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2 December 2020

How the Brits stole history

A new podcast from the Australian Broadcasting Company begins with a very simple premise: throughout the history of the British empire, soldiers stole an awful lot of stuff.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

A new podcast from ABC (the Australian Broadcasting Company) begins with a very simple premise: throughout the history of the British empire, British soldiers stole an awful lot of artefacts, objects and works of art from around the world, many of which still sit in British museums today. These are often described as items with a “contested history”, but this chatty, colourful podcast prefers a less formal and more direct approach. Each episode, host Marc Fennell introduces us to a new object, and interviews a handful of different people – be they an expert, historian or someone with a personal connection to the item.

The first episode tells us about Tipu’s Tiger, an almost life-size wooden automaton of a tiger mauling a man in East India Company uniform that sits in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. (It even plays the sounds of the dying man’s last moans.) Fennell is delighted by this bizarrely violent toy. He explores its history as a mythologising object commissioned by the Indian ruler Tipu Sultan, speaking to a wide variety of people – including one of Tipu’s descendants – about the meaning and impact of the tiger, who all have very differing opinions on where in the world it might rightfully belong. Fennell is a breezy, impish host (he calls himself “the worst kind of ethnic” because he is a monoglot with little understanding of his mother’s Indian heritage, but jokes that “more importantly, I still count towards your diversity quota”), and is eager for all the gory details.

[see also: Inside the Brain of Jeff Bezos is a blandly positive portrait of one of the world’s most powerful and divisive figures]

The show’s title may make it seem like an explicitly political project aiming to remind listeners of the often violent path that brings historical artefacts to sit behind a shiny glass panel. Not so. “To tell you the truth, I don’t actually have a definitive opinion on British colonialism,” Fennell says offhandedly at one point. His perspective is, he says, coloured by the fact that as “an Australian who’s a bit Indian, a bit Singaporean and a bit Irish”, he “wouldn’t exist without” the British empire – still, it’s not often I meet people who are “undecided” on colonialism. Perhaps this is just the beginning of an educating journey for Fennell: future episodes journey to countries including New Zealand Nigeria, China and more. 

Stuff the British Stole 
ABC Radio National

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This article appears in the 02 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed