Generally speaking, Greek-Australians are a diverse tribe. They come from all walks of life and hold any number of political or religious ideologies. They love a good debate and whether in the regional brotherhood, the soccer field or a barbeque, they can be found disagreeing, arguing and putting forth their point of view. One thing that unites all Greek-Australians, is their disapprobation of Thomas Bruce, the seventh Lord Elgin, that thoroughly disreputable figure who in 1801, obtained a firman from the Ottoman Porte allowing his agents to “fix scaffolding round the ancient Temple of the Idols [this being the Parthenon] and to mould the ornamental sculpture and visible figures thereon in plaster and gypsum,” but also “to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon.”
The nefarious Lord Elgin’s agent, the Reverend Phillip Hunt, persuaded the local governor of Athens to interpret the firman broadly, committing brazen acts of vandalism against one of humanity’s most iconic works of art, violently chipping off and carting away, half of the Parthenon frieze, fifteen metopes, and seventeen pedimental fragments, in addition to a caryatid and a column from the Erechtheion. He left the Parthenon, which had survived a millennium intact as the Byzantine Empire’s third most important church, a Venetian bombardment and use as an Ottoman mosque, a ravaged ruin.
Elgin, and the British government, who eventually received Elgin’s stolen goods, was met with derision by such luminaries as Lord Byron, who wrote: “Daughter of Jove! in Britain’s injured name,/ A true-born Briton may the deed disclaim./ Frown not on England; England owns him not: Athena, no! thy plunderer was a Scot.”
He also predicted the downfall of the British Empire as divine punishment for this act of pillage. Ali Pasha of Ioannina’s doctor and leading scholar Ioannis Vilaras explained to Cam Hobhouse, one of Byron’s friends just how deeply the act of burglary hurt the Greek people: “You English are carrying off the works of the Greeks – our forefathers preserved them well – we Greeks will come and re-demand them.”
Two hundred years later, the Greek people, and many other sympathisers around the world are fighting an uphill battle for the return of the loot from Elgin’s heist, to Athens.
The British Museum refuses to acknowledge the crime, let alone provide redress and restitution, indicating just how deeply entrenched colonialist and orientalist attitudes towards the modern Greeks actually are. In their view, they are still the worthy inheritors of the classical world, all the while implying the sentiments that have been levelled against the modern Greeks since times Byzantine: that they are debased, unworthy of their heritage and unable to look after it.
The fact that Elgin’s name has been given to one of Carlton’s most iconic streets stands as a continuous provocation to the Greeks of Melbourne. The robber seventh Lord Elgin, has no connection with Australia, yet we are expected to acquiesce to honouring the memory of cultural criminal, simply because our country was once part of the Empire he served.
In honouring him, what we are doing in actual fact, is legitimising acts of theft against vulnerable or voiceless nations as well as becoming accomplices in racist ideologies that justify such appropriation. More and more Greeks in our community are beginning to resolve that the continuous existence of an Elgin Street in Melbourne is untenable. It should be renamed because the name of the vandal Lord does not deserve such legitimacy.
For the Chinese community of Melbourne, Elgin’s name carries even more dire connotations. For notwithstanding the above, Carlton’s Elgin Street actually commemorates James Bruce the eighth Lord Elgin, the plunderer’s son, a thoroughly reprehensible individual. It was the eighth Lord Elgin who took part in the Second Opium War, a war prosecuted by the British with the sole purpose of compelling the Qing Empire to purchase British opium. In effect, the eighth Lord Elgin whose name is born by the homonymous street in Carlton, was a drug pusher in a state run narcotics cartel. When the Qing Empire resisted, concerned about the effects of drug-addiction upon its people, the eighth Lord Elgin led the bombardment of Canton, to great loss of life. When the Chinese continued to resist, the drug-pusher committed an act of cultural vandalism if not greater, than at least equal to that of his malign progenitor: he ordered the complete destruction of the Old Summer Palace, a complex of palaces and gardens eight kilometres northwest of the walls of Beijing, which had been built during the 18th and early 19th centuries, and was where the emperors of the Qing dynasty resided and handled government affairs.
With the arch-looter at the helm, the Old Summer Palace was set aflame by 3,500 British troops and burned for three days. Some three hundred remaining eunuchs and palace maids, who had hidden themselves from the British soldier, perished with the burnt palace buildings.
Priceless cultural treasures, including fine porcelain, gold, jewels and statuary were carted off by the soldiers, the choicest artefacts being reserved for the eighth Lord Elgin, including bronze vessels prized locally for cooking and burial in tombs dating back to the Shang dynasty and were up to three millenia in age. Like his father before him, the eighth Lord Elgin broke up the famous Zodiac Fountain, a structure that the Chinese government is now, slowly and painstakingly endeavouring to purchase, fragment by fragment.
Charles George Gordon, later to achieve everlasting fame as Gordon of Khartoum, was present during the pillage, as a seventy-seven year old solider. He wrote with conflicting emotions of the rape of the Summer Palace: “We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property which [could] not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 apiece prize money … I have done well. The [local] people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did the Palace. You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army.”
Having destroyed this priceless cultural edifice and appropriated all of its treasures, the eighth Lord Elgin went on to force the Qing dynasty to accept the unequal treaty of the Convention of Peking, ceding the Kowloon Peninsula to the British colony of Hong Kong and parts of Outer Manchuria to the Russian Empire. He died of a heart attack in India and had no connection whatsoever to Australia save that he served the Empire of which Australia was also a part. Presumably, his name was given to the Carlton Street in order to celebrate the violent addition of Kowloon to the British Empire and the brutal opening up of Chinese markets to British narcotics.
To maintain the eighth Lord Elgin is a suitable person to be honoured in Carlton is thus to be an accessory to violence, drug-pushing, theft and state sanctioned murder. The legacy of the unspeakably vile eighth Lord Elgin’s deeds are deep wounds within the Chinese collective psyche and a lasting mistrust of the West that endures to the present day and informs Chinese foreign policy to a significant extent. It is no wonder then, that increasingly, members of the Chinese community in Melbourne are expressing their revulsion at the continued use of the name of their oppressor as a name of a prominent Carlton Street. Some have reached out to the Greek community, finding common ground, as co-victims, in the manner in which the Elgin’s exemplify all that was heinous about the British Empire’s racist and violent ideology of appropriation, cultural and territorial aggrandisement in an age that may be long gone, though its wounds remain.
Had the Elgin’s a connection to Australia, it could be plausibly argued that despite their crimes, they form part of this nation’s history, which we must accept, for better or for worse, and they should not be effaced in the cause of political correctness Yet that argument fails resoundingly, as the Elgins had no connection to Australia nor any impact upon its history whatsoever, making their commemoration ever the more so ridiculous, hurtful and inappropriate. It is high time that the Greek community stands in solidarity with the Chinese community in vociferously demanding that Elgin Street, far from the violent colonial past of vandalism and destruction it celebrates, actually do the opposite: that is, to commemorate the traditional owners of the land upon which the street lies, highlighting the fact that they too are victims of the same policies that saw the Elgins and so many of their ilk, thrive. A traditional name such as Bunjilaka, already the name of a Carlton museum, derived from the words in the Woiwurrung language of the Melbourne region, signifying ‘creator’, and ‘soil’, the land created by Bunjil, a creation ancestor from south-eastern Australia, or any other name referring to the significance of the are to its traditional owners is thus a fitting and appropriate form of redress and will have significantly more relevance to the area than the memory of a family of aggravated robbers, a festering wound upon the consciousness of three Australian communities. It’s time justice was done.