The Role of Lord Elgin and of the Current British Government regarding the removal and possession of the looted Parthenon Sculptures –
( for the excellent visual history of the Parthenon and the Sculptures please go to our video links page and click on the animated documentary of Costas Gavras, the Oscar winning Greek film director)
At the beginning of the 1800's after a long series of wars and annexations of foreign territories Britain ruled an Empire on which "the sun never set". One quarter of the world's population laboured and lived under the Union Jack and woe-betide anyone who in his own country wanted to enter a smart hotel, be treated at a European hospital or wished to buy land in areas such as Kenya's White Highlands reserved for "white" colonials. The Empire's hold on foreign countries, their wealth, their resources and their peoples did not come cheap for those civilisations or nations "upon whom fell Albion's covetous eye". Thousands of Burmese, Kenyans, Malayans, Aborigines, American Indians (in earlier centuries) and later, American colonists, Indians, Afghans, Sudanese , Cypriots, Irish and Chinese were shot, hanged or imprisoned when they demanded and acted to get control of the countries they were born and lived in. National treasures were looted by troops of the Empire from the palaces and streets of China, from Hydrabad and Jaipur, from Egypt, from Baghdad, Damascus, Assyria, Timbuktu, Zanzibar, Cyprus and, perhaps most notable of all, were those from the Parthenon, whose eastern pediment was mutilated oveer a series of years by a British peer, Lord Elgin.
Elgin with his chaplain and his crew removed dozens of statues and other exquisite carvings from the eastern pediment of the monument which symbolises Greek history, its civilization and is the very symbol of the Greek nation. It is a unique UNESCO designated cultural monument and the Parthenon is in fact the symbol depicted in the United Nations' cultural agency logo.
cultural agency logo.
One should note that the Parthenon had not been looted by any invader for 2,300 years and that it was put in danger, and mutilated severely by ..... yes you guessed it, by Lord Elgin. At approximately the same time an English contemporary writer recounted how a senior official of the British Consulate in Constantinople had a hobby of breaking off the noses of Greek statues in Athens, whenever he visited Greece, and took great pride in showing off the collection of vandalised noses he had in his office at the British Consulate by the Bosporus to his guests. But Elgin and the nose-vandal were in the minority among the many British PhilHellenes . Another English contemporary of Lord Elgin wrote, in Latin, on the plastered base of a missing looted statue from the Acropolis, the following words:
QUOD NON FECERUNT GOTI, FECERUNT SCOTI
“That which the Goths (and Vandals) did not do, was done by the Scots”
British troops, archaeologists and diplomats cast a worldwide net to bring the treasures of superior civilizations to display in their capital, in a museum built for this very purpose - to show the spoils of war and to attract visitors to view the artifacts of great civilizations whose creators had not of course agreed to their history and their most valuable cultural artifacts being taken away to be put on display by England.
Britain had power, money and a fearsome military machine, but it lacked domestic cultural objects of value. The crude stone blocks of Stonehenge and broken pots and pans of the Roman legions who had bivouacked in Londinium were not worthy of an Empire which otherwise had the trappings of grandeur and an attitude rooted in the belief of absolute racial superiority. It was an empire which declared as recently as 1940 that it would last "for a Thousand Years".
It fell apart in just 25 after this declaration by Winston Churchill, its colonies rebelled and one by one Britain's foreign subjects took control of their own lives and their own national destinies. Empire thus became Commonwealth.
Chinese were allowed once more into the parks of Shanghai after removing the signs which said "No Dogs or Chinese". Kenyans were allowed to buy farms in Nakuru and Nairobi where their forefathers had lived for hundreds of years. Oxford and Cambridge-educated Africans, after dining in the halls of Balliol, Magdalene (mis-pronounced as "Maudlin" by educated Britons) were finally allowed to take a coffee in hotel lounges and to sit in the upper circle seats at the cinema in their own countries. Britain dismantled its laws which "forbade" the return of the countries to their nationals control.
India was given back, as were Cyprus, Ghana, Burma, Tanganyika, Zanzibar, Malaya, Kuwait, Iraq, Canada Australia, South Africa, Nigeria, and a hundred other countries. A century earlier Britain had been forced by English men of conscience to stop the lucrative trade in African slaves and the barter in opium, for which Britain waged two wars with China.
One by one, colonial "possessions" were returned and Britain withdrew, to enter the newly formed European Union, but it still hung on to isolated vestiges of its grand past with its antiquated monetary system and long white wigs worn by British lawyers and judges. With its entry into the EU the final curtain of Britain's Empire was lowered.
s Empire was lowered.
