§restituire, lenire, ridistribuire
The Past is Another Country. A Case for Digital Restitution.
by Arthur Dudney

Cultural restitution knits the past, present and future together with a directness that few other political acts can match. For the community whose heritage material is returned, the wounds of an unpalatable history are sutured closed. With the heritage objects back in situ, the young and future generations will never experience the sense of displacement that the theft of culture caused their ancestors. Rightly less discussed but nonetheless important in the transaction is the benefit to the present-day descendants of those who took the heritage in the first place: they have a chance of atoning, at least in part, for what their colonising ancestors did. Because restitution is for the benefit of the present and the future, the past being of course dead and gone, in my reading the transfer of cultural property from a colonial collection to a postcolonial recipient is necessarily an attempt to promote healing. I am usually in favour of physical repatriation, even if this would leave the galleries of major museums in former colonizing countries rather bare, but I have reservations when there is no realistic prospect of healing coming from the act of returning cultural property. For example, “repatriating” the heritage of an oppressed minority community to the agents of a majoritarian national government rather than to the community itself is morally indefensible and creates a chain reaction of further oppression. My view is that digital restitution (namely providing high-resolution scans of heritage objects on an open-access basis) would be preferable in some cases, particularly when it comes to knowledge-dense artefacts such as manuscripts. However, digital restitution, especially when it is offered by the Global North in bad faith as an option to preclude the possibility of physical return of artefacts to the Global South, raises philosophical difficulties that I will address in this article alongside its potential benefits.

One of the thorny questions about ‘giving things back’ is determining who the rightful recipient would be. Cultural repatriation claims and the international law that underpins them is largely based on nation states making formal requests to other nation states. In some cases pre-colonial and colonial political units map neatly onto their postcolonial successor states. Generally though decolonisation involved partitions, nowhere more famously than the border between India and Pakistan drawn in 1947 in extreme haste by a London lawyer chosen for the task because of his lack of any local knowledge [1]. As former colonies were integrated into the international order as newly constituted nation states, traditional communities were split and cultural weight was shifted by population transfer and rapid social change. This leaves a considerable amount of the world’s cultural heritage orphaned. By “orphaned” I mean that either there is no claimant who would be recognised under the international repatriation norms likely to step forward or that giving the material to such a claimant would be unethical for some reason [2]. This is not to say that such material was ethically acquired by the current custodian, but that giving it to the “wrong” party would be a greater injustice than keeping it in a collection built under colonialism. Anyone who has followed debates on postcolonial repatriation knows that Global North institutions have often deployed bad-faith, hand-wringing arguments about what might happen to objects that are returned, in order to shirk the responsibility of even beginning to consider repatriation as an option. In recent years, the terms of the debate have generally shifted in the opposite direction, namely wider acceptance of the principle that because the objects in question are in effect “stolen property” institutions in the Global North  that currently hold them have no moral right to dictate—or even consider—what might happen to them once they return to the Global South. This view that Global North institutions need to get out of the way entirely as they resolve the status of their colonial collections may be compelling against the background of the stonewalling that Global North institutions—often with their hands tied by politicians who were concerned with national pride above all else—have frequently engaged in. However, if Global North institutions disengage from questions about the future of the returned objects then they may perpetuate further injustice. The official interlocutors of postcolonial nations may not speak for the heritage communities in question, especially when the geographical origin of an object is now distinct from where much of the community now lives. If repatriation is fundamentally about redressing past wrongs then it is important for the interests of those communities to be considered as well. 

In this article, I will take the example of a particular manuscript collection held in the British Library, the Delhi Collection, that fits my definition of “orphaned” heritage. In this case, repatriation is entirely theoretical since I am not aware of any such requests having been made since it was accessioned into the collection from the India Office Library in 1982 [3]. However, it makes a good case study because it was both acquired by the British colonial government under questionable circumstances [4] and exemplifies a kind of ‘orphaned heritage’ that is perhaps more common than we might think in a world shattered by colonial oppression . It is likely that the Persian manuscript collections from South Asia that are now held in the United Kingdom are together the world’s largest set of appropriated cultural property that has been orphaned from the successor states to the erstwhile colonial territory from which they were taken. 

