The British Empire built colonies, overseas territories, and crown dependencies all over the world between the late 16th and the 20th centuries, claiming to be the biggest empire in history at its height. Although British colonial rule provided considerable modernization to the countries it conquered, it also obstructed democracy, equality under the law, and self-governance.
Several countries and campaigners are increasingly mounting pressure for the return of valuable items which they claim were pillaged by the British Empire. Repatriation campaigners claim that many of the cultural objects on exhibit in British museums were stolen from the colonized population.
According to human rights attorney Geoffrey Robertson, the British Museum, which is home to more than 8 million antiquities including the Rosetta stone and Benin Bronzes, has the highest concentration of stolen property.
Chika Okeke-Agulu, an art historian and professor at Princeton University, remarked that the Empire itself was a very paradoxical phenomena that purported to provide so-called civilization to the colonial people, but at the same time developed institutions that were hostile to modernity.
“All the institutions associated with the emergence of the European middle class, like museums, depended on the extraction of cultural heritage and artifacts from all corners of the empire,” Okeke-Agulu told Insider.
“These museums were established in the age of the Empire as bragging spaces where they
showed off their collections from their imperial holdings.”
Below are some cultural artifacts which the British Empire looted from the African continent;
The British Museum’s Rosetta Stone is recognized as a monumental artifact that made it possible for scholars to decipher and comprehend Ancient Egyptian cultures and history.
The Rosetta Stone is a granodiorite stele that bears three copies of an edict that King Ptolemy V Epiphanes of the Ptolemaic dynasty issued in Memphis, Egypt, in 196 BC.
The texts in the top and middle are written in hieroglyphic and demotic characters, respectively, while the text at the bottom is written in ancient greek.
According to Okeke-Ugulu, the stone was initially stolen from Egypt by Napoleon Bonaparte, who is well known for opening up the nation to the rest of Europe and igniting “Egyptomania” in the 19th century.
After the British overcame the French in 1815, they then grabbed the Rosetta Stone.
Another cultural item that has been the focus of calls for restitution is the Rosetta Stone, but some experts think the British Museum is unwilling to give up one of its most well-known acquisitions.
After the Battle of Maqdala, the British took religious manuscripts from Ethiopians that they called the Maqdala Manuscripts.
According to Atlas Obscura, a British expeditionary army besieged the mountaintop citadel of
Maqdala in 1868, leading to the capture of more than 1,000 primarily religious manuscripts that were transported to Britain on the backs of 15 elephants and hundreds of mules. 350 of those manuscripts were eventually acquired by the British Library.
With the goal of restoring stolen goods to Ethiopia, the Association for the Return of the Maqdala Ethiopian Treasures (AFROMET) was established in 1999.
The organization has been successful in retrieving some objects, though its campaign continues.
The royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin, which is now Nigeria, was beautifully decorated with thousands of bronze statues that date back to the 13th century.
The British Empire, however, dispatched troops on a punitive expedition in 1897 to punish Benin rebels who had reacted against imperial authority. The Kingdom of Benin came to an end when the soldiers of the Empire ransacked and ravaged the city.
The British Museum now has more than 900 historical items from the former monarchy in its collection of “contested artefacts,” including more than 200 bronze plaques. Nigeria has repeatedly demanded the restoration of the bronzes since becoming independent in 1960.
The Benin Bronzes will be loaned to Nigeria by the British Museum, but the British Museum has not yet committed to fully repatriate the objects.
The skull of Koitalel Arap Samoei, the Nandi leader, is a particularly terrible case. He fought against Britain’s railroad project across his territory, and British colonel Richard Meinertzhagen shot him dead in 1905.
Samoei’s head was severed from his body and sent to London. In the museum in Britain, the skull is still on display. The plunder of thousands of works of African art have taken place throughout periods of conflict, but mostly through colonization by Western countries.
This account described the looting of African artifacts that took place during Britain’s anti-slavery expedition as well as the subsequent fight to have them returned.