European Colonialism of the 15th century has a dark past. European countries like Britain, France, and Portugal sought to establish their empires all over the world. They took the resources that they needed from colonized countries on the African and South Asian continents. With the resources that these colonial powers used, they also stole many precious artifacts that are now showcased in European museums. Here are six artifacts that were stolen and are still on display in museums today.
1. The Rosetta Stone.
The Rosetta Stone was carved in Ancient Egypt in 196 BC. It is a stolen artifact from Egypt that now sits in the quiet halls of the British Museum. The stone has carvings on it which show a text in three translations. Two Egyptian scripts and a classical Greek script. Scholars say that it is an important link between Ancient Egypt and the modern world. So how did it end up in the British Museum?
In July 1799, a French engineer in the army of Napoleon discovered the stone. The British Army arrived in 1801, defeated Napolean’s army, and asked for the spoils of the war. The French commander General Jacques Francois-Menou considered the stone to be his private property, and he hid it with himself. It is unclear how the stone went from his hands to the British Museum. In any case, nobody consulted the Egyptians before they took the stone. When it arrived in Britain, it had an inscription on it which said “Captured in Egypt by the British Army in 1801”.
Dr. Zahi Hawas who is the secretary-general of the SCA (Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities) has been at the forefront of demanding the stolen artifact back. He says “for all our history our heritage was stolen from us”. Dr. Hawas has been vocal in getting stolen items returned and claims he has returned 5000 artifacts during his tenure. The British Museum has responded to diplomatic efforts by saying “The Trustees feel strongly that the collection must remain as a whole”. It is time that the British Museum returned the Rosetta Stone that it stole from Egypt during their colonial crusades.
2. The Elgin Marbles.
The Greek artist Phidias carved the Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon marbles. They were a part of the Temple of Parthenon and other buildings in the Acropolis of Athens. It now sits in the British Museum. During the 17th century, the Ottomans ruled Greece. There was a war between the Venetians and the Ottomans, and parts of the Parthenon were destroyed, including a sculpture of Poseidon.
On hearing about the destruction of the Parthenon, western travelers and collectors wanted to save the treasures of the Parthenon. Thomas Bruce, also known as Lord Elgin transferred half of the sculptures of the Parthenon to Britain. When Greece got its independence from the Ottoman Empire, the Greek government sought to get back the stolen items.
There have been numerous efforts by organizations to get back the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum, including the UNESCO offering to mediate between the Greeks and the British. In 2009, the Acropolis Museum of Athens opened its doors to the public. They have a gallery that is ready to house the Elgin marbles. The British Museum has turned down all requests. They justify their refusal by saying that the marbles represent the whole of European culture and not simply Greek culture.
3. The Bust of Nefertiti.
Thutmose crafted the bust of Nefertiti in the 14th century. It is made of limestone and coated with stucco. It shows the form of Nefertiti, the Great Royal Wife of the pharaoh called Akhenaten. This ancient work of art now sits in the Neues Museum in Berlin.
In 1912, the German Oriental Company found the bust in Thutmose’s workshop. Borkhardt, the secretary of the company concealed the real value of the bust from Egyptian Officials. When Gustave Lefebvre, the chief antique inspector of Egypt went to inspect the bust, the Germans wrapped the bust in a box. Bokhardt made Lefebvre believe that it was lesser than its real value. Bokhardt took it and kept it in his private collection. The Neues Museum later took it and kept it on display till the First World War started in 1939. The artifact has been in transit between many museums since then. In October 2009, the Altes Museum returned the bust to the Neues Museum and it has been on display there ever since.
Ever since 1924, Egypt has been asking for the return of the Bust Of Nefertiti. German authorities have refused, giving various reasons. CultrCooperation in Hamburg, Germany conducted a campaign called “Nefertiti Travels”, where they wrote an open letter to the German Culture minister Bernd Neumann asking them to return Egypt’s artifact. All these efforts have gone in vain. German art experts point to a document between Borchardt and the Egyptian officials which apparently allowed the German Oriental company to take the bust from Egypt. The veracity of this letter is unverified. The Egyptian’s hope to have the artifact returned to them by the time the new Grand Egyptian Museum opens in 2021.
4. The Benin Bronzes.
The Benin Bronzes are a collection of artifacts that were a part of the Benin Empire, in what is now modern-day Nigeria. The British forces stole these Bronzes during their colonization of Nigeria. They thought that the advanced metallurgy of the Beninese was adopted from Portuguese traders but it turned out to be wholly local creations by the Beninese themselves. The Beninese Bronzes currently sit in the British Museum.
On February the 18th, 1897, British Army conducted a violent raid on the city of Benin. Many British soldiers looted precious artifacts from the king’s palace and even celebrated with colonial triumph. The artifacts were stolen against all international law that regulates the ownership of such property. The British Museum currently has around 700 specimens of the Benin Bronzes and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York house 163 of the Bronzes.
Nigeria is opening a new national museum in 2021, and they have repeatedly asked the British Museum to return the 700 specimens. The officials of the British Museum are completely unrepentant of the stolen artifacts and have not yet shown any indication of returning the Benin Bronzes.
5. The Kohinoor Diamond.
The Kohinoor Diamond was mined in Kollur Mine, in India. It is an item of great value to the Indian people. It currently measures 105.6 carats, with 66 faces. Instead of being under Indian ownership, it sat on the crown of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. It is now on public display in the Tower of London.
The British imperialists annexed Punjab in 1849, stole it gave it to Queen Victoria. Since then, only the female members of the royal family of Britain wear the diamond. The British government claims to have come upon it legally and even refuses to remove it from the crown jewels.
Despite no clear records of the ownership of the Diamond, the former British Prime Minister David Cameroon said, “I am afraid it is going to have to stay put”. Shashi Tharoor, a Member Of Parliament of the Indian government gave an impassioned speech directly to the British government. In the speech, he deplored British colonial rule and asked them to give reparation payments for 200 years of financial looting from India.
6. Maqdala Ethiopian Treasures.
The Maqdala Ethiopian treasures belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Among these artifacts are Christian plaques, crosses, gold and silver treasures, and manuscripts. They are now in the possession of the British Museum, where they sit in a dark storeroom.
The British army defeated the Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros the Second in 1868. When the emperor killed himself, the British army soldiers looted and ransacked the Emperor’s treasury. These exquisite items were auctioned among other officials. There were even experts from the British Museum itself, who stood there and bid high amounts for these priceless artifacts. Most of the items passed from the hands of private owners and to U.K’s leading museums and libraries.
Ethiopia has asked multiple times for the return of the stolen Maqdala treasures. The British Museum consistently refuses to return them. The most that they are willing to do is lend the artifacts to Ethiopia on a long-term loan. To Britain, the Christian plaques mean little to nothing. The British Museum doesn’t even allow the public to see the plaques. To the Ethiopian people, they are “a fundamental part of the existential fabric of Ethiopia and its people”, according to Ethiopian culture minister Hirut Kassaw. The Ethiopian Maqdala treasures are an important part of the country’s national story, yet the British Museum and the British government time and again refuse to return the stolen items. These are six artifacts stolen and still on display in museums. These artifacts are items of cultural, historical, and national importance to the people of these countries. For years, they have been asking politely for their artifacts to be returned. Places like the British Museum are afraid that once they start to return items, countries around the world would take back what is theirs and their museum would be empty. This justification has little importance in the face of the moral obligation that these countries have to return stolen items to their home countries.