Persian was a lingua franca of India’s [5] elite from the thirteenth century into the nineteenth century, and without romanticizing the past as an age of perfect cosmopolitan tolerance, we can say that as a carrier of a cultural tradition it was shared by elites of different religious faiths and across other cultural identities. The Persian language therefore knits together the elite in pre-colonial India in the same way that Latin joined them in Europe. However, largely due to colonial encounters, Persian was suppressed and came to be understood as a cultural aberration, a “foreign” language from Iran that had no place in India. There is a great deal to say about how this idea came to dominate and be accepted unquestioningly [6]. By the twentieth century, Persian had been replaced in every domain in the Indian subcontinent by either vernacular languages or English. Persian now falls outside both everyday experience and crucially official religio-cultural mythmaking in both India and Pakistan. In India, which is constitutionally a secular country but increasingly turning towards Hindu chauvinism as state policy, the cosmopolitan possibilities of Persian and more intensely the fact that many Hindus of the past adopted what is now seen as an “Islamic” language to express themselves is incompatible with the narrative that Indian Muslims were themselves colonisers and therefore suspect as present-day Indian citizens. In Pakistan, whose Islamic identity is enshrined in its constitution, the state-sponsored view of the past is that the apparent openness of Persian literary culture promoted departures from the supposedly austere and correct Islamic practices transmitted through Arabic sources. 

An engraving showing a house within the walls of the palace looted in the Siege of Delhi printed in The Illustrated London News, January 16, 1858, p. 49.

The dominant ideological orientations towards this significant cultural output in both countries are therefore rooted in an essentialising, colonial way of thinking about culture that is nonetheless represented by its proponents as indigenous and anti-colonial. In short, if the government of either India or Pakistan asked for Persian manuscripts back from the UK, it would be difficult to justify doing so because of the inherent hostility towards this aspect of cultural heritage in both countries’ officially sanctioned views on the past. 

The Delhi Collection holds 1550 Persian manuscripts (there are also 1957 in Arabic and 157 in Urdu). These contain works on a variety of topics, but with notable strengths in history, biography, lexicography, philology, Islamic philosophy and mysticism, and poetry. The collection is relatively unknown because no catalogue has ever been printed. The handwritten notes prepared with the unrealised intention of publishing a catalogue by the early twentieth-century Orientalists C.A. Storey, Reuben Levy, and A.J. Arberry are held in the British Library where they can be consulted like any other manuscript [7]. The thirty-eight folders of notes were digitised in 2014, making the collection far easier to access. The catalogue notes and my own work with material in the collection made me wonder about the provenance of the Delhi Collection. It was represented as the remains of the Mughal Imperial library, which was appealing for me as a researcher because I was trying to understand how a pre-modern Indian library was constructed. The apparent randomness and duplication I found among the manuscripts made me realise that I was not looking at a single library but a jumble. The scholarly value of that jumble—which was in fact a snapshot of many libraries in Delhi in the mid-nineteenth century—may have been greater than if it had been a single collection curated by court officials.

The British Library’s official line on the Delhi Collection, for example on its website, is fascinating to trace and reconsider. The collection is represented as the remains of the Mughal imperial library [8]. It is clearly not that, at least not exclusively [9]. Although some imperial manuscripts can be found in the collection, it is likely that the majority were from private and institutional libraries looted in the aftermath of the Siege of Delhi in 1857, when the East India Company’s troops brutally suppressed a rebellion against British colonial rule. The Delhi Prize Committee [10] ended up in possession of some 4700 mss, which were bought at auction by the British Indian government. From here the provenance is straightforward and clean: The manuscripts were transferred to Calcutta in 1859 where they were meant to be part of the collection of the Indian Museum and 1,200 volumes were sold off in 1867. In Calcutta, they were curated and in fact the scrap paper in which many of the manuscripts are wrapped—and which is still preserved in their modern archival boxes—is often East India Company regulations. The remaining manuscripts were sent in 1876 to London where they became part of the India Office Library, the library of the government department that managed Britain’s Indian empire. Arberry, who worked at the India Office Library in the 1930s, makes the British the heroes of the story by praising Major W. Nassau Lees for saving the Delhi collection for posterity in the same way that the British supposedly rescued the Burmese royal library in 1886 [11]. He does not mention the widespread looting in Delhi (the circumstances that caused the collection to require saving were in fact created by British military action) and explains the fact that there is little elegant in the collection with the unconvincing assertion that the Mughals lost or gave it all away. Whether deliberately fashioned or accidental, the idea that the Delhi Persian Collection is the Mughal library is a falsehood meant to assuage guilt over its true provenance as the spoils of war and to give it a romantic importance parallel to its scholarly importance.

