Britain’s Commitment to Stolen Cultural Treasures

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This past weekend, The Guardian unearthed a story from the past that throws an oblique light on the present. It began with an odd couple and led to the creation of a real one. The odd couple is the American actor George Clooney and the current UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Their conflict aired in public at the time marks the origin of the making of a real couple: Clooney and his future bride, the human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin.

In 2014, Clooney made a public statement about a controversy that had been raging for decades over the presence in London of what are called the Elgin Marbles or, more properly, the Parthenon Sculptures. These are a collection of ancient Greek statues and carvings removed from the most famous monument of ancient Athens by the Scottish aristocrat, Thomas Bruce, earl of Elgin. 

This transfer of ancient artwork took place at the beginning of the 19th century, when the Ottoman empire controlled Greece. Lord Elgin was Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman empire, who clearly was more interested in Greek history and art than the Ottomans themselves. He requested permission to sketch the remains of what had been left in partial ruin and even obtained weakly formulated permission to “to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon.” 


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He employed artists to do the sketching but took on board personally the business of taking away the pieces with inscriptions and figures. As traditional Muslims, the Ottomans were not merely iconoclasts, but aniconists, denouncing the representation of sentient beings. They may have felt relieved that some of the “graven images” were being removed from a territory they controlled. Bruce dutifully collected what interested him and sent them to England, where for nearly two centuries they have been on display in the British Museum.

While promoting the release of his film “The Monuments Men,” about the Nazi theft of great European artwork, consistent with the theme of the movie Clooney voiced his support for the Greek claim that the artwork should be returned to Athens. Clooney’s remarks drew the attention of London’s mayor at that time, a certain Boris Johnson. Boris felt very strongly that the town over which he presided should be recognized as the rightful owner of the Greek artwork. 

Summoning up his patented talent for stale puns and personal put-downs, Johnson told The Telegraph: “Someone urgently needs to restore George Clooney’s marbles.” This turned into a public scandal as Johnson went further, accusing Clooney of “advocating nothing less than the Hitlerian agenda for London’s cultural treasures.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Cultural treasures:

Valuable items produced by one culture that are considered even more valuable when pilfered from their original setting and possessed by another culture, in part because they stand as a symbol of former dominance.

Contextual Note

Since those events in 2014, several things have happened. Johnson eventually became Britain’s prime minister, thanks primarily to a series of shambolic episodes surrounding the still ongoing dog-and-pony show Boris put together in 2016, known as Brexit. Clooney married later that year. 

The actor explained to The Observer that, after Johnson’s outburst, he needed to be briefed on the status of the controversy surrounding the Parthenon marbles. He accordingly arranged to meet the lawyer who was pleading the case for the return of the artwork. The lawyer’s name was Amal Alamuddin. Without Johnson’s denunciation of an American interloper in London’s business, the now happy couple might never have met.

In the same edition of The Guardian, a casual reader could have happened upon another article, with the title “Wealthy MP urged to pay up for his family’s slave trade past,” which is also about the British habit of plundering the riches of other regions of the world in the days of empire. The authors, Paul Lashmar and Jonathan Smith, recount how Richard Drax, the Conservative MP for South Dorset, recently inherited a plantation in Barbados that owed its prosperity in former times to the brutal exploitation of African slaves.

Modern voices, including the Barbadian historian of slavery, Sir Hilary Beckles, are now demanding “reparatory justice” for the crimes of Drax’s ancestors. Beckles reminded Drax of the historical truth that “Black life mattered only to make millionaires of English enslavers and the Drax family did it longer than any other elite family.” The Guardian notes that Drax recognizes these facts from his family’s past. But like many Britons, he has been taught to think of history as a subject of study that serves primarily to fascinate schoolchildren with inspiring stories of heroism from the past. 

Serious people, as the MP clearly understands, must focus on the issues of the day. Brexit for instance, which Drax has consistently voted for, as well as aggressive Britain’s military combat operations overseas. After all, all modern combat engaged by Britain, essentially in the Middle East, aims at telling darker-skinned people who’s boss. It’s in his family’s tradition.

Historical Note

The Guardian notes that Drax “is probably the wealthiest landowner in the House of Commons, with 5,600 hectares of farmland and woodlands. The estate’s finances are largely opaque to the public gaze and involve at least six trusts and other disconnected financial entities.” With such resources, Drax has had plenty of time to reflect on the logic of history and to develop an understanding of his own position in it, both as the scion of a colonial family and a legislator in a modern democracy.

Drax explains the state of his understanding: “I am keenly aware of the slave trade in the West Indies, and the role my very distant ancestor played in it is deeply, deeply regrettable, but no one can be held responsible today for what happened many hundreds of years ago. This is a part of the nation’s history, from which we must all learn.” With his repeated “deeply,” Drax appears to echo the Lewis Carroll’s Walrus feasting on the oysters he had earlier befriended.

I weep for you,’ the Walrus said:

      I deeply sympathize.’

With sobs and tears he sorted out

      Those of the largest size.

By “we must all learn” Drax appears to be suggesting that, despite his deep, deep regret,

if there is a reckoning to be had, it should be shared by all and not attributed to those who thrive today thanks to the crimes of their forebears. The fact that the wealth he enjoys today derived from a historical crime, the consequences of which are felt by the vast majority of descendants of slaves, has no importance. No one can accuse him of having slaves today, though it might be interesting to review the employment conditions of his servants and the workers on the existing plantation in Barbados.

In a separate and lengthier article, Lashmar and Smith provide a detailed description of Drax’s wealth and current possessions. Reviewing the Drax family’s history in the West Indies, dating back to the 1620s, they remark that his enterprising ancestor acquired a reputation as an innovator by creating a successful model for a commercial sugar plantation that was imitated elsewhere in the Caribbean. Though the comparison is purely anachronistic, the MP’s 17th-century ancestor appears to have been the Elon Musk of colonial slavery.

Musk’s own occasional statements concerning how to treat regions around the world with exploitable resources (“We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it”) underscores a certain cultural continuity with the Drax clan. They seem to share a similar mindset.

The article cites Beckles’ estimation “that as many 30,000 slaves died on the Drax plantations in Barbados and Jamaica over 200 years.” In its effects, that sounds somewhat similar to the kind of “Hitlerian agenda” that Boris Johnson, the leader of Drax’s political party, accused George Clooney of having for daring to suggest a crime of the past might require a gesture of reparation. And so, the most powerful Tory and the wealthiest Tory seem to share the same approach not only to contemporary politics, but to history itself. Can’t these eternal complainers like Beckles and Clooney just let bygones be bygones?

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.





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