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Exhibition National War Museum

Legacies of Empire

27 Nov 2020 - 21 Jan 2024


Ornate silver club belonging to Kunwar Singh, taken by General Godfrey Pearse during the Indian Uprising, 1857-58

Ornate silver club belonging to Kunwar Singh, taken by General Godfrey Pearse during the Indian Uprising, 1857-58

Legacies of Empire examines the histories connected to objects brought back from colonial conflict by the military forces of the British Empire.


Entry to the museum and exhibition is free. Historic Environment Scotland charges for admission to Edinburgh Castle where the National War Museum is located.

Legacies of Empire is about encounters and confrontations between nations and cultures in times of war. The objects featured here were taken, purchased or otherwise collected by British military and naval personnel during colonial wars or garrison service across the British Empire. Today, they are preserved in national and military museum collections. The contentious material legacy of the British Empire is represented in each object.

Collections made during the period of European colonial expansion from the 18th to the 20th century are controversial and widely debated today. Using the insights of military and imperial history, this exhibition investigates why these objects were collected, and how they came to be in museums. This exhibition is one of the products of a research project focused on military culture and the practices of taking and collecting in the midst of colonial warfare. 

Since the middle of the 20th century the taking of objects in war has been regulated under international law. Objects taken in earlier colonial wars are today the subject of moral and legal discussions reflecting the different perspectives of a diverse society. These include arguments for wider access to international cultural heritage and, in some instances, return of objects to their country of origin.

National Museums Scotland is committed to presenting the colonial and imperial histories of the collections in line with rigorous and up-to-date research.

Collections Legacies Empire James Bruce 1700

Legacies of Empire blogs

From conserving a 250 year old drinking horn taken by the Scottish explorer James Bruce from Ethiopia to researching the Cawnpore Cross, an object that exemplifies a British perspective on a conflict that both then and now is remembered differently in India, catch up with our blog posts.

Browse blog posts

Getting here

National War Museum
Edinburgh Castle

Map and directions


We want everyone who comes to our museums to enjoy their time with us and make the most of their visit. 

  • An adapted courtesy vehicle is available at the Castle's admissions kiosk to take visitors with mobility difficulties, including wheelchair users, to the Museum and other parts of the Castle.
  • The Museum itself has a level entrance and wheelchairs are available for loan at no charge.
  • There is a public lift between the two floors and seating is available throughout.
  • Adapted toilets are also available.

Find out more about access information.

Featured objects

Gold ornaments

Gold ornaments taken as part of a forced indemnity made against the Asantehene (Asante King) Kofi Karikari in the aftermath of the Third Anglo-Asante War, Ghana, 1873-74

The Asantehene’s palace was looted and demolished, and he was forced to pay the British 50,000 ounces of gold. Beaten gold ornaments had an important role in Asante court regalia, attached to clothing and to objects such as the state ancestral stool. Some of this gold was bought in 1874 by the jeweller Garrard, through the British army’s prize system. These ornaments were purchased by National Museums Scotland at Garrard’s flagship store in London in 1875.


Silver gilt filigree box taken during the Indian Uprising, 1857-58

The inscription on the underside of this box was probably added by a British officer and indicates that it was taken as ‘Loot from Lucknow’. Lucknow, the capital of Awadh (Oudh), was recaptured by British imperial forces in March 1858, and the Qaisar Bagh palace complex was looted. The box was donated to the Black Watch Museum in 1934 by a private donor with no clear link to the Indian Uprising.

On loan from The Black Watch Castle and Museum


Ornate silver club belonging to Kunwar Singh, taken by General Godfrey Pearse during the Indian Uprising, 1857-58

Kunwar Singh was a Rajput military leader of the Uprising in Bihar. A plaque added to the club by Pearse proclaims it to be ‘Spolia Opima’, Latin for ‘rich spoils’, a reference to the ancient Roman tradition of the victor taking the arms and armour of an enemy commander as a trophy. The club was donated to National Museums Scotland by Pearce’s descendants in 1948.


Mughal sword presented to Colonel Sir John Macdonald by the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II, India, 1803

Sir John Macdonald was prominent in the victory of British imperial forces in the Second Anglo-Maratha War (1803-5). An inscription records the presentation of the sword to Macdonald in the aftermath of the Battle of Laswari. This gift was tactical. This was one of a number of gifts made by Shah Allam II to re-establish an alliance with the British following his neutral stance in the conflict. The sword was bequeathed to National Museums Scotland in 1944 by Macdonald’s descendants.


Powder horn belonging to Private James Cameron, with Haudenosaunee or Huron-Wendat burden strap, carried in North America, 1758

Powder horns were used to carry extra gunpowder for flintlock firearms, required for the skirmishing tactics that were typical of warfare in eastern North America. The horns were carved and carried by British and colonial troops. The carrying strap is of indigenous American manufacture, and records indicate that these straps were issued to Cameron’s regiment, the Black Watch. The Haudenosaunee were allied with the British during the French and Indian War, 1754-63. National Museums Scotland purchased the powder horn in 1931 from a private collector.


Silver mounted stone fragment commemorating the death of General Charles Gordon at Khartoum, Sudan, 1885

This stone is said to come from the palace steps at Khartoum where Gordon was killed by followers of Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah (‘The Mahdi’). After the British re-capture of Khartoum, it was taken as a memento by Major-General Rudolf von Slatin. He had it mounted in silver to give to Queen Victoria in 1899. It is now in the collections of the Royal Engineers Museum.

On loan from Gordon’s School via the Royal Engineers Museum (GGC189)


© Image courtesy of the National Army Museum, London

Mounted cannon shot fired at the British by the forces of Sayyid wal Sharif Hyder Ali Khan (Hyder Ali) at the Battle of Perembacum, or Pollilur, during the Second Anglo-Mysore War, India, 1780-84

Battlefield ammunition is a common feature of military collections, usually preserved as memorials of victory. Unusually, this piece commemorates a British defeat at the hands of the army of Hyder Ali, the ruler of Mysore. It was donated to the National Army Museum in 1961.

On loan from the Council of the National Army Museum, London


Mirror frame of jade and precious stones acquired by Colonel Charles Seton Guthrie while on service in India in the mid 19th century

Guthrie was a connoisseur collector of Mughal artefacts, which he acquired from a number of sources. He made purchases at army prize auctions, as at Lahore where the British sold property confiscated from the Sikh Kingdom, including the Mughal collections of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. This mirror frame was purchased by National Museums Scotland when Guthrie’s collection was auctioned in London in 1875 after his death.


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