The British Empire was easily the largest empire in human history, encompassing about one fourth of the world’s total land area and population at the peak of its power. Throughout that time, numerous priceless cultural artifacts from around the world were seized and taken back to be displayed in British museums or sold to private collectors, where they remain to this day.
10. Gweagal Shield
The Gweagal shield is a traditional shield made by the aboriginal Gweagal people of Australia. It’s believed to have been used in ceremonial and defensive contexts, before it was captured from a native fighter during James Cook’s 1770 expedition to Australia’s southeastern coast. According to some accounts of the encounter, a group of Gweagal warriors were confronted and defeated by Cook’s landing party on the beach. Other reports, however, claim that Cook ordered his men to open fire after they were attacked, forcing them to retaliate.
Whatever might have happened that day, the shield – along with spears and a few other items – was seized by Cook and brought back to England. It’s still held in the British Museum’s collection in London, along with several other objects stolen by Cook and his men from indigenous Australians during their early voyages to the continent.
9. Benin Bronzes
Before the British expedition to Benin in West Africa in 1897, it was one of the oldest and most developed regions in the world. The capital, Benin City, is said to have been larger and better-built than most European cities of the time, with city walls four times longer than even the Great Wall of China. The empire was particularly known for its sophisticated art, including the famous Benin bronzes – a collection of thousands of works of art made using the lost-wax casting technique. It’s estimated that there were around 4,000 of these objects made by skilled craftsmen from across the region, including sculptures, plaques, and other decorative items.
Sadly, all that would come to an abrupt end In February, 1897, when the city was invaded and sacked by a 1,200-strong British force commanded by Sir Henry Rawson. It was a brutal, punitive campaign, resulting in the looting of almost all of the royal palace’s priceless artifacts, including the bronzes. They were taken back to Britain and sold to museums and collectors around the world, with most of them now residing in private and state collections in Europe.
The Moai statues are monolithic sculptures made by natives of Easter Island – a Chilean territory located in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. Sculpted with compressed lava ash, these pieces are believed to represent deceased ancestors and occupy an important place in the culture of the Rapa Nui people.
One of the most famous of these statues is the Hoa Hakananai’a, which translates to ‘the stolen or hidden friend’. Measuring almost 2.5 meters – or 8 feet – in height and about four tons in weight, it was taken by the British navy and brought to the British Museum in London during an 1868 campaign, where it remains until today. Despite being on display in London for over 150 years, the Hoa Hakananai’a remains an irreplaceable artifact in Rapa Nui culture.
7. Hevea Brasiliensis Seeds
This one is mixing things up a little bit, because we’re not talking about a specific artifact. We are, however, talking about taking away something monumentally important to another part of the world. You see, demand for rubber was rapidly increasing around the world in the late 1800s, especially in Europe and the United States, where it was used to manufacture tires, clothing, and various other products. The rubber industry in Brazil and the larger Amazon region was booming, as the government strictly controlled the trade and prohibited the export of the rubber-producing Hevea Brasiliensis seeds out of the region.
In 1876, an explorer and naturalist named Henry Wickham was hired by the British government to do something about it. After months of preparation and backdoor deals with local tribes, Wickham managed to smuggle about 70,000 rubber tree seeds out of Brazil and back to England. It was a turning point in the history of the global rubber trade, as it allowed British planters and traders to plant the seeds in colonies like Ceylon and Malaysia. By 1913, Britain would overtake Brazil as the primary exporter of rubber around the world.
6. Parthenon Marbles
Parthenon Marbles – also called Ergin Marbles – are a collection of sculptures and architectural features that once adorned the Parthenon – a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena in Athens, Greece. Made some time in the 5th century BC with Pentelic marble and limestone, the artifacts depict various scenes from Greek mythology, including battles, religious ceremonies, and the birth of Athena.