Elizabeth Regina I had created the empire, Elizabeth Regina II was the monarch who, perhaps tragically, saw the sun set on one after the other of her "own" colonies, protectorates, mandates, trust territories, and dominions. Queen Elizabeth II will go down in history as the monarch who gave a quarter of the world their freedom, after hundreds of thousands of her subjects had paid a blood price first to bring Britain to the negotiating table. Great Britain entered the EU as the "United Kingdom" after a name dispute with Charles de Gaulle, who violently objected to England using the word Britain (Bretagne). The UK finally became a modern European democracy, however with an unelected upper House – the House of Lords - and an equal partner in the EU which it entered as a polyglot and multicultural nation with a past.
But like the aged maid who zealously guards mementos of her youth, photographs of bygone, happier, days and objects which remind her of grander days, so in Britain, in London's Russel Square, another aging spinster, the British Museum, zealously guards the acquisitions of past centuries, the well guarded keepsakes of a glorious, but dead, past. Successive British governments have accommodated, with varying degrees of support or inaction, the trustees of the museum, with the tolerance that one has for an eccentric aunt whose memories are rooted in another age.
There is little doubt that the position of the Museum in hanging onto the Parthenon Marbles has been surpassed by history and by the democratic values of today. It must surely be a historic embarrassment, overt for some Britons, covert for others, whether ordinary citizens, MP's, diplomats or those in the media. The British Museum today is a tragic figure, demanding that others comply with its Victorian era mentality and believing that the world is still in the early 19th century when Royal Navy gunboats would threaten foreigners who dared to step on British toes. That era is gone.
It would seem that in the corridors of Her Britannic Majesty's Foreign Office and in some of European Britain's overseas Embassies there are still, here and there, civil servants who, like the British Museum trustees, think and act as if Clive's, Rhodes' and Wellington's British Empire were still in existence. Our readers may find it interesting, perhaps sad, to read the email sent by the Foreign Office and its overseas embassies to those who demand the return of the Parthenon Marbles. It is the official position of the British government but is unsupported by public opinion in Britain today, as recent opinion polls there have shown. We sincerely hope that the new government in the United Kingdom under Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg will see the logic of returning the Sculptures. It is encouraging that Mr Clegg was a strong supporter of the case for the reunification when he was a European Parliament member. We will be happy to meet with the new government of the UK and to try and find a quick solution to this historic injustice.In the meantime it is worth reading the letter that the Gordon Brown Foreign Office sent us -
Date: Fri, 20 Mar 2009 12:24:55 +0000
Subject: London, the Parthenon Marbles, and the Olympic Games Sponsors Boycott
Thank you for your message regarding the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum. We also note your comments regarding the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
The UK Government is aware that this issue provokes very strongly held views around the world and that many people feel that the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum should be housed in the new Acropolis Museum.
However, a fundamental principle, of many years standing in the UK, is that our national museums and galleries operate independently of Government and are free from political interference. What happens to the Sculptures is therefore a matter for consideration by the Trustees of the British Museum.
The Parthenon Sculptures are an important part of the British Museum’s collection and, under the Museum's governing statute, the Trustees are prevented from “deaccessioning” objects in the Museum’s collections unless, broadly, they are duplicates or unfit for retention. The Government has no plans to change the law in this respect.
The Museum can make loans under the Act, but must take into account issues such as the rarity of the object and any risks to which it may be exposed. The Trustees also need consider the interests of the visitor to the British Museum. In addition, the Trustees need to be assured by the borrowing institution that the object or objects in question will be returned. To date the Trustees of the Museum have not received any detailed, written proposals regarding a loan of the Parthenon Sculptures to Greece.
Moreover, the British Museum has always made it clear that it would be necessary for Greece to acknowledge publicly the Museum’s legal ownership of the Sculptures before the Trustees would be prepared to consider a possible loan of any of them. To date, the Greek Government have not done this.
The British Museum's own position is that the trustees continue to believe that the Museum is the best place for the Sculptures to be seen in the context of their rich contribution to the history of the whole of humanity. The British Museum is a world museum and people from all over the world come to visit it. There is nowhere else in Europe where visitors can look at the cultural achievements of the whole world under one roof.
I hope this helps clarify the current position on the matter.
Let us see what another Scottish Peer, Lord Byron, who was in Athens, staying in a small hotel below the Parthenon, had to say about the removal of the Parthenon Sculptures that was taking place within hearing range, and about the mutilation of the removed masterpieces by Lord Elgin’s crew of 100 workmen who took hammer, saw and chisel to the Sacred Marbles , in order to discard parts of them in order to make them lighter for shipping to England.
There have been many voices of conscience in the past in Britain, just as today polls show that the majority of the British public supports the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to Greece.
