14 November 2013

If the Common Welt is to be erased...

‘Crime and punishment’ is the title of a novel.  Human society embraced the notion of punishment as a mechanism to facilitate cohesion by way of agreement or contractual obligation which turned populations into societies.  Transgressions of whatever kind and whatever magnitude subverts the contract and punishment was and is thought to obtain adherence to agreement.  Threat of punishment then stops rupture.  If crime goes undetected, that’s a leaking that might result in a lot of things, laws included, going down the tube.  If crime goes unpunished it emboldens those who find reason to transgress.  All this is true of even the most rudimentary social organization such as a sports club as well as larger collectives such as multilateral gatherings with complex rules of association. 

Just the other day, British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that Kenyans tortured by British colonial forces during the Mau Mau uprising will receive payouts totaling 20 million pounds.  Thousands of people were killed during the revolt against British rule.  The victims cannot be brought back to life and most if not all of the perpetrators of genocide are now dead.  On the other hand in the affairs between states or countries the violence done to collectives by those operating in the name of other collectives call for collective compensation by way of punishing those guilty of crime.  In Britain’s case, the living have benefited from their ancestors’ handiwork which of course cost and continues to cost those whose ancestors received the blood-worth of that very handiwork.  ‘It happened a long time ago,’ is a cop-out objection for the past is always past, whether we are talking of yesterday, the day before or one hundred years earlier. 

Apology is a good thing, but we’ve not seen any of that.  Hague, speaking on Kenya, stated that the British government recognizes that Kenyans were subject to torture, regrets the abuse and understands that they marred Kenya’s progress towards independence.  No mention of how Kenya came to lose independence in the first place.  If he were speaking of Sri Lanka, would Hague say that the British violated the agreement signed with the Kandyan Chieftans and ‘recognize’ that that very act, complemented by a butchery replicated in other countries that are now members of the Commonwealth ‘marred progress towards independence’ to the tune of 133 years? 

Talk, though, is cheap and cannot be banked.  If saying ‘sorry’ would do, then all legal systems would degenerate to the ‘give-take’ of Catholic Confessionary.  Anyone, then, could get away with ‘It was God’s will, His ways are not our ways and it is not ours to question Him’.  The British courts won’t accept that and neither should any other member state of the Commonwealth.  

Statue of Tara ferreted away by Governor Brownrigg

The reverse transaction is not possible in full.  The true value that was extracted and the true cost of the damage done cannot be ascertained accurately.  How does one cost the erasure of a culture and destruction of ways of life, for example?  Do we know how much of value was extracted from slaves, over and above the costs of dislocation, the violence associated with slavery and the trauma that entire communities were subjected to?  Has anyone kept count of the resources that were extracted and shipped ‘home’; the gold, diamonds, sapphires and other precious stones, the ivory, the spices, the timber?  Never mind their true value can anyone make a complete list of the items that were robbed?   

Still, fourteen Caribbean nations are getting ready to sue the United Kingdom (and also France and the Netherlands) for reparations over ‘the lingering legacy of the Atlantic slave trade’.  The exact amount demanded has not been specified, but it has been noted that Britain paid 20 million pounds (equivalent to 200 billion pounds today!) to British planters in the Caribbean in 1834, i.e. the time of ‘emancipation’.  Britain may point to roads, railways and other ‘development’, but all that was built by local labor, funded by illegal taxes and for more than a century only facilitated the extraction of resources.  The British, in addition to the butchery, destroyed temples, set fire to countless and invaluable Buddhist manuscripts and shipped out countless artifacts.

So let’s talk of loot now.  A few days ago, Yale University in Connecticut decided to return to Peru a collection of antiquities taken from the Inca site of Machu Picchu almost one hundred years ago.  Richard Burger who has been in charge of these items for 30 years says that the situation is different from classic repatriation because it was not about stolen goods but a contract dispute; things were not clandestinely dug up’. 

Mask from Nigeria
Yale has a case. Barely.  Britain does not.  ‘A catalogue of antiquities and other cultural objects from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) abroad,’ is the title of a book by P.H.D.H. De Silva, published in 1974.  It lists a considerable set of known artifacts stolen from this island.  There are over 15,000 items listed.  The loot it seems has ended up in 23 countries and 140 holding facilities.  The vast majority are in Britain.  Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Berkshire, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Sheffield, and Windsor all have ‘Little pieces of Ceylon’ so to speak.  All stolen goods.  For antique and historical value, each and every amulet, the tiniest statuette, the most fragile manuscript with hardly legible lettering, is priceless. 

What was common in all this wealth and all the wealth plundered from all Commonwealth countries?  Theft! 

That’s a crime, ladies and gentlemen.  Sure, the present day custodians did not pilfer anything.  They are not answerable to crimes committed by their ancestors.  They may not suffer guilt on account from benefitting from the sacking of cities.  But there is no getting around the fact that possessing stolen goods is a crime.  Punishable.  And on the other side of the equation there is a people, a nation that demands that stolen goods be returned, even if the thieves got away with murder and were duly unburdened of whatever ghosts spawned by wrongdoing by death decades ago.                             

After all these years of lies and self-delusion, perhaps it is now time to sober up.  There was never a commonwealth.  There was never a sharing of wealth.  There was wealth accumulation through outright looting.  We can let bygones be bygones and move on, but if that is to happen, dignity has to be restored.  Some will have to hang their heads in shame but that’s just necessary but not sufficient condition for friendship. 

Collection centers will duly be set up in all member countries of the ‘Commonwealth’.  That is easily arranged.  Return the loot.  It’s as simple as that.

That’s a first step.  We’ll talk reparations later.                                                                                    



Vis8 said...

Great article about the brutality and dishonesty of the colonials. This article should be circled around the entire CHOGM delegations.

Anonymous said...

Great Article. True. Return the loot. However the writer does not mention what will probably happen after this happy ending. The 'loot' will be stolen, BY SRI LANKANS, and sold for enormous sums to collectors around the world. Right?