The Delhi Collection is by no means the only looted Persian manuscript material to have reached Britain. Another large tranche of material consists of manuscripts gathered by Colonel George William Hamilton in the violent aftermath of the British annexation of Awadh state in 1856, and now held at the British Library and the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library. One point that muddies the moral clarity of colonial theft is that conflicts in pre-modern India often ended with looting, and indeed taking the spoils of war only recently came to be seen as illegitimate [12]. Previously the taking of manuscripts, as objects of value, was understood as fair game in settling war debts. The library of Tipu Sultan, a ruler in southern India who fought the British but was defeated by them in 1799, was made of manuscripts seized from other libraries [13]. The fact that the manuscripts in question ended up in Britain is of course a difference to the Indian trade in books as spoils of war. While the colonial narrative that the British were rescuing Indian cultural material by looting it is of course nonsense, their ongoing actions can be understood as a continuation of existing patterns of oppression. The case for international restitution of this material is weakened because it would be absurd to imagine the Indian and Pakistani governments attempting to return the looted materials in collections controlled by their own culture ministries to the descendants of the original owners. Setting aside the question of such manuscripts being ‘orphaned heritage’, since the manuscript collections of major Indian and Pakistani heritage institutions were themselves built through colonialism, it is not obvious that without changing their own practice they would be the right custodians of colonial collections now in Britain.

An engraving showing the gate of the palace after the Siege of Delhi as printed in The Illustrated London News, January 16, 1858, p. 49.

The Delhi Collection should not be physically repatriated because one cannot see what purpose would be served by doing so, but in any case it is unlikely that the governments of either India or Pakistan would ever ask for it. Is it therefore destined to sit in a basement in the British Library indefinitely or is there something that can be done to reconnect it with the communities that created the manuscripts? One way forward would be a new paradigm in which heritage objects that are not given back outright are digitised. For the institutions with colonial collections (or more likely their governments) to bear the costs for the scanning and online hosting is a measure of reparation and of far more benefit than handing physical materials to another institution that—following the definition of orphaned heritage—will not necessarily have any impulse to make it more available to the descendants of the people whose heritage it is. Of course the digital copies must be made available on the internet on an open access basis because only by making the material freely accessible will institutions holding colonial material live up to the claims they frequently make that they are keeping someone else’s heritage for the benefit of humanity as a whole. Institutions have a duty to consider and as much as possible to resolve issues of access to digitised heritage material, which are broadly speaking technical (uneven access to high-quality internet), linguistic (the dominance of English on the internet in both access layers and metadata), and conceptual (digital facsimiles of heritage objects do not have an obvious relationship to the original objects), because if the digital collections of orphaned heritage material cannot be accessed easily in the Global South, including by deeply marginalised communities, the inaccessibility undercuts the reparative possibilities of putting them online in the first place.

There is an obvious moral difficulty in what I am advocating, namely that the institution whose collection was built by colonialism or the government of the colonizing country has the ultimate say on the test I laid out, namely whether it would be unethical or unproductive to give something back and therefore better to digitise it instead. The process has a conflict of interest at its heart, but there is no way I can see to introduce an impartial adjudicator. Broad dialogue, not only with officials but with other community stakeholders, can help, but of course dialogue introduces complications. The situation in which digitising expatriated cultural heritage is arguably the most valuable, namely when the colonial collection reflects stories that run counter to official narratives in the post-colony, is also the most morally convoluted. For colonising powers to tell former colonies that they should not pick and choose their histories both hearkens back to the colonial “civilising mission” and is a matter of hypocrisy given how cherry-picked colonial history is in, for example, the British school curriculum. Nonetheless, it is obvious that the full range of history and culture contained in a collection—not just what the present-day government of a postcolonial nation-state wants to foreground—should be represented in a digital facsimile of the collection. Digitisation, in contrast to physical repatriation where the requesting party needs to want every object, offers the possibility of nuance and completeness, which must be defended lest the act of repatriation itself causes erasure or obfuscation. 

