The British Museum, or….
what to do with colonial plunder?
The British sphere of influence once splashed across the map of the world in great splotches of pink. There was something oddly charming and confident about a Pink Empire, wrapping the planet. As the child of Brits it sparked an undeserved pride, glory by association. And although the maps are different now, and the Brits no longer swill gin and swing nightsticks in the muggy heat of exotic colonies, the truth is that a different Pink Empire lives on, under the surface of the world. It has far greater reach than the old one.
Of course, to a good number of people (millions, actually) living under British occupation and administration, the old Pink Empire was an involuntary colour choice: the Brits might be pink, but the colonials more often were not. Britain swooped in with a remarkable arrogance, Romanesque in nature really: injecting the colonies with the benefits of membership in the Empire while inhaling a good deal of the local treasure. Murdering too. And of course, the gathering of treasure wasn’t confined to British territory – the neighbours “donated” too.
Two recent strolls through the British Museum in London gave a reminder of the remarkable stretch of British influence, power, wealth and assertiveness up through the early 20th Century. The museum itself is a marvel, an integration of 19th Century classicism and late 20th exuberance – a glass canopy roof arches across the old courtyard, turning a rainy quad into a permanently sunny tent. A millennium project, not so egregious as “the Pyramid” at the Louvres but still a strong change, and a good one.
But it is the contents of the British Museum that stun the senses, a gathering-up of the ancient and precious product of human ingenuity from around the planet, carefully preserved and housed. Ancient gates of Assyria, shards of pottery, the Parthenon, the ghoulish and cheerful masks of North American natives, the sober and serious glass cases of the Enlightenment room. Assembled originally for the great glory of England and the Empire but now, crowded with the children and adults of the world, the collection is a gift to the whole world.
The central and most captivating object, on my two recent visits, was the Rosetta Stone. This may be due to the ubiquity of the term “Rosetta stone” for unscrambling the unintelligible. It may be because school teachers make the kids look at it. Regardless, the symbolism is impossible to miss: the Rosetta Stone decoded a lost world, and today, it stands like a sentinel for a museum which does the same. Past civilizations are not only safe at the British Museum they are, to the extent possible, explained.
Which is all fine, unless you think that the objects don’t belong there. They were taken after all, and not always with permission (the word “pillaged” is thrown about rather a lot). There is of course some controversy about the contents of the Museum and talk about re-patriating items back to their source territories.
There are disparate views on all this. One stream of thought holds that history moves forward, not back, and that handing things back is like going in reverse. At some point the land under the British Museum belonged to some Saxon farmer, and maybe later the Duke of Something, and nobody talks about giving the deed over to some descendant. In Canada people get very exercised about native land rights and indeed, figuring all that out and reaching agreements with First Nations is a serious business; but the claims themselves, even if they reached under the coffee shop where I procured this morning’s “medium dark roast” do not promise much of a profit-share with the long-ago dispossessed. In short, we are highly selective about which ancient claims we honour and which we ignore.
There is also the question of whether an artifact, salvaged two hundred years ago, is the fit object of anyone’s claim, all this time later. The items in the “Greek” exhibits at the British Museum were generally found in areas we know now as Greece, but does that give the current administration in Athens any better claim to them than the current administration in Whitehall? I am not an expert in the “law of where things come from or ought to be” so invite advice on the topic. I only know that there’s nobody in Athens today who can realistically claim to be the lawful heir to any of the crockery held captive in glass cases on the first floor of the museum. I am not sure how valid these claims really are, either legally or practically.
Further and this may just be a burst of sheer John Bullishness on my part, one must recognize that if the Brits hadn’t dug it up, the stuff would probably still be buried – or worse. The Museum staff seem to know it too (there’s a cranky sign on the wall near some of the Greek treasures, noting that the items not lifted by the English have fared rather badly back home). The evidence is incomplete to show that these treasures would still exist had they not been “pillaged” back when. Truth is, if the Brits hadn’t yanked the stuff out of the sand it might be dust or gravel by now.
That latter point is not to suggest that the alleged heirs to these artifacts are not fit to keep them now – Britain has no monopoly on the preservation competence. The point is that for a very long time, only the British were collecting or keeping these things safe. Having done so until now, does that action grant any rights to the UK to hang onto them? If the Rosetta stone sat buried, abused and ignored for thousands of years in Egypt, until found and preserved and decoded by others, why do the heirs to the original landowners have a greater moral or legal right to it, than the heirs of those who saved it? Adoptive parents will get this argument.
There is another issue in play, one that comes up too seldom: the artifacts pulled together in the British Museum may by now be as much a part of British history as anyone else’s. Britain had a wide and powerful empire, which shaped the “home islands” and today there isn’t much materially left of that empire, save the things which were taken. The counterpoint to this is that a thief may be sentimental about the things he has stolen, but that doesn’t inject legitimacy into his grip on them. That would be a better argument if someone else were clearly the “owner” here, however.
The British Museum’s collection offends when it is read as shorthand for the worst aspects of European culture: stinking racism, belligerence, violence, arrogance and disdain for the humanity and dignity of others. A relentless willingness to take, to suppress, to oppress. If you look at that map of the world, from one hundred years ago, you see a number of different colours given to the domineering forces of the time. Britain was just the most successful. Its inclusion in a “club” doesn’t diminish its particular guilt, either.
But we face also the inescapable fact, welcome or not, that the British Empire indoctrinated the world in its most potent and meaningful practices: the Rule of Law, for example. Local representative democracy. Limits on the sovereign (the Brits had a civil war over that). It may be “Eurocentric” to laud these systems and values over any others, but if you actually compare them to other ways of governing and living – in Western Europe or anywhere else – the British way of doing things starts to look pretty damned good. Almost every Revolution since Cromwell’s has posited an enlightened, rights-based alternative against the ancient, tribal, feudal stupidities and tyrannies of old. People vote with their feet and today still, they want what the British have. Ask the Egyptians, for instance.
That is because these “British” systems work, not perfectly but usually better, than their alternatives. There are, of course, alternatives. A Canadian politician recently mused about the impressive efficiency of the modern Chinese government. Efficient yes, in the “trains run on time” school of administration, if you don’t care about being able to say out loud what you think inside. It is true that in the last three decades China has lifted more people out of poverty than any single force in human history, and that is to be credited. What China will discover, inevitably, is that people cannot have material wealth without “legal wealth” – a system to protect their gains. And there can be no “legal wealth” without a rule of law that is far more interested in the individual’s rights than in the state’s. The day will come when Britain conquers China, in a manner of speaking. I hope so, anyway.
One cannot comment on British history without mentioning its most successful offshoot: they call it “the United States of America.” The USA was a cluster of British colonies, deeply loyal to British legal and governmental traditions. Indeed the Americans were so steeped in the better aspects of British tradition that they saw early-on the iniquity and wrongness of colonial administration as the empire became bloated. There is much to the argument that the American Revolution was a British Revolution, against a form of monarchical and parliamentary tyranny which was emerging in the latter half of the 18th Century in London. Call it what you will, the colonists reluctantly broke with their oppressors and formed a government and legal system which is essentially a kind of replica of Westminster, minus the hereditary sovereign. The American Revolution very likely saved the British Empire, by exposing the weaknesses in time for them to be ameliorated.
Like the facts of it or not, British history is world history, for the reasons mentioned above and for others. Unlike many Empires, after learning the bloody lessons of Lexington-Concord etc, the British Empire eventually came apart in a generally more peaceful and reasonable manner than most others The Gauls did not have to storm Whitehall to break the grip of England. It was hardly easy, or quick, or pleasant, or bloodless, but it was more of those things than many imperial breakups. The fact that the colonies still hang together as a “Commonwealth” and still, almost universally, pledge loyalty to the Crown, is not meaningless. There is a legitimate debate about remaining under a distant monarch, but many of us do.
British history – and its part in human history – did not end in 1914 or with the dissolution of the Empire. For two years (1939-41) the UK stood alone against the most rapacious, evil and efficient “empire” ever assembled – the Nazi empire, which swept across Europe like a rash under the black boot heels of the German military. Britain absorbed a merciless pounding (backed up by the colonials) with some U.S. material assistance, until well into 1942 (after Pearl Harbour dragged the Americans into the fight). Visit the Churchill War Rooms and the Churchill museum buried underground with it, to be reminded of that effort.
And then of course, we have some of the latter-day contributions of Britain to human civilization. The aforementioned disassembly of the Empire, for one (not entirely voluntary, of course, and basically necessary because like Downton Abbey, it is expensive to keep up such a lifestyle). D.H. Lawrence. C.S. Lewis. Adele. “The Beatles. Harry Potter. David Beckham’s left foot. David Beckham’s right foot, for that matter. “ You know the quote.
This will all sound like sentimental ethnic nationalism, coming as it does from the child of Brits. Doubtless there is truth in that. But recognizing the value of something does not make one blind to its faults. The faults and failures of Britain may out-number those of other countries, if only because the UK was so damned influential. And also, because people expect something from it, understandably. Where it committed evil or turned a blind eye to it, we cannot forget or forgive.
Those sins were not confined to the colonies, either. There were few places harder to live than at the bottom of British society. My parents left the UK because it was impoverished, ill-managed and hopeless for them. My father was a child worker in the most desperate, brutal circumstances (a Yorkshire coal mine) imaginable. My mother barely survived a childhood illness in a cold, damp, dark ghetto of Glasgow. They and their ancestors were the least well-off British members of the great and glorious Empire. Their only chance was to escape (to one of the colonies, of course). It is impossible to romanticize or shrug-off the deprivations and ugliness of the British class system, particularly when the aristocratic tradition was welded to laissez-faire capitalism. Britain didn’t become the world’s greatest power being nice – not to the colonies and not to its own people.
Yet that same grim, wet, grey and unhappy truth did not bury the possibility of a better life, and the “DNA” of the British system – the Rule of Law, the concept of Equity, the expansion of the franchise – gave rise to political movements and economic change which broke through the old system and made the UK a much more egalitarian, fair and happy place in the latter half of the 20th Century.
In response to its own excesses and errors, Britain gave the world a few other things in the past century: one of the most robust and successful trade union movements, for example. One of the most successful “socialist” political parties (the party was more successful than some of its policies) in the Western world. An effective public administration, including a generally well-managed medical care system – a treasure so important to it now that the Brits featured it prominently in the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics. And let’s not forget the London Underground. That alone vaults Britain to the top ranks of civilization nowadays.
Like her or not, Margaret Thatcher – along with Gorbachev, Reagan and Deng Xiaoping – was among the most influential political and economic figures of the second half of the 20th Century (you don’t have to agree with someone to recognize their significance). Britain hasn’t stopped contributing. It’s just doing it through the marketplace now, commercially and ideologically, rather than with bayonets. It is possible that Britain is finished – it may give the world not one more thing aside from a place to spend tourist dollars. But I doubt it. After all, we are living in their legacy.
So what? The British Museum gets to keep what past explorers and soldiers lifted because the Brits somehow “earned” it – either back then, or later on? The best answer to that question might, actually, be “yes.”
It may seem a reach to suggest that a string of jewels should stay in London because the English were uncommonly successful colonialists. Or because the British legacy is the basis for the best and most humane legal and governmental systems on the planet. Or because the British stood alone against genocidal tyranny. Or because the British made civil servants out of nurses or wrote many of the best songs in the 1960s. A reach? Sure. But it seems no less a reach to say that some modern-day government, situated on land where precious things lay buried and neglected for a thousand years, has some better claim.
Today, the Pink Empire exists on old maps, but also in the ideas and rights of hundreds of millions of people in many lands. We cheer every time another “pink” revolution erupts, and mourn when they are corrupted or crushed. The original Empire was a great and monstrous thing. Its birth was not a bloodless or gentle experience. It left a swath of damage on those uprooted and wounded. Those things cannot be forgiven or forgotten – the bad is as real as the good. But we also have to recognize what it left behind, is very much “the good” or at least, the potentially good. The Pink Empire lives on and not just in the British Museum.
If given the decision, I would be inclined to keep things pretty much where they are in the museum. No doubt there are legitimate and powerful arguments contradicting my view. There is a case to be made for sending everything back where it came from, I suppose. But when we debate it, let’s keep in mind, why we are free to do so.