A few weeks ago, indigenous leaders from Australia visited the Manchester Museum. They went there to collect various sacred ceremonial artifacts which were said to have been ‘taken without permission’ by early 20th Century British colonialists.
Danny Teece-Johnson, a journalist for Australia’s National Indigenous Television, had an interesting comment on the language of extraction.
‘You’re saying borrowed, you’re saying this and that. Nah, let’s talk about the white elephant in the room: you stole it, you took it without permission, that’s theft. If you did that these days, you’d get put in jail for it.’
Language is cute and few are as cute about its use than the British and of course the country which borrowed their language and perfected the art of political cuteness, the USA. Countries are never invaded, they are ‘democratized.’ The victims of terrorist attacks launched by such countries are not people, they make up ‘collateral’. Land theft never happened. Resource plunder? Never happened. Cultural genocide? No. Mass slaughter? What? That’s called ‘civilizing’. A good thing, surely?
Now around the same time or a few days after the above return of stolen goods, the University of Edinburgh, in a moment of insane generosity, returned nine skulls to Uruvarigaye Wanniyalaetto. The skulls are supposed to be more than 200 years old and are thought to be those of Wanniyalaetto’s ancestors.
Nice. Let’s say ‘Thank you, thanks for the kind and generous gesture.’
Alright. Enough applause. Let’s talk of skulls and skullduggery, taking without permission and outright theft. In 1974, P.H.D.H. De Silva published a book titled ‘A catalogue of antiquities and other cultural objects from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) Abroad.’ There are over 15,000 items listed. Remember, these are thefts that have been recorded and stolen goods that are given names, numbers and catalogued. They have ended up, as far as we can say with absolute certainty, in 23 countries and 140 holding facilities. This is not counting gene piracy and post-colonial extraction, let us not forget. The vast majority of the artifacts listen in the book are in Britain. Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Berkshire, Leister, Liverpool, London, Sheffield and Windsor are among the cities mentioned.
And they return nine skulls!
So we say ‘Thank you,’ and think ‘Such lovely folks.’ Well, Wanniyalaetto has stated that the lovely folks in Manchester had told him there were 14,000 more skulls and bones. Apparently they are to take steps to return them as well. If you clapped once for the nine skulls, you would have to clap 1555.5 times if/when these other bones are returned.
Now this stuff is not new. Eight years ago, almost to the day, i.e. from September 14 to November 24, the British Council in Colombo arranged a traveling exhibition of artifacts. It was called ‘A Return to Sri Lanka.’ That’s tongue-in-cheek that was lost on one and all, indicating how sycophantic we have become. The following was the blurb advertising the event: ‘…covers nearly 300 years of the country’s history through 150 digital facsimiles of materials from major British collections, including maps, manuscripts, prints, drawings and photographs as well as other artifacts’.
The first question: ‘Only 150?’ Wear an expression of incredulity as you ask it. Second question: ‘Facsimiles?’ Whatever expression you wear it should indicate the words used to camouflage without really wanting to, i.e. ‘What the flower?’
The then Country Director of the British Council, Tony Reilly, called the exhibition ‘a partnership event.’ The purpose, he claimed, was ‘to share it, to experience, to enjoy, to argue and talk about 300 years of cultural diversity described in each piece.’ He left out ‘theft’. He left out ‘butchery’. He left out ‘genocide’. That’s par for the course, of course.
That exhibition was interestingly funded by the World Collections Program. Well! Let’s talk ‘collections’.
In August 2018 the British Museum decided to return to Iraq eight 5,000 year old artifacts looted following ‘the fall of Saddam Hussein’ as they reported it. Fall, huh? Ha! Apparently the objected were seized by police from a London dealer in 2003 and had been in the hands of the state for 15 years before being identified as having been extracted from a site in Tello in southern Iraq. The Director of the British Museum Hartwig Fischer said at the time that the institution was ‘absolutely committed to the fight against illicit trade and damage to cultural heritage.’
He missed this important point: Britain is the product and the repository of illicit trade (sanitized term for ‘plunder’ in the lexicon of British Apologetics).