Digitisation of heritage material is not a second-best counteroffer to requests for physical repatriation but is the best way of putting knowledge of the past and traditional knowledge in the hands of people rather than their governments. The country-to-country repatriation regime lopsidedly distributes authority over cultural heritage in the same way that the Westphalian nation state system that we live in has gaps in representation of community interests. When a postcolonial national government does not have a heritage community’s best interests in mind then it falls to the former coloniser to ensure that injustice is not perpetuated in the process of sharing their heritage. There has been heartening progress in physical repatriation of high-priority items—as I write this, Germany and Nigeria have signed an agreement that Germany will repatriate some 1,130 artefacts from the Kingdom of Benin—but the unloved, orphaned colonial items need to be considered as well. Digitization may be the answer, especially when the knowledge an object contains is far more valuable than the object carrying it. 

Postcolonial partitions have left many kinds of heritage unable to be sensibly repatriated because present-day political territory is not conceptually the human territory of the past: For example, should the Delhi Collection’s Arabic manuscripts be sent to Pakistan even though Delhi is obviously in present-day India? Pakistan is after all the Islamic successor state to British India. Should Sanskrit manuscripts collected by British officials in Lahore (present-day Pakistan) be sent to India? There is obviously not much of a readership for Hindu texts in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan today, but there is in the Republic of India. I propose that Britain and British institutions should digitise both sets of material by way of partial reparations for colonialism, and the conundrum will solve itself.


[1] The absurd position of the London lawyer in question, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, is expressed best perhaps not in academic work but in W.H. Auden’s 1966 poem “Partition”. Millions of Indians and Pakistanis found themselves on the “wrong” side of the line he drew, and hundreds of thousands were killed in violence connected with the population transfer.
[2] I do not mean “orphaned” in the technical sense it has in copyright law, in which an “orphan work” is a work for whose copyright holders are either unknown or uncontactable.
[3] Immediately after independence, the governments of both India and Pakistan asked for the furnishings and library of the India Office, the government department that managed British India from London, on the basis that they were the legal successors to the India Office. The Delhi Collection was part of the India Office Library and therefore technically part of that request, which was denied.
[4] As far as I can tell, it was acquired entirely “legally” but of course since the law of a colonial state is crafted for the benefit of the colonisers, legality and ethics (as judged by posterity) in colonial history diverge so sharply that saying that an act was committed legally is almost meaningless.
[5] By “India” in this context, I do not mean the territory of the present-day Republic of India but of the entire South Asian subcontinent, including the present-day territory of Pakistan and Bangladesh.
[6] As I argue in Dudney 2022.
[7] Sobers-Khan 2014. The notes are India Office Mss Eur E207/1-38.
[8] This follows earlier printed accounts, such as Arberry 1938.
[9] Sobers-Khan 2022
[10] Since taking booty was still an acceptable facet of making war and imposing collective punishment, a panel was constituted to work it out what to do with seized enemy property: the Delhi Prize Committee. (Other such committees were set up after battles across the British Empire.) The proceeds of the auction were used to create a fund that would be paid to soldiers in the victorious army, in an amount based on rank.
[11] Arberry 1938, 84-5.
[12] In 1900, the Hague Convention enshrined a prohibition on looting in international law and placed a responsibility on belligerents to protect enemy property. In 1949, Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention reiterated this prohibition, contextualizing looting as an impermissible form of collective punishment.
[13] Sims-Williams 2021

Reference List

J. Arberry,  The Library of the India Office: A Historical Sketch. The India Office, London, 1938.
Auden, W. H., Partition, in The Atlantic Monthly, Dec 1966.
Dudney, Arthur, India in the Persian World of Letters: Ḳhān-i Ārzū among the Eighteenth-Century Philologists. Oxford University Press, 2022.
Sims-Williams, Ursula, Collections Within Collections: An Analysis of Tipu Sultan’s Library, 59:2, 287-307, Iran, 2021.
Sobers-Khan, Nur, A newly digitised unpublished catalogue of Persian manuscripts, British Library Asian and African Studies blog, 2014.
Sobers-Khan, Nur, Muslim Scribal Culture in India Around 1800: Towards a Disentangling of the Mughal Library and the Delhi Collection., in Scribal Practice and the Global Cultures of Colophons, 1400–1800, edited by C. D. Bahl and S. Hanß, Palgrave Macmillan, 2022. 

Dr Arthur Dudney is Director of Cultural Programmes at the Arcadia Fund. He is the author of India in the Persian World of Letters (Oxford University Press, 2022) and Delhi: Pages from a Forgotten History (Hay House India, 2015). This article represents his personal views and not necessarily those of his employer.