Thursday, July 29, 2010

When history becomes inconvenient

I'm highly amused to read that British Prime Minister David Cameron, currently visiting India, was 'ambushed' by a journalist during a TV interview. The journalist demanded to know whether Britain was prepared to return the Koh-i-Noor Diamond to India. Somewhat taken aback, Cameron muttered, "If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. I think I'm afraid to say, to disappoint all your viewers, it's going to have to say put."

He's quite right, of course. So many of Britain's treasured national patrimony is the result of what can only be described as looting, diplomatic piracy and downright theft that if it were all to be returned, the cupboard would truly be left bare. The Elgin Marbles; the Rosetta Stone; the Black Prince's Ruby; they're all the fruit of 'aggressive collecting' (to put it as charitably as possible).

The fun part about the Koh-i-Noor, of course, would be to decide which country is entitled to it. India claims it on the grounds that it was historically Indian before being ceded to Britain. Pakistan, however, now occupies more than half of the Punjab, the state from which it was finally seized by Britain, and therefore has its own claim to the diamond. If it were given to one, but not the other, would it spark a fourth Indo-Pakistani War?

Colonialism and jingoism are very much out of fashion today . . . but the treasures they won aren't likely to be going home anytime soon.



Anonymous said...

One question I always have about returning "aggressively collected" items is: how will they be protected/preserved/displayed/studied and curated? Given the political situations in some former colonized places, the precious items and artworks are a lot safer in the Louve, the British Museum, the Metropolitan and the Pergamon and the Hermitage than back "home."

And as you point out, Peter - who claims them? The Turks ruled Greece when Elgin "borrowed the marbles for preservation and study" and when the Ishtar Gate et al were removed to Berlin. Do they go to Turkey, or Greece and Iraq? Should Iran get the Ishtar Gate because it was Persia once, even though they were built in the Time of Darkness before the coming of the Prophet?


Anonymous said...

One mans looting is anothers spoils of war.

Let he who is with out sin cast the first diamond.


Anonymous said...

Having enthusiastically given up all vestiges of their own culture, the British Formerly Known As Great can scarcely afford to surrender that of a former outpost.