Britain’s partners in crime in this business across the Atlantic, the USA, uses the same kind of language. In September 2019, US authorities returned a stolen coffin to Egypt, two years after it was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The 2,100 year old coffin of a priest called Nedjemankh had been featured in a exhibition of artifacts from Egypt. Apparently it had been looted and smuggled out of Egypt in 2011. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, speaking at a repatriation ceremony, opined that this was one of hundreds of antiquities stolen by the same ‘multinational trafficking ring.’
Multinational trafficking ring! That’s a descriptive worth holding on to. That’s what colonial rule was all about, wasn’t it? That’s what’s happening even now, isn’t it? Wars are not about democracy, resolutions are not about human rights. It’s about creating conditions (including the support of or installation of pliant governments) for the highly profitable business of plunder. Land, oil, strategic geographies, water, genetic resources, you name it, it’s all ‘open to exploration,’ let’s say.
What’s the market value of nine skulls? What’s the market value of 300 facsimiles compared with that of the originals? Of course, the curators of museums and custodians of other ‘collections’ didn’t kill anyone or rob things. They are, however, holding on to stolen goods. There is no talk of returning these to the descendants of those who were robbed and probably killed in the process as well.
And it can’t start and end with artifacts. Yes, it is hard to ascertain the true value of everything that was stolen and even more difficult to obtain the true cost of the damage in terms of cultural erasure, destruction of livelihoods and lifestyles, forced dislocation and all the trauma that was part of such things. Britain is reported to have paid out 20 million sterling pounds to slave owners in the colonies of the Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape of Good Hope as per a census on owners as of August 1, 1834 under the Slave Compensation Act of 1837. Words! It was not the slaves who were compensated but the slave-drivers!
That’s a benchmark. Contrary to the Anglophiles in Sri Lanka, who get nostalgic about a ‘British Rule’ that took places long before they were born, and who talk about roads, railways and such, the truth is that the British were out and out brigands. They didn’t build roads and railways. A subjugated people’s labour is congealed in all that was built with money extracted through brutal systems of taxation (without representation, mind you!). In addition to mass slaughter, they destroyed temples (and built churches on their foundation — ‘to civilize the heathens!’ Yeah, right!) and either burnt or robbed countless invaluable Buddhist manuscripts. Yes, we can add the theft of intellectual property to artifact theft, resource extraction, labor exploitation and gene piracy. If the British could quantify and compensate slaves, we could quantify reparations for colonial plunder.
And they return nine skulls! Did someone say ‘Hooray!’?
There are no facsimiles of the blood they spilled, the tears shed, the screams before butchery. No facsimiles of villages torched and children killed. No facsimiles of temples razed to the ground or forests cleared (and the timber shipped out) for coffee and tea. And it’s not facsimiles of artifacts and manuscripts that are now housed in the British Library, the Victoria and Albert Museums, the Natural History Museum in London and other loot-holding facilities.
Eight years ago, when the British Council was bragging about facsimiles, a friend offered the following: ‘they fokkin’ brazen aint they? so let’s see, they steal and then show us pix of what they stole but wont return? No one asking for reparations or loot? Is there a catalog of the stolen in collections? Is Keppetipola’s skull still in Scotland?’ And I wrote, ‘This is not a “return” to Sri Lanka. This is about slapping one cheek and slapping the other too for good measure. “Returns that can be Xeroxed” sums up the season of plunder that does not seem to have ended after the British “left”. They could return what they robbed and keep the facsimiles in their collections, after all.
But they’ve returned nine skulls! Hooray!
But then again, they’re refusing the return the Chagos Islands to Mauritius despite an advisory opinion issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The archipelago is now the site of the US military base in Diego Garcia. And the USA, which just the other day threatened to arrest and sanction judges and other officials of the International Criminal Court if it moves to charge with war crimes any US citizen who served in Afghanistan, would probably thumb its nose as the ICJ if it ‘tried to be funny’.
Well, funny is the word. It’s hilarious.
They returned nine skulls. I could die laughing. EXCEPT, it is no laughing matter. It’s skullduggery in cute form indulged in by multinational artifact traffickers.
Danny Teece Johnson was correct. They should all be serving time in prison, these do-gooding, skull-giving beneficiaries of skullduggery.