The case for keeping the Elgin Marbles

The call for the restitution of museum artefacts on the grounds of ‘colonial guilt’ is based on a misreading of history

Article by Nigel Biggar for The Telegraph. 28 January 2023.

The passage of time, however, muddies the waters. As the philosopher Onora O’Neill 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 (in part) 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 overgrows and obscures the causal pathways. Moreover, practices we now regard as abhorrent were once widely accepted. And some abhorrent things our ancestors did, they repented of long ago.

Take slavery, for example. From ancient times, peoples on every continent practised it. Long before Europeans became involved in the 1440s, Africans had been selling black slaves to Roman and Arab traders. While the British were importing slaves into the Americas in the 1700s, the indigenous Comanche were running a slave economy in the south-west of North America. In the West Indies and the American South, freed slaves kept slaves of their own. British slave-trading and slavery from about 1650 was nothing out of the ordinary.

What was extraordinary was that the British were among the first peoples in the world to repudiate the slave trade and slavery within their own territories in 1807 and 1833, respectively, and the leading people to devote themselves to the global suppression of slavery for the following century and a half.  

These facts pose a question of fairness to Hilary Beckles’s claim in Britain’s Black Debt (2013) that Britons today owe reparations for their forebears’ slaving activities. Why pick on the British? What about the descendants of the African chiefs who sold other Africans to the slave-traders, as well as the descendants of the Arab slave-traders who sold the slaves to the Europeans on the coast? They all profited, too. And if we are going to have reparations for slavery, the British themselves should seek compensation from the descendants of the Barbary corsairs, who raided Cornwall in the 1600s and carted off whole villages into slavery on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa. 

Then there’s the problem of establishing that those descended from slaves are worse off than they would have been had they remained in Africa. Evidence suggests that some descendants of slaves now prosper rather more than some descendants of slave-traders. According to World Bank data, in 2020 life expectancy in post-slavery Barbados was 24 years higher than in post-slave-­trading Nigeria, and GNI per capita in international dollars, 482 per cent higher.

So, when the Archbishop of Canterbury announced recently that the Church of England will devote the interest of £100 million “to address our shameful past” in the wake of a report revealing a church fund’s profits from investment in the slave trade, a lot of explaining is needed. After all, the Church addressed its shameful past and repudiated slavery 200 years ago: evangelical Anglicans were prom­inent in the abolition movement from the 1780s, Anglican bishops voted en bloc for abolition in 1807, and Anglican missionaries there­after spent their lives lobbying for the imperial suppression of ­slavery worldwide.   

However, all the explanation we’re given are the report’s bald statements that “the past is still ­present”, since “the transatlantic slave economy played a significant role in shaping the economy, society and Church we have today”, contributing to ongoing “racial and class divisions”. Every one of these unargued assertions is doubtful. 

The ‘essence of Greekness’?: a 1930s photograph of part of the North Frieze from the Parthenon, on display in the British Museum Credit: Mansell/Stephen Thompson

While some still cleave to Eric Williams’s 1944 Marxist thesis that profits from the slave trade made “an enormous contribution” to Britain’s industrial development, David Brion Davis, the distinguished historian of slavery and abolition, confidently declared in 2010 that it has been “wholly discredited by other scholars”. 

Further, there is no direct causal line between the ugly racism that justified 18th-century slavery and the present day, not least because the highly popular abolition movement and its humanitarian successors were propelled by the Christian conviction that members of all races are equal in the sight of God. Consequently, according to another historian, John Stauffer:

“…almost every United States black who travelled in the British Isles acknowledged the comparative dearth of racism there. [The famous black abolitionist] Frederick Doug­lass noted after arriving in England in 1845: “I saw in every man a recognition of my manhood, and an absence, a perfect absence, of everything like that disgusting hate with which we are pursued in [the U S].”

The Church of England is absolutely right to set about correcting present unjust ethnic disparities and racist prejudice. But it should do so without following the Zeitgeist in erasing everything that has happened since 1807. Racial injustice in the Church can’t be attributed to British colonial endeavour, since throughout the second half of its life the British Empire was committed to anti-slavery on the principle of a Christian racial egalitarianism.  

In fact – as I demonstrate in Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning – a scrupulous reading of the data prefers an alternative narrative. Benin did practise slave-trading and human sacrifice, horrifying British progressives of their day. In addition, both European and African traders were pressing the British to open up Benin to free trade. Yet even this had a humanitarian dimension, since the promotion of “legitimate” commerce was widely viewed as a substitute for the slave trade. 

Still, London remained reluctant to intervene. It was only when an unarmed diplomatic mission was slaughtered in January 1897 that the imperial government felt obliged to authorise a punitive expedition. 

