Victory in struggle for return of artefacts to Torres Strait Islands

While the twin tragedies of an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Japan and the unravelling crisis in Libya continue to dominate the headlines around the world, something heartwarming has been happening.

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While the twin tragedies of an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Japan and the unravelling crisis in Libya continue to dominate the headlines of this newspaper and others around the world, something heartwarming has been happening in the remote stretch of water that separates the northern Australian state of Queensland and the Western Province of Papua New Guinea.

More than 250 sparsely populated outcrops, collectively known as the Torres Strait Islands, are scattered along this channel. Hitherto their most notable historical moment occurred in 1770 when the explorer James Cook first planted the British flag on Possession Island to claim it and eastern Australia as sovereign land. All that changed last week, however, when the islands were thrust into the spotlight after scoring a notable victory over their old colonial masters.

The islands' earliest explorers removed the ancestral remains of the indigenous Aboriginal population, taking them back to the northern hemisphere as souvenirs from their travels. Some of these artefacts have long been displayed in London's Natural History Museum.


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The museum has always been a most appropriate custodian for these remains and, equally, has never sought to deny the islanders' claims to their property in the long-term. Nevertheless, it has always believed that such "finds" provided a rich source of historical data for analysis and cataloguing, and had previously expressed concern over the potential loss of a line of forensic inquiry should they be returned to the Torres Strait Islands.

After protracted negotiations, the museum has now agreed to the repatriation of 138 large and small remains. Ned David, the islanders' spokesman on the issue, described the decision as "a breakthrough in overseas institutions recognising the importance of laying the spirits of our ancestors to rest."

That said, there is still the not inconsequential matter of the two parties agreeing where those remains will be kept once they find their way back home, although both sides appear willing to move towards a positive outcome.

The question this decision now raises is whether a victory for a tiny southern hemisphere community offers a template for the return of more of the world's most precious relics - principally those long-exiled Egyptian and Grecian treasures - to their rightful homes?

Of course, only 50 short days ago the future of ancient Egypt hung in the balance. Chaos coursed through the streets of Cairo as protests in Tahrir Square fanned out towards the city's historic Egyptian Museum. In one of the most troubling episodes of the time, looters breached the museum's gates and ripped the heads off two ancient mummies. Even now, eight precious exhibits remain unaccounted for.

Inevitably, this episode clouds (at least temporarily) the discussion over when many of those treasures of ancient Egypt - the Rosetta Stone, the bust of Nefertiti - could or would be returned.

No such fog hangs over the Elgin Marbles, of course, which are kept in the British Museum, despite serial attempts by the Greek authorities to negotiate their exit from London and a groundswell of public opinion suggesting even the British public now favours their return to their natural home.

To achieve this outcome, Greece could do worse than to heed the example of the Torres Strait negotiators: namely to maintain open channels of communication, while continuing to assert their undeniable claim over what is rightfully theirs. The unflinching but universally courteous conversations conducted by the islanders stand as a monument to both fair play and determination. Such a combination could yield positive results elsewhere.