The marbles were originally owned by the city of Athens, though in 1801, Lord Elgin, a British diplomat, received permission from the ruling Ottoman Empire to remove and ship them to England. They were then purchased by the British government, and are now on display in the British Museum. That’s despite several calls by the Greek government to return them, as they were allegedly taken from Athens without their consent, while the British Museum maintains that they’re part of their collection and are better preserved in London.
5. Tipu’s Tiger
Tipu’s Tiger refers to an automaton made for Tipu Sultan – the ruler of Mysore in south India from 1782 to 1799. Built in 1793 in the form of a life-sized tiger attacking a European soldier, it was both an impressive automaton and a powerful symbol of local resistance against the British. According to accounts, the tiger could even produce realistic growls and roars, while the man screamed in agony.
The tiger remained in Tipu’s possession until 1799, when British forces defeated and killed him during a military campaign. It remains on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London today, along with many other prized possessions taken from Tipu’s palaces across south India.
4. Maori Heads
From 1769 to the 1970s, thousands of ancestral remains belonging to the Maori and Moriori people of New Zealand were taken out of the country and sold to private collectors, museums, and medical institutions around the world. The most prized of these are the toi moko, or tattooed heads of notable leaders, family members, or defeated enemies preserved by native communities as souvenirs.
According to the records, the first ever trade of a toi moko was done by a member of James Cook’s party, Sir Joseph Banks, some time in 1769. Soon, they were in demand across Europe and beyond for their detailed artwork and cultural value, resulting in a kind of a gold rush but for mummified tattooed heads instead of gold. The ever-rising global demand for the artifacts – peaking during the 1800s and 1820s – directly led to several conflicts and violent confrontations between the settlers and natives. While many of them have been returned to New Zealand as a part of the government’s efforts to repatriate national treasures, thousands still remain hidden in private collections around the world.
3. Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone is a granodiorite stele created during the Ptolemaic Period of Ancient Egypt. At its most basic, a stele was a large ornate stone slab used in Egypt to commemorate significant events or individuals. In this case, the Rosetta Stone was a part of a larger collection of stelae issued by a council of priests in 196 BC.
The Rosetta Stone is unique for many reasons, including the fact that the information inscribed on it is written in two languages – Egyptian and Greek – and three other writing systems – hieroglyphics, the demotic script, and the Greek alphabet. Specifically, the text refers to a royal decree of benefactions issued by King Ptolemy V in honor of his coronation.
It was discovered by a French soldier called Pierre-Francois Bouchard during the French occupation of Egypt in 1799, and then seized by the British in 1801 following their victory in the Napoleonic Wars. The Rosetta Stone was eventually transported to England and donated to the British Museum in London, where it remains on display today.
2. Ethiopian Tabots
Ethiopian tabots – or plaques – are sacred objects made of wood or stone that represent the Ark of the Covenant. They’re an important part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – an institution that predates the European colonization of Africa – and are only meant to be viewed or handled by their priests. According to the stories, there are believed to be 44 tabots in total, each representing a different church or region in Ethiopia.
11 of them, however, now sit in the British Museum as a part of its vast collection of historical and cultural items from around the world. They were taken during the British expedition to Abyssinia in 1868, when British soldiers looted a number of valuable artifacts from the Emperor’s treasury and transported them back to London. There have been a number of attempts by the Ethiopian government to return them back to the country in the years since, though to little success.
1. Great Star Of Africa
At 3,106 carats and about 4 X 2.5 X 2.3 inches in dimensions, the Cullinan diamond was the largest clear-cut diamond ever found. It’s named after Sir Thomas Cullinan – the owner of the Premier Mine near Pretoria, South Africa – where it was discovered back in 1905. The Cullinan diamond was later split into several smaller stones, the largest of which was the Great Star of Africa at 530 carats, also known as the Cullinan I.
Currently, the Great Star of Africa – along with other pieces from the Cullinan set – is mounted on the Sovereign’s Scepter as a part of the British royal family’s crown jewels. South Africa has made several demands for the diamond’s return over the years, but the British government has refused all of them, usually citing legal and historical reasons.