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Easter Islanders demand return of statue from British Museum which navy captain brought to UK as present for Queen Victoria 150 years ago

August 9, 2018




The British Museum could soon come under pressure to give back a 'stolen' statue to Easter Island 150 years after it was given to Queen Victoria as a gift.


The Moai statue was allegedly taken from the island by Richard Powell, captain of HMS Topaze, in 1868 before being handed over to the museum by the monarch.


On Easter Island, the world famous statues were built in tribute to tribal leaders after their deaths.  Rapa Nui authorities, 2,000 miles from mainland Chile, have requested help to get the basalt returned to the UNESCO World Heritage Site.


However, the British Museum told the Daily Telegraph they believe there is 'a great public benefit' in keeping it in Britain.


However, there is yet to be an official request made. Yet the communities on Easter Island believe there is more benefit having the statues which they believe emit powers called 'mana' - at home.


The huge statues were built between the sixth and 17th centuries before being taken by European travellers. 

On Easter Island, local leaders said it was 'an important symbol in closing the sad chapter'.



What are the statues? 

The Moai are monolithic human figures carved by the Rapa Nui people on Easter Island, between 1,250 and 1,500 AD.


All the figures have overly-large heads and are thought to be living faces of deified ancestors.


The 887 statues gaze inland across the island with an average height of 13ft (four metres). Nobody really knows how the colossal stone statues that guard Easter Island were moved into position.


Nor why during the decades following the island’s discovery by Dutch explorers in 1722, each statue was systematically toppled, or how the population of Rapa Nui islanders was decimated.


Shrouded in mystery, this tiny triangular landmass, stranded in the middle of the South Pacific and 1,289 miles from its nearest neighbour, has been the subject of endless books, articles and scientific theories.  


All but 53 of the Moai were carved from tuff , compressed volcanic ash, and around 100 wear red pukao of scoria.


What do they mean? 

In 1979 archaeologists said the statues were designed to hold coral eyes.


The figures are believed to be symbol of authority and power. They may have embodied former chiefs and were repositories of spirits or 'mana'.


They are positioned so that ancient ancestors watch over the villages, while seven look out to sea to help travellers find land.


But it is a mystery as to how the vast carved stones were transported into position. In their remote location off the coast of Chile, the ancient inhabitants of Easter Island were believed to have been wiped out by bloody warfare, as they fought over the island's dwindling resources.


All they left behind were the iconic giant stone heads and an island littered with sharp triangles of volcanic glass, which some archaeologists have long believed were used as weapons.


A spokeswoman for the British Museum said: 'We have received no official request here at the British Museum for the statue to be returned to Easter Island.


'The Moai sculpture that we have in the museum is on permanent display to the six million people who walk through our doors every year and we think there is a great public benefit to keeping it here for all of those people to see and appreciate.


'We also believe it is important to represent the history of Easter Island's indigenous community in the British Museum.'


The UK has previously faced calls to return other items like Benin bronzes to Nigeria and Elgin marbles to Greece.

Cambridge University removed a gold cockerel after students demanded the statue be returned to a royal palace in Nigeria from where it was plundered during a 19th century British naval expedition. 


The Elgin Marbles, or Parthenon sculptures, have long been the subject of dispute over their home in the British Museum, where they have been on permanent, public display since 1817. 


Greek governments have called for their return to Athens since the 1980s and have even enlisted Amal Clooney to help their campaign. 



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