Let us see then two poems written by Lord Byron who was an eyewitness to the removal of the Parthenon Marbles. Byron was shocked by the cultural barbarism of his fellow countryman Lord Elgin, and stunned by the fact that anyone would go up to a classical monument like the Parthenon and begin defacing and removing the finest sculpted sections of the world’s best known architectural monument .
Lord Byron wrote these reproachful lines in his epic poem Childe Harold
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne'er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch'd thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!
THE CURSE OF MINERVA by Lord BYRON
Extracts from another, less well- known, poem by Byron- very angry words indeed, but they are those of Byron, not ours.
ATHENS: CAPUCHIN CONVENT,
"Mortal!" -- 'twas thus she spake -- "that blush of shame
Proclaims thee Briton, once a noble name;
First of the mighty, foremost of the free,
Now honour'd less by all, and least by me;
Chief of thy foes shall Pallas still be found.
Seek'st thou the cause of loathing? --look around.
Lo! here, despite of war and wasting fire,
I saw successive tyrannies expire.
'Scaped from the ravage of the Turk and Goth,
Thy country sends a spoiler worse than both.
Survey this vacant, violated fane;
Recount the relics torn that yet remain:
These Cecrops placed, this Pericles adorn'd,
That Adrian rear'd when drooping Science mourn'd.
What more I owe let gratitude attest--
Know, Alaric and Elgin did the rest.
That all may learn from whence the plunderer came,
The insulted wall sustains his hated name:
For Elgin's fame thus grateful Pallas pleads,
Below, his name--above, behold his deeds!
Be ever hailed with equal honour here
The Gothic monarch and the Pictish peer:
arms gave the first his right, the last had none,
But basely stole what less barbarians won.
See here what Elgin won, and what he lost!
She ceased awhile, and thus I dared reply,
To soothe the vengeance kindling in her eye:
"Daughter of Jove! in Britain's injured name,
A true-born Briton may the deed disclaim.
Frown not on England; England owns him not:
Athena, no! thy plunderer was a Scot.
Ask'st thou the difference? From fair Phyles' towers
Survey Bœotia;--Caledonia's ours.
And well I know within that bastard land
Hath Wisdom's goddess never held command;
A barren soil, where Nature's germs, confined
To stern sterility, can stint the mind;
Whose thistle well betrays the niggard earth,
Emblem of all to whom the land gives birth;
Each genial influence nurtured to resist;
A land of meanness, sophistry, and mist.
Then thousand schemes of petulance and pride
Despatch her scheming children far and wide:
Some east, some west, some everywhere but north,
In quest of lawless gain, they issue forth.
And thus--accursed be the day and year!
Yet Caledonia claims some native worth,
As dull Bœotia gave a Pindar birth;
So may her few, the letter'd and the brave,
Bound to no clime, and victors of the grave,
Shake off the sordid dust of such a land,
And shine like children of a happier strand;
As once, of yore, in some obnoxious place,
Ten names (if found) had saved a wretched race."
"Mortal!" the blue-eyed maid resumed, "once more
Bear back my mandate to thy native shore.
Though fallen, alas! this vengeance yet is mine,
to turn my counsels far from lands like thine.
Hear then in silence Pallas' stern behest;
Hear and believe, for time will tell the rest.
"First on the head of him who did this deed
My curse shall light, --on him and all his seed:
Without one spark of intellectual fire,
Be all the sons as senseless as the sire:
If one with wit the parent brood disgrace,
Believe him bastard of a brighter race;
And last of all, amidst the gaping crew,
Some calm spectator, as he takes his view,
In silent indignation mix'd with grief,
Admires the plunder, but abhors the thief.
Oh, loath'd in life, nor pardon'd in the dust,
May hate pursue his sacrilegious lust!
Shall vengeance follow far beyond the tomb
"So let him stand, through, ages yet unborn,
Fix'd statue on the pedestal of Scorn'
Though not for him alone revenge shall wait,
But fits thy country for her coming fate:
Hers were the deeds that taught her lawless son
To do what oft Britannia's self had done.
A fatal gift that turn'd your friends to stone,
And left lost Albion hated and alone.
"Look to the East, where Ganges' swarthy race
Shall shake your tyrant empire to its base;
Lo! There Rebellion rears her ghastly head
And glares the Nemesis of native dead;
Till Indus rolls a deep purpureal flood
And claims his long arrear of northern blood.
So may ye perish! Pallas, when she gave
Your free-born rights, forbade ye to enslave.
Nay, frown not, Albion! for the torch was thine
That lit such pyres from Tagus to the Rhine