The governor of Easter Island on Tuesday tearfully begged the British Museum to return one of its famous statues, saying: “Give us a chance so he can come back.”
The museum in London has held the Hoa Hakananai’a, one of the most spiritually important of the island’s stone monoliths, for 150 years.
“My grandma, who passed away at almost 90 years, she never got the chance to see her ancestor,” Easter Island Governor Tarita Alarcon Rapu said after meeting museum officials, accompanied by Chilean Minster of National Assets Felipe Ward. “I am almost half a century alive and this is my first time.”
The moai (statue) is one of hundreds originally found on the island. Carved by Polynesian colonizers, each of the big-headed figures was considered to represent tribal leaders or deified ancestors.
It was an emotional moment for the indigenous Rapa Nui visitors when they saw the basalt statue, which for them, contains the spirit of their people.
The 2.4m monolith weighs 4 tonnes.
“I believe that my children and their children also deserve the opportunity to touch, see and learn from him,” Rapu said, with tears in her eyes. “We are just a body. You, the British people, have our soul.”
Hoa Hakananai’a was taken without permission in 1868 by the British frigate HMS Topaze, captained by Richard Powell, and given to then-queen Victoria.
The Rapa Nui people, who last year gained self-administration from Chile over their ancestral lands on Easter Island, have launched a campaign to recover what they consider as one of the most important statues of the nearly 900 scattered across the South Pacific island.
With its scowling eyes, straight-lined mouth and paunchy profile, the monolith stands at the entrance to a gallery in the British Museum.
The moai is distinguished by carvings on the back depicting the island’s birdman cult and other ceremonial aspects of Easter Island’s enigmatic past.
The Rapa Nui believe it brought peace to the island, around the year 1000, ending inter-tribal wars.
After the meeting, Ward said he was optimistic, but cautioned that the campaign for the return of the statue would be a long one.
“This is the first of many conversations we will have,” he told reporters at the museum. “We are looking forward to the next, and probably the second one will be in Rapa Nui [Easter Island], where we invited the authorities of the museum.”
It is the first time that the museum has agreed to hold talks about the statue, but on Tuesday British Museum officials were talking only of a loan, not the return, of the artefact.
“The museum is one of the world’s leading lenders and the trustees will always consider loan requests subject to usual conditions,” a spokeswoman said.
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