Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Visiting London’s Victoria & Albert or British Museums, you see exhibition after exhibition of stunning ‘exotic’ artefacts from across the world. Take a second to think about how the relics of ancient nations came to be in a dusty room in London. They tell an incredibly different story, one of hundreds of years of violence and oppression. Huge numbers of artefacts displayed in British museums hark back to the height of the British Empire, whilst down-playing or simply ignoring the brutality and oppression that came with it. It does not have to be like this: countries like France and Belgium have begun to take the first steps in confronting their uncomfortable past. It is time for Britain to do the same.
In 1897 British military forces invaded and plundered the Kingdom of Benin, taking some 4,000 bronze sculptures. The brutality of this attack would amount to a war crime today. The UK has been unwilling to return the bronzes back to Nigeria ever since, yet agreed to loan them the sculptures in 2018. Other contentious relics such as the Elgin marbles and the Koh-i-noor diamond have been requested by the Greek and Indian governments respectively for return to their place of origin. The UK has declined. In the case of the Koh-i-noor the UK cites the Last Treaty of Lahore as the legal transfer of ownership, ignoring the military pressure that India faced by the British colonial powers.
Why does Britain so desperately want to cling onto the remnants of such a brutal and gory period of their history? The sociological theory of colonial nostalgia explains how British people, through latent activities, yearn for the colonial past and lost empire, however sinister it may be.
Colonial nostalgia best explains the attitudes of the British people, who yearn for the colonial past and the lost empire through latent political and social activities. This predisposition was exposed in the discourse surrounding the Brexit referendum. Many on the right claimed that Brexit will enable Britain to become the global superpower and economic giant that it was in the 19th century. This kind of rhetoric has largely been debunked by the left. However, other more latent political activity such as the white-washing of VE day celebrations and new immigration laws, illustrate that the UK has a sense of national importance that is greater than its global perception.
Britain may still resist returning stolen objects whilst other former colonial powers, like France and Belgium, have taken these positive steps. French President Emmanuel Macron famously said that “African cultural heritage can no longer remain a prisoner of European Museums” and passed legislation on the return of relics from the colonial period.
Belgium has transformed its Royal Museum for Central Africa. It is no longer a place where the colonial history of Belgian presence in the Congo is problematically depicted. It has been remodelled into one that confronts and educates about the crimes of King Leopold’s African Empire. Action can be taken to heal the wounds of the colonial period, action that should be echoed by the United Kingdom.