Descendants of conquerors to return artifacts stolen during Anglo-Burmese War

Buddha statues taken from the Shwemawdaw Pagoda in 1852. Screenshot from New Zealand Herald.
Buddha statues taken from the Shwemawdaw Pagoda in 1852. Screenshot from New Zealand Herald.

The descendants of British conquerors who took home a stash of rare mementos after the conquest of Lower Burma more than 160 years ago will voluntarily release the artifacts from captivity and return them to Myanmar.

For years, the artifacts were kept on mantelpieces and in storage boxes in New Zealand by Gareth Bodle and his relatives.

“We were just always told, these came from Pegu—from the pagoda at Pegu,” Bodle says in a video released by the New Zealand Herald on Sunday. “[This], of course, meant absolutely nothing to us kids.”

Bodle, now 60, eventually learned that the gong, Buddha statues, and other treasures were taken from the Shwemawdaw Pagoda in Bago by Major Donald George Angus Darroch and Ensign George Bodle, who participated in the city’s capture in 1852.

Major Donald George Angus Darroch. Screenshot from New Zealand Herald.

The temple – the tallest in Myanmar – was originally built by the Mon people in the 10th century and rebuilt several times because of earthquakes. Symbols such as the hintha – a mythical duck that appears on today’s Mon State flag – reveal their Mon heritage.

Conquerors Darroch and Bodle returned to Britain, and later, their children married each other. The young Bodle family moved to New Zealand in 1885, bringing the Mon artifacts with them.

gong striker
A hintha on a gong striker looted from the Shwemawdaw Pagoda. Screenshot from New Zealand Herald.

Gareth Bodle says he was partially motivated to return the loot by his respect for the indigenous history of New Zealand.

“This stuff was literally taken. It doesn’t belong to us,” he says in the video. “I suppose in the era it was legitimate souvenirs, but here we are in the 21st century. We’ve got stuff coming back to New Zealand…you know, Maori, Tonga, and that. It’s something we can do in a little way, just little people, giving something back to another nation.”

Bodle will come to Myanmar on July 7 to deliver the artifacts to Myanmar’s Department of Archaeology and National Museum, which has expressed interest in them. He says his family is not seeking any reward for returning the items.

Statues looted from the Shwemawdaw Pagoda. Screenshot from New Zealand Herald.

“We regard ourselves as having been the caretakers of these items and simply wish to return them to where they came. We would like to do so in person to acknowledge the generations that they have been in our family and the interest and care with which the family has always given them,” he said.

Bodle will also tour Myanmar for nine days. He told the Herald: “I’d like to think that we will come away with a connection with Myanmar that is more durable and personal than simple a statue of Buddha sitting in the lounge.”

Hear Gareth Bodle tell his story in the video below:

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