Let’s stop this descent into self-pitying Empire shame over our universities’ ancient artefacts
Who can possibly object to the restoration of objects to their lawful owners? No one doubts that after the Second World War Germany was right to restore stolen property to Jewish families or compensate them for its loss. In those circumstances, the identities of the Jewish wronged and the Nazi wrongdoers, and the relationship between original victims and surviving family members, were clear enough. The taking of property was manifestly an instance of theft—according to natural justice, if not according to Nazi law. And the harm done was definite and quantifiable. In that case, restoration made good sense.
The passage of time, however, muddies the waters. As Onora O’Neill, emeritus professor of philosophy at Cambridge, has written: “Claims to compensation have to show that continuing loss or harm resulted from past injury. This is all too often impossible where harms have been caused by ancient or distant wrongs. Is everybody who descends from those who were once enslaved or colonised still being harmed by those now ancient and distant misdeeds? Can we offer a clear enough account of the causation of current harms to tell where compensation is owed? Can we show who ought to do the compensating?” The riotous jungle of history often overgrows and obscures the path to straightforward solutions.
The ‘decolonising’ proposal to have Western museums surrender objects taken by European imperialists centuries ago raises a number of difficult questions. First of all, why is the focus exclusively on Europeans? Long before the Portuguese or Dutch or English started setting up shop in far-flung parts of the globe, the Chinese and the Arabs were doing empire. Indeed, in the 1600s Barbary pirates from north Africa were raiding Cornwall and carting off villagers to be sold as slaves in the markets of the Ottoman empire. And at the same time as the British were colonising parts of Africa in the 19th century, so were the Zulu in the south, the Asante in the north-west, and the Egyptians in the Sudan. So, if we’re going to try and tidy up history, and right historic wrongs, shouldn’t we do it equitably? Otherwise, justice is arbitrary.
Second, until not very long ago the victor’s seizure of the vanquished’s property was a practice shared by many cultures, and justified by the need to cover the costs of campaigning and, in particular, to pay the victor’s troops. Whoever won the battle expected to seize the enemy’s goods and distribute them as ‘prize money’, and whoever lost the battle expected that to happen. Such was the right of conquest. So, in terms of norms common at the time—in terms of the ‘law of peoples’—what was taken was not stolen.
Next arises the question of whether or not tyrants had a right to property that they used to tyrannise, and whether their descendants have a moral claim to have it restored to them. For example, the plaques and sculptures taken from Benin City by British troops in 1897, which are known as the ‘Benin bronzes’, are thought to have been originally used to buy slaves. Do the descendants of slave-traders deserve to have them back?
Further, to what extent are today’s claimants really the heirs of yesterday’s victims? What, exactly, do contemporary Greeks have in common with ancient Athenians, such that the former can claim to be the rightful owners of the Elgin marbles? And while some native Americans and Australian aboriginals clamour for the return of traditional objects, many others—perhaps most—have become fully assimilated into modern, Western culture. Who, then, do the claimants represent?
Where these questions can be given satisfactory answers, the ‘restoration’ of objects will make sense. Otherwise, they won’t.