Missing nose, lost marbles: on the trail of cultural pillage

The loot was shipwrecked and Elgin was made prisoner of war en route in Napoleonic France. Salvaging the marbles and securing his freedom practically bankrupted him.
Image used for representational purpose. (Photo | AFP)
Image used for representational purpose. (Photo | AFP)

Her rationale for colonial cultural pillage, is that artefacts are safer at the British Museum than in their unreliable home countries—look at what happened to the Bamiyan Buddhas—stands demolished.

Comedian and TV host John Oliver had earlier called the British Museum an “active crime scene”. Geoffrey Robertson QC had also said: “The trustees of the British Museum have become the world’s largest receivers of stolen property, and the great majority of their loot is not even on public display.” Now, some of that hidden loot, dating back to 2,400 years, has been reportedly stolen from under the nose of the museum.

Noses have mattered since classical times, and they do in this story. In Pensées, Blaise Pascal immortalised the “nose of Cleopatra: had it been shorter, the whole face of the earth would have changed.” But Asterix and Cleopatra, published almost 300 years after Pensées, established that truncated noses are no less authentic. When Obelix tried to climb the nose of the Sphinx, it broke off, but instead of having him arrested for destroying heritage, the souvenir sellers at Giza obediently knocked the noses off all their model sphinxes.

But the loss of a nose is loss of face, which is why rhinoplasty—the reconstruction of noses cut off to spite their owners—featured in the Sushruta Samhita, which is usually dated to the 4th century BC or earlier. In 1794, The Gentleman’s Magazine (the first publication to call itself a magazine, and Samuel Johnson’s first employer) published an account of rhinoplasty conducted in Bombay on a bullock cart driver of the East India Company’s army, whose nose had been cut off in the Anglo-Mysore Wars. The procedure was traditional in India, but plastic surgery was then unknown in Europe.

The story must have been widely read and should have come to the attention of a much more illustrious soldier than a carter in Bombay—Lord Elgin, whose nose had suffered much in the service of the
empire. From 1799 to 1803, he was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which included Greece. He sought to make a mark on British imperial culture by employing artists and draughtsmen to make copies of classical Greek statuary and architecture to be reproduced in London for the benefit of scholarship.

From sketching artefacts to grabbing them took just one step. Elgin claimed to have obtained a firman from the Turkish authorities to remove Greek artefacts for their safety. The motive is plausible, because decapitating Phidias’ statuary had become a spectator sport, and the Ottomans had used the Parthenon as a powder magazine. A translated copy of the firman is with the British Museum, but strangely, the original is not in the imperial Ottoman records. Empires are sticklers about the archive. Documents rarely go missing from the record. Which brings us to another object which is somewhat missing from the historical record: Lord Elgin’s ravaged nose.

Elgin and his wife Mary, whom he had married just before he left for Constantinople, set sail for home in 1803. The Elgin Marbles followed. The loot was shipwrecked and Elgin was made prisoner of war en route in Napoleonic France. Salvaging the marbles and securing his freedom practically bankrupted him, and his collection was bought by the government for about half of the cost he had incurred. Elgin’s heist was criticised by many, including Lord Byron in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, though he is not named in the poem. Others called him a “pillager” and “robber”, epithets which rubbed off on the government, whose naval vessels were used to transport the treasures.

Back in England, Elgin discovered that his wife was having an affair with his old friend. The charge of adultery was brought against her in 1808, and some excerpts of court proceedings figure in a paper by the American teacher Gillen D’Arcy Wood on Byron’s role in defining cultural imperialism. This is from the deposition of Elgin’s secretary, John Morier:

“In the beginning she was a most affectionate wife and mother.
Do you mean to say that her Ladyship’s conduct changed?
When exactly?
As Lord Elgin’s affliction became more serious.
You are referring to the loss of his Lordship’s nose?
I am.”

A century later, Greece was much more outraged about having lost its Marbles while under Ottoman occupation. The campaign for their return peaked in 1983, when Greek actress and culture minister Melina Mercouri blew away British Museum director David M Wilson in a TV debate. The tide of global opinion about the ownership of cultural objects turned, with even UNESCO supporting restitution. The implications were materially significant, opening the door to demands for compensation for losses suffered due to imperialism, including slavery. That isn’t like a museum being asked to return some exhibits. It’s about gutting the economies of the most prosperous nations.

British society attributed the loss of Elgin’s nose to the ‘pox’—syphilis. Or perhaps it was leprosy? There are no portraits of Lord Elgin from after he picked up the unknown disease in Constantinople, so
this can’t be visually diagnosed. Perhaps Elgin did not allow portraits, for shame, but colourful descriptions in court exposed him to public ridicule. In the popular discourse, the diplomat who had sought to create a new cultural foundation for imperialism by transporting the relics of Athenian democracy to London, to make it the centre of the post-Enlightenment world, was reduced to a cuckold without a nose. Did Elgin not know of the bullock cart driver from the Deccan wars who had been given a new nose?
(Tweets @pratik_k)

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