So, when they went to war in February 1897, the British intended primarily to retaliate for the mass­acre and thereby deter any repetition. The enabling of free trade and the ending of the practices of slavery and human sacrifice were secondary intentions. But they were not insincere. After Benin was occupied, any slave who arrived back in the deserted city before his master was emancipated and slave-trading was outlawed. 

As for the Bronzes, these were removed as “spoils of war”. But this wasn’t “looting” in the sense of the unauthorised seizure of items for private purposes. That was prohibited by British military law. Instead, the British commander reserved all the major items as government property. Once removed to London, most were auctioned by the Admiralty, probably to defray the expedition’s costs, including pensions for the disabled and bereaved. Under international law at the time, this was legal.

So, if there are good reasons for British institutions to return the Bronzes to Benin, colonial guilt is not among them. For among British motives were the emancipation of slaves and the ending of human sacrifice, and the Bronzes themselves were cast from a form of currency used to trade slaves. 

That’s why the New York-based Restitution Study Group is urging that the Bronzes be retained by European and US museums, so that, rather than rewarding the Beninese descendants of slave-traders, the far-flung descendants of the slaves they traded should benefit from ready access to part of their history.  

Colonial guilt also provides the backdrop for the case for the restitution of the famous Elgin Marbles. Thus, in Who Owns History? (2019), Geoffrey Robertson depicts the British Empire in general as a series of cultural despoliations and war crimes. While he admits that “this is not a history book (as I can prove by confessing to having checked some of its facts on Wikipedia)”, his historical caricature still sets the scene for his argument.

Namely, from 1801, Lord Elgin unlawfully looted sculptures from the Parthenon, falsely claiming he was rescuing them from destruction. Effectively, this has robbed the Greek people of “the keys to its history” or what has been called “the essence of Greekness”. Moreover, only when the looted sculptures are reunited with their siblings in Athens can the ensemble reveal its authentic meaning.

The case for retention is this. The Acropolis, on which the Parthenon stands, had been used by the Ottomans as a strategic military base for centuries. In 1687, under siege by the Venetians, a gunpowder store in the Parthenon exploded, destroying part of the building. The Ottoman authorities cared so little that the antiquarian debris was still litt­er­ing the ground more than a cent­ury later when Elgin’s agents arr­ived on the scene. What’s more, the latter found Ottoman soldiers damaging the remaining sculptures as they prised out the lead from the clamps holding the marble blocks together, in order to make bullets. Elgin had secured from the highest official in Constantinople authorisation to take away “any pieces of stone with old inscriptions, and figures”. 

Now aware of the vulnerability of the sculptures, he persuaded the city governor, in the presence of an official from the sultan’s court, that this open-ended permission extended to those, too. The work of removing the Marbles then proceeded in full public view over two-and-a-half years from 1801. The last shipment to London left nine years later. Had the authorities objected, they could easily have stopped it. But they didn’t.

Nonetheless, what of the argument that, since they represent “the essence of Greekness”, the Marbles should now be returned to Greece? That essence is supposed to be democracy, and yet in the “democracy” that Periclean Athens supported when the Parthenon was built, 30,000 citizens elected representatives to the legislative assembly, which ruled over 300,000 unenfranchised women and slaves. And whereas contemporary Greeks may project onto the Parthenon’s sculptures an embodiment of their own ideals, their original meaning to ancient Athenians was imperial triumph and to ancient Spartans and Corinthians, imperial oppression. The Marbles have no single, authentic meaning. They meant contrary things to ancient Greek peoples. They mean something different to contemporary Greeks. And they mean something different again to international visitors to the British Museum, where their juxtaposition to art from all over the world provokes fresh insight into human cultures.

Meanwhile, if the curators of the New Acropolis Museum in Athens want to display what the original Parthenon looked like, with all its parts together in a glorious whole, modern technology stands ready to project that. Michelle Donelan, the Culture Secretary, is right: the Elgin Marbles should stay where they are.     

In cases analogous to that of the Nazi looting of Jewish property, ­restitution or compensation makes sense. But given the complicating passage of time, centuries-old historic injustices seldom fit that mould and can’t sensibly be rectified. What can be rectified, however, are racial injustices today. Those should be our focus, not the sins of distant ancestors, whose effects have been widely diffused and attenuated by subsequent causes, including repentance and sustained penance.

And when considering calls for the restitution of objects brought to Britain during the imperial period, we shouldn’t be prejudiced by a general sense of colonial guilt, since the British Empire did good as well as evil. Not all that was taken was looted. Nor was all of it innocent.

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