I recently had the pleasure of reading Arindam’s impassioned plea for the return of the Kohinoor diamond to its original home. It was taken by the ‘gentlemen’ of the East India Company and presented to Queen Victoria way back in the 1800’s. Of course, it’s history isn’t as simple as that – it would appear that various other people had stolen / borrowed it on numerous occasions in the past and it perhaps illustrates one of the difficulties faced by those of us who would like to see stolen treasures of antiquity returned to their rightful owners.

Items like the Kohinoor diamond have been trophies of war, occupation and oppression since the birth of mankind. Originally tribes fought each other over short distances and captured the neighbouring tribe’s artifacts as symbols of their superiority – in some cases these artifacts took the form of their enemies severed heads, dried and shrunk for posterity – so it’s a little harsh to just lay the issue at the door of European colonialism.

Over time and probably driven by a combination of necessity and the need to respond to other discoveries by neighbouring groups of people, for some reason Europe seems to have made significant technological advances which resulted in the growth of sea power and the ability to travel way beyond the old inter-tribal boundaries. Quite why this happened in Europe and not in, for example, the Southeast Asian area is something that I suspect will always be a challenge for historians, but happen in Europe it did.

From that birth of sea power came the challenges of seeking supremacy over the other European countries for each of those involved – the British, Dutch, Germans, Belgians, French, Portugese and Spanish. This was achieved by a mix of war, piracy and dodgy deals. The British, French and Dutch were especially involved in India and the surrounding region. It also heralded a time when science was applied to history – archeaolgists suddenly appeared like vultures circling over a corpse. This is where the crime that Arindam’s post refers to truly occurred, for some of these archaeologists were honestly seeking to salvage and preserve the treasures of antiquity for future generations and some were merely seeking to make a fast buck. Those who were genuine supplied their items to major museums – they only wanted the kudos of being named as the discoverer. And those items criminally obtained often made their way into collections as well. Either way – many items important to the local people were sequestred in the interests of gaining / preserving knowledge.

There remains the dark side outside of Arindam’s request – and I’ll use the valley of the kings in Egypt as an example. Many of the ‘serious’ archaeologists who sought to find artefacts there found that the graves had already been looted by locals who didn’t give a damn about the importance of what they took. I dread to think how much history has been lost in this way and I’d ask Arindam to ponder on that question, because when you take that into account you should really consider the fact that there is still a Kohinoor Diamond to return as a positive – Had it been taken by criminals rather than misguided colonialists it would almost certainly have been broken down and fenced to many buyers never to be seen again!

This is the one positive of what the colonialists did from a point of the treasures of antiquity… They put the items in museums for future generations. At least the items are there to give back! Now we need to find a mechanism to achieve that. Quite what that mechanism will be in the long term is open to debate but I believe it will be much more along the lines of a sharing arrangement to enhance everyone’s knowledge of the past rather than a straight give back. I also believe that it will only happen when the necessary safeguards are in place to protect the items from the ‘grave’ robbers. I understand that the UK and Egypt are working together on this kind of arrangement and it may well be a good model for the future.

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Comments

  1. Interesting issues arise whenever we attempt to “right” the “wrongs” of the past . . . even if they weren’t considered “wrongs” at the time.

    I am glad that so much of the past has been preserved in museums of antiquity.

    Thanks, Martin.

    • Thanks Nancy – I think the biggest issue with trying to ‘right’ past ‘wrongs’ is that the point at which the ‘wrong’ occurred is a purely arbitrary one selected by an individual from their personal point of view.

  2. A good point about it having been preserved compared to what thieves would have done.

    • Thanks Tony – One man’s thief is another man’s Archaeologist!

      I do hope that it does become possible through methods that protect the items for the future. I know that discussions are in hand between the British Museum and The Egyptians regarding the Rosetta Stone – Egypt is opening a state of the art museum next year which would probably be a suitable home for the artifact with all the modern security measures necessary for its protection. There are also ongoing discussions with the Maori people about the return of some burials that were removed to the uk – something that I support because their removal directly impacts on that people’s culture.

      What this debate doesn’t need is one line put-downs from a buffoon like David Cameron 😦

  3. Iinteresting that the Kohinoor is regarded as an archeological discovery that was seant Britain for preservation and safe keeping.
    the problem is that from an Indian point of view, it is regarded as a symbol of theft.together with this theft goes the theft of Britain of other resouces and lives of Indian people.
    Hopefully this wrong and others will be corrected in the near future

    • Hi Suren, Thanks for commenting. I think the Kohinoor is unfortunately tied in with the general argument about things that should / should not be returned – some of which I’ve illustrated in my response to Arindam’s excellent post.

      The Kohinoor itself could hardly be referred to as archeological unlike some of the other treasures taken from the Mughal empire. I’d personally give it back tomorrow. Unfortunately, it got put into our crown jewels – in itself an insult to the Indian people, symbolising rule from another country. I don’t know why they can’t just make a replica of it, swap the two and send the original home – no one gets close enough to the thing over here to be able to tell if it’s real or not!

      The biggest stumbling block is that the fate of the Kohinoor isn’t in the hands of the academics of The British Museum, who would probably look sympathetically on a request for its return, but the government 😦

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