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Who Owns History? by Geoffrey Robertson

29 November 2019

Nicholas Cranfield on a barrister’s book that takes up a cause

AT THE outset, it might help to know that the Australian-born Geoffrey Robertson is a QC who has built up a practice that champions human rights, and more especially the lost cultural inheritance of indigenous peoples.

This book, that at times reads more like a diatribe than a reasonable essay in the pursuit of justice, centres on the demand for the return of the Elgin Marbles from the custody of the British Museum to the Greek authorities: a case that he has brought to the courts with Amal Clooney, so far to null effect.

I am at one with the author in the perceived injustice of denying a people the opportunity to reclaim their heritage when it has been misappropriated, stolen, removed, or otherwise resited without later consideration of ownership. Over more than two decades, I have written as much in various places about many of the treasures from Ancient Greece. I publicly regretted that the occasion of the Olympics, when held in Athens and, more recently, in London, was not grasped as an opportunity to restore the marvels of the age of Pericles to their homeland.

Robertson takes us back to the case that Cicero brought against Gaius Verres in 70 BC for despoiling Sicily of its treasures to enhance Rome. Cultural reappropriation is nothing new. Among other cultural crimes (and Robertson treats mainly of British colonial activity since the 18th century), he highlights the fate of cultural and religious treasures removed, often after war and occupation, from as far afield as Nigeria and Ethiopia, New Zealand and Egypt.

His final chapter suggests how a new international law should be framed to enforce the return of all such artefacts, proposing a (seemingly arbitrary) cut-off date of 275 years. That, of course, includes the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone. Members of the Church of England can relax: nowhere does he suggest that the Bishop of Rome would be allowed any claim over medieval and earlier churches in England, even though the Reformation here effected one of the greatest despoilments of land and art in history.

AlamyThe gods — Poseidon and Apollo — sit and watch the procession on the east frieze of the Acropolis, in one of the photos used in Geoffrey Robertson’s book

Much of Robertson’s invective is amusing but irrelevant: we learn inter alia his opinions of Tony Blair’s entering the Gulf War, and of David Cameron’s ignorance in thinking that the Koh-i-noor diamond was in the British Museum with other “loot”. Clearly, it is a barrister rather than a cultural historian who is writing.

Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.

Who Owns History? Elgin’s loot and the case for returning plundered treasure
Geoffrey Robertson
Biteback Publishing £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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