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    Default Why Britain must give its colonial booty back

    The art world’s shame: why Britain must give its colonial booty back

    November 2014

    The self-righteousnessness of British museums stops them from returning masterpieces pillaged long ago to their rightful owners. It’s time they stopped hogging the world’s treasures

    Britain’s museums need to face up to a reality. Cultural imperialism is dead. They cannot any longer coldly keep hold of artistic treasures that were acquired in dubious circumstances a long time ago.

    Amal Clooney may or may not be the best ambassador for the Greek government in its long campaign to return the Parthenon marbles to Greece. The celebrity support this cause has attracted ever since Lord Byron made it part of his romantic image in the early 19th century keeps it in the limelight, but also allows the British Museum, where the best sculptures from the 5th century BC Parthenon continue to be kept, to portray its critics as self-publicists.

    Yet this is not the only case of a cultural treasure whose true ownership is disputed. The Benin sculptures in the British Museum, taken from the splendid west African city by a British “punitive raid” in 1897, are never going to rest easy in Bloomsbury. Meanwhile the international mood is shifting and will inevitably continue to shift towards a consensus that many wonders of the world are wrongfully hogged by western museums.

    In France, whose museums are just as treasure-laden as ours, the inviolability of the “national patrimony” is finally being questioned. We need to follow them down that modern road.

    Britain has a particularly bad image when it comes to this, for two reasons: Lord Elgin, whose stripping of the Acropolis has been a stain on our international reputation since the early 19th century, and the fact that we were, before 1914, the most powerful of all imperial powers. Instead of seeking to live down these blemishes, we are hugely self-righteous about our possession of a vast haul of world art. We come across as uniquely determined to hold on to our booty and not prepared to meet critics halfway.

    I realised this recently on the Greek island of Aegina. It has a superb classical temple whose sculptures were removed and taken to Bavaria at about the same time Britain took the frieze and pediment sculptures of the Parthenon. Today they are in Munich, but there is no global outcry for their return. Why not? Well, if you visit the temple you can’t help noticing the prominent German involvement in archaeology and conservation work there. German scholarship has kept up a constant, reciprocal relationship with Aegina. There is no equivalent British involvement in the preservation of the Parthenon.

    Why not? Instead of seeing Athens as its enemy, the British Museum should have got involved years ago in a very big way in maintaining and researching the Parthenon. It should have collaborated on the new Acropolis Museum (and offered to loan some of its astonishing sculptures). The whole issue could have been diffused by a more generous cooperative attitude.

    The Acropolis Museum, a wonderful gallery, reveals why cultural colonialism is doomed. It is true the whole world flocks to the British Museum and the Louvre, and surely will continue to do so. But world-class museums are not confined by some act of god to northern Europe or north America. The Louvre Abu Dhabi has been criticised for the conditions inflicted on its workforce. But in the long term, it points to a world where great art collections will be widely and evenly spread. The feeble excuses for keeping stolen or seized art treasures in former imperial capitals are becoming ever more feeble.

    In the end, the defence for hanging on to contested cultural goods boils down to the deeply offensive notion that Britain looks after the Parthenon marbles or Benin heads and plaques better than Greece or Nigeria ever could. How long can our museums keep up this arrogance? Not long.

    The British empire is dead. So is the age of cultural booty.



    All these European (and American) nations plunder the land they invade and occupy. When the Europeans invaded the Americas they sent back “booty” to the “mother country” , that is how the nations became rich and powerful in the old days. When Europeans started colonizing, they stole national treasures as well as any other treasures they could find and filled their museums, treasury and personal private art collections back home. When the Europeans (USA) invaded Iraq, they did the same thing. They stole all national treasures from the national museums, Saddam’s palace and treasury. The west has nothing of their own, everything is either stolen, be it intellectual or physical, or they built upon it and gave credit to only their own by not mentioning any previous history in their educational curriculum.

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    Victoria and Abdul: British royal and colonial propaganda disguised as a love story

    From a purely cinematic perspective Victoria and Abdul, which is based on the true story of the relationship between Queen Victoria and her Indian manservant, is a good film, says Roshan Muhammad Salih. But that’s what makes it dangerous. Because it reduces the tragic and significant tale of Britain’s colonial exploitation of India to a heartwarming and completely unimportant platonic love story.

    If the world of Western cinema had any moral rectitude (yeah, right) a film about the Victorian era and India should be about how Britain raped, pillaged and impoverished that country for its own benefit.

    It should be about how Britain’s racist exploitation of India directly led to famines which killed millions. [more like 2+ Billions]

    Yet instead of that what we get is a quaint little tale about the “Empress of India” and her faithful brown Muslim servant who only exists to “serve her.”

    Faithful servant

    Victoria and Abdul is essentially about a bored and elderly Queen Victoria (played by Judi Dench) who is spending the latter years of her privileged existence stuffing her face and getting fat.

    Then one day two Indian servants arrive at the Royal Court. One of them, Abdul Kareem (Ali Fazal), is tall and handsome and is keen to curry favour with the Queen, and does so by kissing her feet and regaling her with (sometimes tall) stories of his homeland.

    Abdul Kareem quickly wins the monarch’s favour and becomes her personal companion, much to the chagrin of the white racists who are used to running her affairs.

    I guess Abdul Kareem is ultimately what many Muslims would nowadays call a “coconut,” while others would probably describe him as a traitor to his own people. He’s obviously in awe of all things British and is above no level of obsequiousness.

    Maybe a kinder interpretation would be that, as a man of low birth, he was just trying to climb the greasy poll to better his situation and that of his family in the best way he could.

    The other Indian servant, Muhammad (Adeel Akhtar), hates the British empire and can’t wait to go back home. He considers the British to be barbarians who raped his country and can’t abide the cold, miserable weather in “civilisation.” In one scene (which I doubt really happened) he even tells the Prince of Wales to stick the British Empire up his arse.

    I just wish we had seen more of this guy.

    Most of the British characters in the film are portrayed as obnoxious, ignorant racists, apart from Queen Victoria herself who comes across as much more open-minded, showing a genuine interest in learning Urdu and about Islam. While her racist courtiers are disgusted by Abdul Kareem’s burqa-clad wife, she befriends her. While they repeatedly try to get him sacked, she just digs her heels in.

    That said, there’s no escaping the queasy feeling you get observing a woman in her 80s fawning over a man in his 20 a bit like so many old British grannies do on their holidays in Morocco or The Gambia.

    Even as she lies on her death bed she insists on seeing Abdul Kareem alone. Although as soon as she dies the new King evicts him and sends him packing back to where he came from.

    Colonial context

    Victoria and Abdul is a good-looking production that is well-acted and sometimes quite funny in an understated sort of way. And if you divorce it from its context then I’m sure you’ll enjoy it if period dramas tickle your fancy.

    But cinema can never be divorced from the political context in which it exists. That’s why loads of films in the West get made about the Holocaust but none get made about the suffering of the Palestinians.

    The perfidious Brits have always been expert in rebranding their own crimes as ultimately benign. Or if there is some mild criticism to be made it’s always at the safe distance of a couple of hundred years when it makes no difference whatsoever.

    Ultimately Abdul Kareem – who is seen kissing the feet of a statue erected to Victoria in India at the end of the film – was a victim of the British empire even though he did his best to advance his own interests within it. His mind was colonised until his dying day.

    But let’s leave aside the unimportant love story and focus on the facts: Britain invaded and occupied India, and it raped and pillaged the country’s human and material resources. And Queen Victoria was the head of that racist, Islamophobic, imperialistic enterprise. So no matter how nice she was to her brown Muslim manservant let’s not gloss over all that.



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