Stealing national treasures

Underwater ruins at Port Royal, Jamaica, where theft of artifacts used to be rampant

Western nations are well known for appropriating the treasures of other lands for their own use. Sheer greed is at the heart of such theft. Some claim to do it in the name of science. The latter relates primarily to artifacts that were “discovered” or “rescued” for human posterity.

They, of course, would not term what they do as theft, but thievery it is. It is not often that such chicanery is brought to judgment. Among the rarest was one of the most recent. The Museum of the Bible opened last November, making it the newest national museum in Washington, DC., the American capital. Hobby Lobby, the main company behind the effort, was fined US$3 million for illegal imports of artifacts from Iraq. Allegations were that more than 3,000 items were illegally obtained and imported into the US.

Earlier this century, I came across what appeared to be blatant theft of Jamaican artifacts. I visited a cave near Duncans Bay in Trelawny on Jamaica’s north coast, where it is believed enslaved persons hid William Knibb, the British Baptist missionary. White retaliation against the Sam Sharpe Rebellion – also called the Baptist War and which occurred December 1831 to May 1832 – was at its most lethal and most destructive. More than 500 enslaved, including Sharpe, were executed and hundreds of churches and other buildings destroyed.

It is believed Knibb, possibly the most well-known Baptist in the colony, was kept hidden by the enslaved who moved him from location to location to spare his life. Local lore is that the cave near Duncans Bay was one such hiding place.

There was a water well in the cave and what looked like altars. There were what could have been tombs. These suggest the cave was more than a hideaway location.

It was alleged that a few years prior to my visit to the cave, students from a university in Florida in the United States had been to the cave, dug up human remains, and transported them out of the country without respect or regard for the laws of the country or respect for the country’s heritage.

Britain, with its far flung erstwhile empire that covered the Americas, Asia and Africa, is possibly the worst culprit in stealing and holding onto valuable artifacts.  These include the Rosetta Stone, inscribed with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic script, and Greek script. More than 2,000 years old, it originated in Memphis, Egypt, and lies in the British Museum, ending up there after it was “discovered” in 1799. The Koh-i-Noor Diamond from out of India is part of the crown worn by the English monarch. The 4,600-year-old Egyptian sphinx head and China’s imperial treasures are being held  by the British as well.

A few stolen treasures have been repatriated. In 2003, a German museum handed back to Zimbabwe a soapstone carved bird, an emblem of the country that appears on its currency and national flag, after holding on to it for about 100 years; in 2005, Italy returned a 1,700-year-old stone obelisk to Ethiopia after stealing it 70 years earlier; and in 2011, Yale University from out of the US gave back 40,000 artifacts to Peru.

Jamaican artifacts formed the basis for the founding of the British Museum. In 1753, the museum opened its doors with the collection of Hans Sloane, who had willed his vast collection to Britain. A medical doctor who had spent time in Jamaica in the late 1600s, Sloane may have treated the infamous pirate and Jamaican Governor, Henry Morgan. Back in England he served as physician to King George I, Queen Anne, King George II and other prominent Britons. [It is this same Sloane who was credited with creating the first chocolate drink while he was in Jamaica.]

Sloane married a wealthy widow who owned a large plantation in Jamaica and thus became one of the island’s largest enslavers. “It is an unhappy fact that a considerable proportion of the money Sloane used to amass his collection was derived from slavery,” writes Peter Parker in his review of the 2017 book, Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane by James Delbourgo.

Throughout his lifetime, he collected tens of thousands of artifacts, much of it from the island. Among Sloane’s collection were macabre items such as skulls and skin specimens of enslaved persons. “Every object taken by Sloane was a part of the system of slavery,” writes Josephine Livingstone, culture staff writer at The New Republic, an American magazine.

Also in the British Museum are Zemi figures from Vere, Clarendon, created by Jamaican Taino Indians in the fifteenth or sixteenth century. For six weeks in 2007, from May 3 to June 17, the British Museum put on display “three objects discovered together in 1792 in a cave in Canoe Valley deep in the mountainous interior of Jamaica, including an impressive and powerful male figure, a likely centrepiece in Taíno ceremonies.”

Perhaps the place experiencing the greatest theft was Port Royal on the tip of Jamaica’s southeast shore. Severely damaged by an earthquake in 1692, the once “richest and wickedest city in the world” lies in ruins, much of it under the sea. Suzie Thomas of the University of Helsinki in Finland indicates that shortly after the quake, “looters began targeting the submerged sections, many of whom were ‘wrackers’ (professional treasure hunters) from Bermuda. Much of this salvage and looting continued intermittently for years.”

Some of these treasure hunters looted Port Royal’s relics under the guise of conducting legitimate exploration activities. Americans became particularly interested and active in the 1950s. Robert Marx, who explored the underwater ruins, alleged that a major theft occurred at the Port Royal Museum in 1971 and was deliberately kept quiet by Jamaican authorities.

There have been attempts to redress some of the theft of artifacts by Western countries. Jamaicans being Jamaicans, some took matters into their own hands. Davina Morris recounts the story of Ras Seymour Mclean, London Chaplain of the Ethiopian World Federation Inc.:

Jamaican-born, London-based Mclean was jailed in the 1980s for the theft of over 2000 Ethiopian manuscripts from British libraries, which he intended to return to Ethiopia. His story was later turned into a Channel 4 film called The Book Liberator.

The following episode was the cause of his ire:

The British Museum, the British Library and the Victoria and Albert Museum are just a few of the British institutes that hold items that were looted during the invasion of Magdala in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1868 by a British punitive expedition army. In short, the British won the battle and then proceeded to loot countless items from the defeated ruler’s palace and from churches. In fact, it has been widely reported that it required a staggering 15 elephants and 200 mules to carry the loot, which included treasures and religious manuscripts.

More countries are becoming aware of the theft of their treasured past and are realizing their value. Jamaica, slower out of the blocks than others, has much to claim from Britain and elsewhere.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *