While some of the stolen artifacts held in public and individual collections across the West and especially Britain, are ancient, their seizure is not. Claiming their legality is a divorce from history.
Oftentimes, when thinking about cultural artifacts looted by colonial nations, we think of ancient relics carved in stone, inscriptions removed from city walls, marble sculptures extracted from monuments, treasures excavated from the earth, and metal alloy offerings made for royal or religious purposes. While these are all accurate descriptions of works forcibly removed at the hands of colonial aggressors, remembering these artifacts as “ancient” subconsciously convinces us that their acquisition occurred in ancient times too. Perhaps more importantly, the rhetoric we use to talk about these occurrences can imply that the looting took place as the land was being colonized, taking pieces of cultural heritage as a symbol of ownership. However, this is not the case. Most of these stolen artifacts were plundered by colonial armies, ambassadors, and missionaries in the mid-to-late 19th century, very recent in the scope of human history. Furthermore, looting was commonly part of a battle and subsequent raid without colonial rulership — or, after learning of something of value during their rule that belonged to an individual rather than the state, colonizers would track it down and obtain it by force.
Of the large powers at the time, historical artifacts were largely taken by the Ottoman, French, German, Portuguese, Belgian Empires, but most notably, the British. Looting occurred worldwide, and while there are some instances of successful repatriation of works, like Nazi-era art, when it comes to the British, most of the pillaging took place in Africa and Asia. Unfortunately, restitution looks grim, at least when it comes to the whole lot. Some items and collections are masqueraded under a not-so-promising façade of museums “being in talks” with embassies about returning the loot to the looted, and others remain strongly excluded from even the most veiled of intentions. Legislation passed in the 1960s and ‘80s protects Britain from any obligation to do so, making recoupment unlikely — even more so for items in smaller spotlights, like the Maqdala Ethiopian treasures, and those with convoluted backstories, like the Koh-i-Noor diamond.
The story of the Maqdala (also spelled Magdala) Ethiopian treasures is cut-and-dry. While Ethiopia has never been truly colonized by the British, or any European power for that matter, the British army still arrived in the country in 1868 for the Battle of Maqdala in response to the Ethiopian Empire, then known as Abyssinia, demanding military aid to fight Islamic Empires. Emperor Tewodros II had penned his request, albeit in Amharic, appealing to Christian solidarity and received no response. In a somewhat ironic turn of events, several missionaries and representatives of British government crossed him in one way or another, and he took them hostage, hoping to extort the aid he requested. When Queen Victoria announced her military rescue expedition, made up of the British army and Indian subjects, the prisoners were being held at the emperor’s fortress in Maqdala. The troops ultimately did more than a hostage rescue — not to mention the 2,000 casualties to their 20, including the suicide of Tewodros II to prevent the satisfaction of his captivity. They blew up the fortress, torched the town, and began their looting.
Emerging victorious, British forces stole thousands of culturally significant and valuable items from the area, including from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of Medhane Alem. An excavation even took place in the harbor, on behalf of the British Museum, resulting in the removal of undiscovered relics from the ancient city of Adulis. The total loot was so large that it took 15 elephants and 200 mules to transport the goods to a nearby town, where they were then auctioned and distributed among the British. An attendee, Richard Holmes, sent by the British Museum, walked away with a significant portion of the loot, made up of hundreds of manuscripts, royal wedding gowns, and most importantly, the gold Crown of Abud, which belonged to the head of the Ethiopian Church. The few returned items from the loot are virtually insignificant and undeniably insulting: a silver gilt crown, one of two copies of a religious manuscript, and a lock of Tewodros II’s hair. Nearly all of the goods remain in the British Museum, Oxford’s Bodleian Library, the Royal Library in Windsor Castle, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Museum of Mankind, and the National Army Museum.
Situations like these corroborate UNESCO’s claims that 90% of African cultural property is held in European museums, with a substantial portion of it residing within the United Kingdom. When including property not on display, the British Museum is not only the largest museum of stolen goods, but a museum in which stolen goods may actually make up the majority of its total property. However, these estimates seldom account for property held out of sight or in private collections. In the case of Britain, many looted items are regularly used by the royal family today, a glaringly unapologetic reminder of colonialism. One such item is the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which is on display in the Jewel House in the Tower of London, adorned to the aptly named Imperial State Crown. Originally added in 1937 for Queen Elizabeth II’s mother, the crown is rarely worn due to its weight — unsurprising given its 11 emeralds, 17 sapphires, 269 pearls, and 2,868 diamonds, including the massive Koh-i-Noor. Returning the diamond would surely solve that problem for the Queen, yet the British government refuses to entertain its removal, let alone its repatriation.
Admittedly, finding its rightful owner would prove difficult. The diamond, plagued with the curse of bringing bad luck to any man who wears it, has only ever been worn by female members of the royal family. However, it was worn by both men and women before the British Empire seized it in 1849. The diamond had changed hands many times. Originally believed to come from the Kollur Mine in India, it was passed around the region: through the Mughal Empire, Afsharid Dynasty, Durrani dynasty, and then returned to India, belonging to the Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh. When he died in 1839, the British found their time to strike. British colonialists imprisoned his wife Rani Jindan and forced his son, Duleep Singh, who was just 10 at the time, to sign a document at gunpoint, giving away the Koh-i-Noor and all claim to sovereignty.
Upon arriving in Britain, it was displayed to the public, which was unimpressed by its appearance and claimed Queen Victoria’s newfound possession was nothing more than “a piece of common glass.” Her husband, Prince Albert, decided to have the stone recut and polished, ultimately reducing its size by half but increasing its light refraction and in turn, its appeal. It was first worn as a brooch, was added to a number of crowns, and finally adorned to the crown of Queen Elizabeth I, which became the Queen’s crown today. There has never been any indication that the royal family would return the Koh-i-Noor, even if its rightful owner could be easily discerned.
Colonial empires were constantly accessing the opportunities for pillage in lands with less power and more economic potential than their own — and while stolen works themselves may be ancient, their seizure is not. Even if the restitution of art and artifacts is too much to ask from an impermeable imperial force, we do these works a disservice by pretending their current ownership is legal, legitimate, or even moral. When we perpetuate the narrative that an Ethiopian crown, or the Koh-in-Noor on Her Majesty’s, were voluntary offerings, we divorce ourselves from recent history and that in the making.