The British Museum should, in all propriety, be renamed the British Empire Museum. The largest repository of human genius is a magnificent tribute to three centuries of commercial and political power. The Empire and its diaspora had three overlapping shores: lands that were directly ruled; regions under domination [hence Dominions]; and an arc of grip sanctified by treaty [as in the Indian or Malaysian princely states] or justified by gunboat diplomacy [as in China].
Greed was hardly unknown to British conquistadors like Clive, but give his successors credit for one quality: they reserved a part of what they picked up from natives through coercion, bribery or rights of conquest for a national treasury that believed that treasure was much more than currency. The British Museum is an asset from the balance sheet of civilisation.
The worm in this apple is the difference between custody and ownership. Winston Churchill famously thought the sun never set on the British Empire, and then presided over sunset; but by his logic the old colonies were perfectly entitled to dismiss the British Museum as the principal warehouse of daylight robbery. You can therefore either moan about what has been lost, or you can gaze in admiration at what has been preserved. If you are a good Indian, as I am, you can do both.
London is littered with the glory of India since India was the fountainhead of British power and the hunting ground of its grandees. But when I see the theft, plunder and sheer destruction that Indians have inflicted upon their fabled heritage, a carnage that has not quite ended, I am a bit relieved that some British nabobs had the decency to preserve what they stole.
The British sometimes give the impression of being slightly embarrassed by this past. They offer wobbly explanations, as for instance that this or that was obtained “legally”. This rather reminds me of Vicereines who expected a “gift” of the Maharajah’s jewels whenever they were invited for dinner — and woe the Maharajah who forgot. Victor’s logic was equally evident on more substantive matters. Lord Palmerston rationalised Britain’s punitive and illegal opium trade by arguing that corrupt Chinese officials had allowed the ban to lapse. It worked until it worked.
The British Museum is an asset from the balance sheet of civilisation. The worm in this apple is the difference between custody and ownership. Winston Churchill famously thought the sun never set on the British Empire, and old colonies were perfectly entitled to dismiss the British Museum as the principal warehouse of daylight robbery.
The high point of British rule came in 1918, just 29 years before it crumbled where it had started, India. But in 1918 admirers and advocates were confident that the Empire would last four centuries more. The British had taunted the Caliph that they were the true “Muhammadan” power since more Muslims lived under the British than in Ottoman space. Now their taunt had bite. In 1918 the British became the first non-Muslims to control Mecca and Medina since the birth of Islam.
One Ottoman official refused to surrender when the Caliph capitulated, the governor of Medina. He was not wrapped in delusion. He had a purpose. He held on for ten months because he needed the time to transfer the few, sparse personal possessions of the Prophet Muhammad from Medina to Turkey. Otherwise, he said, they would end up in the British Museum. They are today in the Topkapi palace in Istanbul.
And so the Prophet’s cloak was not on display at the British Museum’s magnificent exhibition on hadj, the journey to the heart of Islam, Mecca. I was privileged to share that journey last week during a visit to London.
The British, unlike say the French, dislike being exhibitionist. But no one can turn an exhibition into a triumph quite like them. Perhaps the British flower in anonymity, since there is no personal signature to such a collective effort. But never has a bureaucracy been more inspiring. The mellifluous, evocative music of the azaan greeted me at the door. Verses urging humility towards men and reverence before God explained the essence of the Quran. This was the one God of Abraham; the hadj is an Abrahamic pilgrimage for the Kaaba was built by him and his son Ishmael. A copy of the first written Quran, set down in the time of the Caliph Umar two years after the Prophet’s death mocked the tribe of sensationalists who thrive on hatred towards the faith by spreading lies about the Book. There was history: the Begum-Nawab of Bhopal scolding the Ottoman governor for leaving pilgrims at the mercy of greed or theft; or a selection of flasks to carry back water from the Zamzam, the spring that saved
Abraham’s wife Hajr and her son Ishmael from death, which was rediscovered by the Prophet’s grandfather Abd-al Muttalib. There was wit, as in the quote from the great Persian poet Saadi who noted that a pawn which travelled the length of a chessboard could become a queen, but many a Haji who had travelled the length of a desert had only become worse. There was wonder and pride on the faces of hundreds of schoolchildren and adults who flocked to this moving, magical tour.
The British Museum had turned an exhibition on pilgrimage into another pilgrimage.