Why is ivory less acceptable than colonial acquisitions?

In 2014 Prince William is said to have told primatologist Jane Goodall that he would like to see all ivory in the Royal Collection destroyed.

His mission was moral. By continuing to display, trade, and hoard artefacts made of ivory, the value of the substance is maintained internationally and the incentive remains for poachers to target endangered elephant species. The prince was standing up for vulnerable animals and drawing attention to their cause. (Museum curators were, of course, horrified by the idea.)

How much worse would the furore have been if he had instead said that given the choice he would return all artefacts taken during colonial conquests to their country of origin?

Think on it. The gesture would return items to the ownership and care of the descendants of those who created them, thereby acting as a small part of the reparations owed for the damage inflicted on populations and cultures by the brutality of colonisation. It would provide these peoples with resources through which to remember their pre-colonial pasts, celebrate their own culture, educate their children, memorialise their losses, and potentially increase revenues through tourism and anthropological interest. In their current positions the relics are unused, only displayed in a tasteless show of outdated wealth-accumulation to tourists who swarm to the royal palaces.

tipu sultan
A tiger’s head which once decorated the throne of Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore. After the siege of Seringapatam in 1799 and the death of Tipu Sultan, the palace was looted and the tiger given to William IV by the East India Company. Image copyright Royal Collection Trust, http://www.rct.uk/collection/67212/tigers-head

One major argument against the return of artefacts to their country of origin (say, for example, of the Elgin Marbles to Greece) is that they will not be as well cared for as they would in their current specialist surroundings – which implies, of course, that the people who created them, often for a specific purpose, are no longer permitted to say how they should be used, stored, or if necessary renewed or reconstructed. In comparison, Prince William would be willing to destroy artefacts entirely, in the spirit of saving animals.

Yes, the animals are endangered. So, in many cases, are the religions, languages, and cultural relics of the peoples who were colonised. Yet, apparently, we place less importance on these irreplaceable human cultures than we do on an animal species.

The royal family are, of course, supposed to take a politically neutral stance. And the legacies of colonialism are deeply controversial. Yet, the destruction of ivory in the interests of wildlife conservation was a controversial stance in itself, an unashamed use of public attention to raise awareness of a campaign. Such bias is more forgivable when it comes to defending elephants – majestic, lovable, defenceless animals – than when we discuss people.

Other countries which were formerly British colonies, like the USA, New Zealand, or Australia have laws in place to ensure that indigenous populations have some say in the management of the relics of their cultures – though inequalities and controversies of course persist. Yet Britain itself remains aloof, looking away from the damage inflicted, or even celebrating it, putting the glory days of empire on show as though they were a high point in our history. To acknowledge that a part of the wealth of our nation, and other Western countries, is borne of centuries of exploitation and violence elsewhere is the world is to acknowledge that the scars of colonial oppression are deep enough that many places have not yet recovered.

Any quick stroll through one of the royal palaces or national museums will display countless artefacts from across the empire – loot from burning palaces, gifts given to placate the imperial powers, or souvenirs of colonial tourism, their provenances usually skated over in their public interpretation. If these collections are politically vulnerable enough to be destroyed in the interests of preserving the elephants, we must ask why those which were acquired by force are too precious to be returned to the places they were stolen from.

Why, in our purportedly post-colonial world, is it easier for a public figure to stand up for animals than for people?


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