Colonial repatriation of stolen scientific treasures?

This issue came up recently in a FB page for herbaria. Processing new specimens is an issue for all herbaria. (A few years ago, I was told that the herbarium at the Missouri Botanic Garden, one of the world’s greatest herbaria, had over a million unprocessed specimens.) The problem is worse in many third-world herbaria where good environmental controls are hard to fund even for the main collection. One person from a third-world herbarium wrote the he wouldn’t want his herbarium to receive a large number of “repatriated” specimens right now because of this problem. (Maybe later.) Everyone agreed that collecting duplicates and putting them in multiple herbaria, including in the country of origin, is important so that they are not lost to pests, fire, institutional issues, and other problems, and so that people in diverse areas can use them more easily. (Herbaria do loan specimens to each other for research, even internationally.) I think that sending some of the specimens now in first-world herbaria to herbaria in the countries of origin is a good idea, but wholesale “repatriation” is not.


Count me in as another person who doesn’t understand the term in the context being discussed here. Assuming I don’t break any local laws am I plundering by taking a specimen back to my home country? How about if a local person sells it to me?

In fact, now that I think about it the title of this post seems intended to deliberately provoke dissent and argument. Unless there is an agreed definition of the terms ‘colonial’, ‘stolen’, and ‘scientific treasures’ this will just bog down into one of the good vs bad according to ethnicity that plaque the internet.


The plundering in the original post is by multiple colonial powers against each other/each other’s citizens, so reading/referencing that

might help. I think almost everyone would agree that the specimens (the “treasures” referenced in the Wikipedia article) in that incident were indeed stolen/plundered.


With “colonial repatriation” it addresses colonialism, not what other cultures did to each other before that point. People always bring that concept up when they just don’t like the idea of repatriation, you can agree with it or not but the whole point is to address the specific colonial genocide. Otherwise it’s like punching your brother in the face and saying it’s ok because you saw him punch someone last week. Not relevant. That being said, i don’t find this issue of scientific specimens really that compelling in the face of all the other things that happened.

Yes, but unless the British had a time machine in the 1700s they weren’t taking things from the people then. They were taking artifacts (or scientific samples)? from 1700s Egypt.

The specimen is dead, it’s best interests don’t really matter any more.

this is a pretty problematic statement for a whole world of reasons. And anyhow it’s not like the United States where I live (and it seems like you do?) does a great job of specimen maintenance, we hear all the time about herbariums and insect collections being discarded from research institutions for political or ‘financial’ reasons.


I don’t agree. I don’t think either country had legal prohibitions against taking what they could get from the other during that time. I’m sure that Dombey felt he was hard done by because the Brits ‘stole’ the plants he had ‘plundered’ from South America. Does that matter? I would say not.

Edited to add: I don’t appreciate the implication that I didn’t read the Dombey link. I did. I understand it. It boils down to this- 240 years or so ago two countries that couldn’t get along attacked each other and took what they could get.

Name one. Or many.

i already named one in my post, sounds like you just want to argue so i won’t name more until i know you’re at least reading what i am saying


I have actually read what you wrote. I don’t see anywhere where you have provided an example that contradicts the claim that sending a butterfly back to a developing nation is a positive.

so you think a few wealthy countries should hoard the majority of specimens? What’s the basis for that? I also think you’re arguing the same argument as I am and we are both confused? (too many double negatives in your statement)


Come on. I haven’t said that. Let’s not resort to strawman arguments.

I feel like this is a bit pedantic, but it’s pretty clear that both the terms “plunder” and “steal” which you object to clearly apply to the situation described in OPs original link. To argue against their applicability under generally accepted definitions seems strange, so I think it’s fair to refer back to the original post to make it clear that that terms are relevant, despite an assertion otherwise. To whit:

Oxford defines plunder as to “steal goods from (a place or person), typically using force and in a time of war or civil disorder” which applies to the taking of Dombey’s specimens from a French ship by the British during the Anglo-French War.

Oxford defines steal as to “take (another person’s property) without permission or legal right and without intending to return it”. This applies to the taking of Dombey’s specimens without his permission which were not and have never been returned.

The Community Guidelines tell us to assume that people mean well, but implying that the OP intended to

does not meet that standard to me. The forum guidelines note that

so it’s ok to disagree with the ideas in other people’s posts, but please don’t cast aspersions against other forum members.


Fair enough. I cannot know @broacher’s intent. I therefore retract my implication.

As far as the law goes I’ll skip the arguments and suggest consulting a lawyer.

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I’ve no objection to the Europeans and Americans keeping the historical specimens. I was looking at some online grasshopper specimen pictures from the museums. Some specimens from the 100 years ago have deteriorated and fragmented. Earlier explorers collected fossils from the deserts in Africa, tundras in Asia, Patagonia, China, India. Some fossils and tomb artifacts which reached the europeans may be plundered by the locals and reached the developed countries where the stolen items are auctioned, often reaching impressive sums. It is very tempting to ask for a return when the value is high. There are fairly recent wars in the mesopotamia region which I assume is all deserts, but it is indeed filled with ancient civilization artifacts. Soldiers and rebels might’ve looted some items or destroyed them. Part of the system in today’s world is the Commonwealth system. There is an underlying neo-colonialism in it that needs to be looked into. But as for museum artifacts, please keep them. Due to the historical circumstances, europe are developed in the level of literature, while various parts of asia was in constant wars, sometimes a result of instigation by colonial europeans in the 18th century as they expand their colonies and extracted from the regions. Some regions likely do not have enough local scientists. The scientific species naming situation is that the majority of species names were made by scientists from europe. Local scientists do not get enough action. There is a young guy somewhere in iNat who said he want to be a scientist. (not me) Hopefully, the situations will change in future for people in Asia.


