Britain should return foreign treasures looted in past centuries if it wants to make international friends in the future, a TV historian has suggested.

David Olusoga, a presenter on the BBC's recent Civilisations series, said 21st century Asian superpowers such as China were keenly aware that Britain had stolen parts of its history.

He joked that there should be "a special version of Supermarket Sweep where every country was given a huge shopping trolley and two minutes in the British Museum".

Speaking at the Hay Festival, Olusoga said: "I don't know how sustainable it is, Europeans and Americans having these museums full of stuff that was taken in violent raids from other countries when those other countries are now our trading partners, countries we want to have good relationships with and financially beneficial relationships with.

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"If the world is pivoting to Asia, if our relationships with the Commonwealth after Brexit are going to be more important... they remember the things that were taken. There are senses of loss in those countries. It's beneficial to us to listen to those appeals."

Olusoga cited treasures taken from the Summer Palace in Beijing in 1850 by Lord Elgin's sons.

"The Chinese have an enormous ministry investigating those objects, trying to repatriate them, because everyone in school in China is taught about the fact that the British and the French burned down one of the greatest palaces in all of Asia," he said.

The Benin bronzes were taken and then sold to pay for the cost of the military adventure. Photo / 123rf
The Benin bronzes were taken and then sold to pay for the cost of the military adventure. Photo / 123rf

He also joined the chorus of voices calling for the Elgin Marbles to be returned to Greece.

In Civilisations, which he presented with Simon Schama and Mary Beard, Olusoga drew attention to the Benin Bronzes, looted by the British in 1897.

More than 4000 objects were seized and dispersed among Western institutions, including the British Museum.

The historian, son of a Nigerian father and white British mother, said he had grown up visiting the bronzes and had an emotional attachment to them.

"I think it's a very, very clear case of appropriation and theft," Olusoga said. "They were taken in 1897 during the raid on the Palace of Benin. The palace was destroyed, they were taken and then sold to pay for the cost of the military adventure. Everyone was open about this - steal this stuff, send it to pay for the bullets.

David Olusoga praised the British Museum for being open about the history of objects in its collection, with labels often explaining how they were acquired. Photo / File
David Olusoga praised the British Museum for being open about the history of objects in its collection, with labels often explaining how they were acquired. Photo / File

"These are Nigeria's national treasures. The idea that your national treasures would be in the museum of another country is something that as British people we would find impossible to get our heads around. But that's what Nigerians have to think about."

He praised the British Museum for being open about the history of objects in its collection, with labels often explaining how they were acquired.

But he added: "When countries demand the return of those treasures and we say, well, that's history, it's all over - how long is that going to be sustainable for?"

Olusoga said Britain and other European nations must accept that they were no longer the great super-powers and "the centre of the world" is now Asia.

"Most people are Asian. Two of the most powerful economies of the coming century will be China and India. And this in some ways will be a return to the 16th and 17th centuries. The age in which Europe had dominance and was by far and away the economic and industrial powerhouse in the world was quite brief," he added.

Stolen treasures

• Tippoo's Tiger V&A Museum Looted during Seringapatam Siege, 1799, India

• Tiger Ying Sold at auction Sacred bronze looted in 1860 from China palace

• Gold crown V&A Museum Seized in 1868 by British in Abyssinia (Ethiopia)

• Gold chalice V&A Museum Taken by the British in 1868 from church in Ethiopia

• Rabbit bronze Back in China Looted by Anglo-French in Opium War 1860