British Museum houses stolen artifactsThursday, April 08, 2021
Section 3 of The Larceny Act of Jamaica, taken as a carbon copy of the Larceny Act of England, defines the act of stealing as “a person… who, without the consent of the owner... takes and carries away anything capable of being stolen with intent to permanently deprive the owner thereof”. The law also takes into account goods found by anyone and provides that it remains an act of larceny where the finder, at the time of finding, believes that the owner may be found after taking reasonable steps.
In 1792, two statues were taken from a cave in Carpenter's Mountain in Clarendon, Jamaica. These 500-year-old, three-foot-tall wood carvings were that of a bird man and a rain god, which are both works of art and treasures of the Taino people.
Recall that the Taino were the victims of genocide at the hands of Spanish invaders from whom the British captured Jamaica.
We have strict laws prohibiting “unjust enrichment”, which can result in confiscation of property from and imprisonment of individuals benefiting from the “proceeds of a crime”. In fact, under our proceeds of crime legislation, Jamaica entered into a mutual assistance agreement with the British Government to track down and confiscate any property or money belonging to convicts in either State.
It is against the legal framework outlined above that Jamaica's claim for the repatriation of the rain god and bird man to our island is fully justified in law, civility, and on moral grounds.
As we witness the recent worldwide movement to correct the wrongs of the past, to give justice to the weak who have suffered at the hands of the strong, we should march on the British High Commission here and protest the return of these artifacts.
The Taino are to be respected. They carved those statues for their spiritual use, and, further, they are our heritage. They are the remnants of the crime committed against a peaceful and welcoming indigenous people, almost totally wiped out from Jamaica within 100 years of capture by the Spanish.
This refusal by Britain to return our historic work of art is deeply embedded in the notion of dominance of Western nations over other countries. Because we are, ourselves, formerly enslaved by the British, it is for this very reason we owe the Taino the respect that is due to them, and to fight on their behalf for the carvings to be returned here.
In August 2019, Minister of Culture Olivia “Babsy” Grange, in demanding their return, said, “They are priceless. They are significant to the story of Jamaica, and they belong to the people of Jamaica.”
This claim by Jamaica for the return of unlawfully obtained artifacts is part of the worldwide call for repatriation of artifacts by several countries conquered or occupied by powerful imperialist countries.
I suspect that these carvings were inland in the cave at Carpenter's Mountain because the coastal Taino fisherfolk were in hiding from their Spanish invaders.
There are thousands of claims by non-British states for their stolen treasures, sitting in the British Museum, to be returned.
Can you imagine how our own tourism industry would be enhanced if we had these half-century-old artifacts on display here?
This is why our call for their return is part of our justified claim for reparatory justice.
The British Museum, housing priceless items, is a major tourist attraction, visited by close to six million tourists annually. This is the background against which the UK is holding on to the treasures of the world. This income is, by all definitions, dirty money gained from property taken without the consent of their owners; in short, stolen goods!
Bert Samuels is an attorney-at-law. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org .
Now you can read the Jamaica Observer ePaper anytime, anywhere. The Jamaica Observer ePaper is available to you at home or at work, and is the same edition as the printed copy available at https://bit.ly/epaper-login