I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear enough. My intent was to uncover any other well-known historical cases of plundering (as in seized by military force) of scientific treasures that have ended up in large, well-known museum collections outside of the original owners.

Aside from the political inflammations my question may have triggered, I do think that the whole issue of scientific artifact repatriation is long overdue for a major collective overhaul among the collective scientific and political powers of the world.

For the sake of the collective scientific wealth the artifacts contain, and for the sake of future artifacts to come, why can’t we more actively develop a workable solution?

In any case, publicly acknowledging the extent of the real historical facts of the artifacts involved has to be a crucial first step. If the art world is starting to move towards this point, why can’t the world of science?

There is no need to apologize. I read and respect your posts.

Having said that if you think your post has caused political inflammations on my part you are incorrect. I suspect we both lean to the leftish side of the American political spectrum.

As for the rest of your questions, I would ask you the same thing.

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Have you (plural) gotten motivated, searched up and then read the scholarly evidences based literature on this topic.

A couple of weeks ago I got motivated, searched up and read ca. 8 scholarly evidences based literature articles on this topic – enlightening and edifying evidences (not only opinions unevidenced and providing new knowledges and beneficial perspectives.).
I shared my scholarly reading links with peers in LinkedIn .

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I mean, I think you’re trying to join together things that are related but perhaps not really the same.

As @cthawley pointed out, the plunder of Dombey’s collections involved one colonial power taking collections made by…another colonial power. (Incidentally, more recent authors, e.g., Ochoa in “The Potatoes of South America”, p. 704, suggest that the collections, which were not Dombey’s alone but those of his collaborators Ruiz and Pavon, were subsequently redeemed by the Spanish government when the captured ship was sold at Lisbon. The assertion about the British Museum keeping them seems to derive from Appletons’ Cyclopædia, which has some issues with veracity.)

In general, in the New World, the initial flux of colonial plundering preceded either colonizers or colonized having really systematic natural history collections; I presume the more prosperous civilizations had their equivalent of trophy collections or Wunderkammers to be carried off, but I wouldn’t expect such artifacts to be well-curated or -preserved solely on the basis of scientific interest (rather than value as treasure, art, etc.) I could maybe imagine opportunities for such plunder in the later European colonization of parts of Asia (e.g., the piecemeal annexation of the empires of the Indian subcontinent) but I don’t actually know of any cases where something that was recognizably a scientific collection in a colonized polity was carried off wholesale by the colonizer.

My general impression is that natural history collections from colonies tended to be assembled piecewise, often (though) not always by private individuals, and through something much closer to legitimate commerce than plunder. It’s more difficult to make an argument for repatriating those than for something like the Elgin Marbles. The ethical issues here have usually had less to do with the possession of specific, individual artifacts than the general idea that the colonizers obtained very valuable biological materials and knowledge of their use from the colonized without offering compensation proportionate to their value, generally summarized as “biopiracy”. (Which does connect us with Dombey and the Ruiz and Pavon expedition again; they were sent out to Peru in part to make a systematic investigation of Cinchona, whose value in producing quinine was already understood.)


Wonderful details (thanks @choess) and as you implied, a truly more complex and challenging issue than it appears through the limits of an online semi-social mediated discussion, which is sort of what we have here (though far more supportive and respectful than the vast majority of venues!).

Of course the trade and economic importance of the science is what steers the science, and it’s a bit childishly idealistic to presume otherwise or see research as something outside of that powerful influence.

Like strip away the conquest/conquered, heroes/villains framing of most popularized military history and you can see why it’s hard to find a workable alternative ‘explanation’ (without some sort of divine or supernatural invention) without tempting a repeat cycle.

And if you are someone who has put in the time and work to get closer to the real story here, I bet it’s really hard not to stop sounding pedantic when stepping outside of these little thought tents here. But I thank you for your post as it’s helped me understand more about why this is such a difficult topic.

Historical truth is an extremely messy, context dependent system. Most of the time, we’re taught only the headline version of it. Maybe that’s why.

Until you’re prepared to invest the work and understand more about it, it will continue to be the the most popular choice, whether that’s foolish, dangerous or not.

And ask the associated moral issues? Should they not only transcend our collective grasp of historical truth, but guide and transcend ourselves too if we are ever to escape the trap of our 40-years-or-so mindtrap limit in this vast, but fragile existence, and give us all a chance to move on?

Yikes, maybe this is my Covid infection doing just that to my mind right now! (g?)

Despite the limitations inherent in the forum discussion, I am glad and grateful for the discussions that my question got here.

Thanks everyone.

In my opinion, this thread has run its course, and I would prefer to end the discussion here rather than risk it devolving into any unpleasant exchanges or have people post something they may later regret given the polarising nature of the topic.