Saturday, December 02, 2023

Stolen treasure - The Legacy of the British Empire

In the last week the subject of whether the Elgin marbles should be returned to Greece has once again entered the public discussion after the UK PM Rishi Sunak snubbed his Greek counterpart and cancelled a scheduled meeting [Guardian].

Greek claims

In many respects Greece has a valid claim on demanding the return of the Parthenon marbles, and Rishi Sunak's reaction could be regarded as petulant or petty. But where does one draw the line concerning what should be returned to their countries of origin?

What is property?

There has been much philosophical discussion concerning property and ownership throughout history. Proudhon famously suggested that "Property is theft" in his 1840 thesis La propriété, c'est le vol!   Of course it depends on one's position concerning the definition of what property is, as Marx asserted in his critique of Proudhon's thesis.

There are some who would assert that 'possession is nine tenths of the law' . It could be regarded as an oversimplified statement, but the principle is based on the tenet that the possession or property belongs to the person or body holding it unless evidence can be shown to prove otherwise.

So how does the evidence hold up concerning many treasures and artefacts sitting in private collections, museums or in the hands of the British state?

Theft, plunder and spoils of war

Since antiquity nations have taken their plunder after invasions or seizure of foreign lands. Such spoils of war were considered acceptable by many nations until relatively recently. But one might hope that in this age of modernity, nations could become more grown up and begin a process of repatriating the plunder secured through colonialism or war.

Some nations have indeed begun this process of repatriation. Japan, for example, has returned vast swathes of cultural items to South Korea that were plundered during its colonial occupation from 1910 to 1945.

But Britain stands out as being one country unwilling to revisit its colonialist past, make reparations and repatriate stolen items.

Britain's plunder

The Parthenon Marbles are known as the Elgin Marbles since it was Lord Elgin that had secured them from the Ottoman Empire, of which Greece was a part at the time. Greece has since become an independent state, and as such feels it has a legitimate right to call for their return.

The Greek government and supporters of the marbles' return to Greece have argued that they were obtained illegally or unethically, that they are of exceptional cultural importance to Greece, and that their cultural value would be best appreciated in a unified public display with the other major Parthenon antiquities in the Acropolis Museum. The UK government and British Museum have argued that they were obtained legally, that their return would set a precedent which could undermine the collections of the major museums of world culture, and that the British Museum's collection allows them to be better viewed in the context of other major ancient cultures and thus complements the perspective provided by the Acropolis Museum.

Supporters of the British position are partly correct that the Elgin Marbles return could set a precedent. But is it morally acceptable for Britain to hold on to its nefarious gains?

Narendra Modi of India has, for example, demanded the return of the Koh-i-Noor diamond that has found its way into the crown jewels, specifically the state crown.

Nigeria has long called for the repatriation of the Benin bronzes that sit in the British Museum. And Egypt has demanded the return of artefacts plundered since the 18th century including the Rosetta Stone which also sits in the British Museum as well as other looted antiquities including a statue of Ramesses II.

In fact the British Museum is a building overflowing with stolen items or acquired by unethical methods. It would be true to say that the museum would be somewhat sparse should such items be returned. But should not a national museum represent its own culture rather than displaying stolen loot from around the globe?

Representing one's own culture

Museums in China, South Korea and even across parts of Europe are not so much filled with plundered treasures as historical artefacts from their own respective cultures.

British history might not be as culturally rich as some nations. But it has to be asked how Britain might feel should the position be reversed. What if Stonehenge sat in a foreign museum or prominent statues had been taken and now sat in a building half way round the globe.  

How would the British government feel about the Victoria memorial residing somewhere in China, and the palace nearby lay in ruins after being raised by invading Chinese troops? There would undoubtedly be ongoing consternation and anger as well as a demand for its return.

Yet the exact opposite is true. Initially constructed in 1707 the Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan, was destroyed by Anglo-French expeditionary forces and treasures, including the famous bronze zodiac heads, were looted partly under instruction of James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin and son of the 7th Earl of Elgin who took the Elgin marbles.

While the looting and sacking of the Old Summer Palace was in retribution and a warning to the Qing Empire not to use kidnapping as a political tactic against Britain, it has to also be questioned why British and other foreign forces were even in China. This was a time when many European countries were colonising various parts of the world, enslaving indigenous people and plundering their lands of treasures. With regards China the British also brought chaos by supplying opium and creating a huge drug addiction problem in China, especially in the south near Canton, now Guangdong.

While China has recovered many of the bronze zodiac heads, including two returned from Britain, five remain unaccounted for. Speculation continues as to where the missing antiquities are.

Nearly a quarter of a century into the new millennium Britain in particular is in the sights of many countries demanding the return of their stolen treasure.

Maybe the British Museum might look a little sparse with only stone age, Saxon, Viking, Roman and later historical finds on display. But at least it would be a 'British' museum rather than it being a museum of stolen treasure.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

No comments: