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The Elgin marbles and the rot of ‘decolonisation’

Elgin marbles
Zareer Masani
Written by Zareer Masani

The proposed return to Greece, in the guise of loans, of some of the British Museum’s most iconic objects, the Elgin marbles, is a measure of how far the ‘decolonisation’ campaign has gone in brainwashing the guardians of our cultural heritage. There’s little doubt that the Greek government, which still claims rightful ownership, will never willingly return such a loan, and we all know that possession is nine-tenths of the law.

The current deal, designed to circumvent rules preventing British museums from giving away our national treasures, has been brokered by former culture minister Lord Vaizey and ex-chancellor George Osborne, now Chair of the British Museum, but its details have yet to be revealed. What is remarkably absent from it so far are any guarantees of the loan being returned or, despite claims to reciprocity, precisely what equivalent Greek artefacts we’ll be getting in exchange.

The legality of Greek claims to the marbles are dubious at best. The friezes from the Parthenon at Athens, built mostly by slaves in 500 BC, were allegedly ‘stolen’ by the art-collecting, antiquarian Earl of Elgin in 1802, while he was British Ambassador to Constantinople. The Parthenon at the time was a neglected ruin in the Ottoman Empire, then the internationally recognised ruler of what is now Greece, which had no legal existence as a state until 30 years later. The Parthenon had been used as an ammunition dump and badly damaged by explosions. When Lord Elgin arrived, the site was being cannibalised by Turkish dragomen selling off bits as souvenirs to tourists.

Elgin acquired the marbles quite legally, with official permission from the Ottoman government, shipped them to London at a personal cost of £5 million in today’s money and later sold them, again quite legally, to the British government, who donated them to the British Museum. All these transactions are recorded in relevant documentation, and the new Greek nation, founded with British assistance, laid no claim to the objects until half a century later. Most retrospective legal claims, we know, are time-barred. But legality apart, the morality of such claims, backed by our current ‘decolonisers’, is hugely suspect. To begin with, there is no evidence that the population of modern Greece, after two and a half millennia, can legitimately claim descent from either the slaves who built the Parthenon or the Athenian rulers who commissioned it. Populations have migrated, mixed and altered across the world for millennia, so few of us can claim entitlement based on geographical or ethnic continuity since ancient times.

There is a wider ethical question. It was post-Enlightenment European and often British explorers, archaeologists, conservationists and art-collectors, like Lord Elgin, who rediscovered and rescued picturesque classical ruins from obscurity, neglect and destruction in most parts of the globe. It was often through their ‘cultural appropriation’ by these European classicists, Orientalists, Egyptologists and Africanists, whom our ‘decolonisers’ decry, that natives like me learned about our own classical heritage and how to value its remains.

An uncomfortable reality we need to acknowledge is that most of Asia, Africa, the Americas and Australasia had no museums of any sort to conserve antiquities, until Europeans came along to found them and excavate, research and treasure the artefacts we enjoy today. In India, where I come from, we either worshipped idols or threw them away if they were old and damaged. The wonderful Amravati marbles, also on display in the British Museum, were rescued by British officials from an ancient Buddhist stupa that was being cannibalised by local builders.

An even more dubious morality applies to western collections of Benin bronzes, whose return to Nigeria may also be imminent. They were acquired as entirely legal booty by a British military expedition to punish the King of Benin for the brutal murder of an unarmed British delegation. The Benin kingdom was an unusually cruel, tyrannical regime by African standards, notorious for brutalities that ranged from widespread slavery to the most gruesome forms of ritual, mass human sacrifice, including women and children. The blood-soaked bronzes, to which western collectors have given their current financial value, were made from brass quite literally acquired by Benin in return for slaves. A sobering thought perhaps for the ‘decolonisers’, so anxious to return them to the descendants of Benin’s rulers, but not of the slaves whose blood-money they represent.

A final thought, if our morality is to be based on the greatest good of the greatest number. More than six million visitors a year from across the globe enjoy the Elgin marbles at the British Museum, compared with less than a third that number at the Parthenon museum in Athens. I very much doubt that the many Benin bronzes still in Nigeria, housed in British-established museums there, attract even a tiny fraction of that number. I rest my case.

This article was published by the Spectator (7 Jan. 2023), and is posted here by kind permission.

About the author

Zareer Masani

Zareer Masani

Zareer Masani is an author and broadcaster, whose books include Indira Gandhi: A Biography (1976), Indian Tales of the Raj (1990) and Macaulay: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist (2013).