Colonial repatriation of stolen scientific treasures?

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.