11th century carved stone door jamb taken from a Hindu temple in Kanpur. The ceremonial sword, with its scabbard, was reportedly stolen in 1905 from the collection of the Nizam of Hyderabad by his prime minister, who then sold it to the British general Archibald Hunter. Six of the objects were removed from temples and shrines in north India during the 19th century, while the seventh was purchased following a theft from the owner; all seven were gifted to Glasgow’s museum collections. The agreement to return the artefacts was signed following prolonged talks with the Indian high commission. Glasgow is also repatriating to Nigeria 19 Benin bronzes taken from sacred sites and ceremonial buildings during the British Punitive Expedition of 1897.

London and Britain have long been the destination of stolen antique goods, before and after India’s independence, fetching huge sums. Check out the lots offered by auction houses and antique dealers, and you invariably find several linked to India and Asia. Many ancient idols, sculptures and statues end up in museums or private collections, with owners not always aware of the criminal journey of their possessions. One of the earliest such examples was the discovery by Scotland Yard of two ancient sandstone pillars (the Amin pillars) in London in 1976, which led to the arrest of the Narang brothers. Of all former colonies, Britain today perhaps has the most number of artefacts linked to the Indian sub-continent, since colonial India was supposed to be the ‘jewel in the crown’.

The Victoria & Albert Museum alone, according to its director Tristram Hunt, received nearly 19,000 objects in its early days when it was set up in the mid-19th century, amassed by officials of the East India Company. Tens of thousands more are elsewhere; for example, in the British Museum, Natural History Museum, Ashmolean Museum, Fitzwilliam Museum, the vast Royal Collection and private collections. The Clive Museum in Powis Castle in Wales is reputed to be the largest private collection, assembled by two generations of the Clive family: Robert Clive, first governor of the Bengal Presidency and his son Edward, who as governor of the Madras Presidency defeated Tipu Sultan in the late 18th century. Objects in the Clive Museum include ivories, textiles, statues of Hindu gods, ornamental silver and gold, weapons, ceremonial armour, but the most notable ones are the palanquin of Siraj-ud-Daula, the Nawab of Bengal, left behind when he fled the battlefield of Plassey, and the campaign tent of Tipu Sultan.

India has been particularly active in recent years to recover stolen artefacts. Successful restitutions have taken place from Germany, France, Australia and the US. Efforts to recover heritage are backed in Britain by closer coordination between the British police, the Indian high commission, art volunteers and investigative agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence and the Central Bureau of Investigation. Scotland Yard’s dedicated Art and Antiques Unit set up in 1969 has aided the recovery and return of several artefacts overseen by four recent high commissioners: Navtej Sarna, Y K Sinha, Ruchi Ghanashyam and Gaitri Issar Kumar. In one case of recovery, American investigators were also involved.

But recovering and returning artefacts that figure in the illegal antiques trade is a relatively easier part of the effort. The return of better-known items remains a matter of debate and conjecture; the most famous item is the ‘Kohinoor’ diamond. Former prime minister David Cameron, when asked about returning the dazzling diamond on a visit to India in 2010, simply said: "If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. I think I am afraid to say…it is going to have to stay put”.

The British Museum is prohibited from permanently removing items from its collection under a 1963 UK law; its position is that there is a much public benefit to visitors in displaying the whole world under one roof; that the strength of the museum's collection is its breadth and depth, which allows visitors to compare and contrast cultures and understand interconnectivity. One way out is to ‘loan’ the items from British museums to India and other former colonies for brief periods to be shown to their peoples. But the temporary workaround raises another criticism: a ‘loan’ means Britain remains the owner. There are also those who believe the artefacts should stay in Britain, since they are better preserved here than in their countries of origin. The debate continues.

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