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Rioting & looting – then and now

When the UK was beset by episodes of riots & looting in August 2011, parliament was (quite rightly) quick to condemn the actions of a small minority. It seems though that many of our museums are filled with artefacts acquired through episodes of similar behaviour – the only difference being that it took place in the past & in foreign countries.

On a similar note, some in the UK were quick to sit back smugly during the looting of Egypt’s museums, noting that it was fortunate that the UK had so many of their antiquities to protect them from such episodes. One wonders though, during bouts of lawlessness in the UK, whether the same people support the idea of shipping British artefacts abroad to safer places… permanently… with little chance of ever getting them back – and little choice in the matter?

Guardian [1]

UK riots: When is a looter a heroic entrepreneur?
Edward Lawrence
guardian.co.uk, Friday 19 August 2011 10.00 BST

Parliament denounced the 21st century Britons who looted their own high street, but 18th century looters who plundered distant nations to build the British Empire became heroes

The scenes of widespread mayhem and looting that were the main news items of the last week were profoundly shocking, and for me personally, a cause of deep anxiety. Because of my disability I felt vulnerable, which isn’t a sensation I exactly relish. It isn’t as if since my severe brain injury I have had a surfeit of good experiences.

When the looting was at its peak, and rumours of what neighbourhood was to be targeted next were flying around, I got a phone call from a friend saying that in my neighbourhood a riot was already taking place. Thankfully I was not at home and equally thankfully, a riot was not taking place. When I thought of what might happen if violent looters gained access to my house, the results were less than edifying. Because of my disability I can move marginally faster than a snail, and I could ask them to stop or to cry for help if only they had the patience to understand what I was saying, given my profound speech impediment.

Parliament was recalled and the denunciation that spewed forth from all sides of the House surely must have given the looters occasion to examine what they were doing and why. David Cameron told the house, and the nation:

“Keeping people safe is the first duty of government. The whole country has been shocked by the most appalling scenes of people looting, violence, vandalizing and thieving. It is criminality pure and simple and there is absolutely no excuse for it… We’ve seen people robbing others while they lie injured and bleeding in the street.”

On all sides, there was agreement that this wasn’t a welcome addition to modern British life.

But a cursory reading of our history books turns up numerous occassions when this type of behaviour was congratulation by parliament rather than condemned. The Great British empire was predicated on exactly the sort of criminality that parliament now condemns, albeit on vastly bigger scale and with an attendant brutality that few in parliament, or for that matter the media, saw as anything other than a regrettable mistake. The big mistake the current looters made was to do it here in Britain in the 21st century. If they had done it in an “uncivilized” land a couple of centuries ago, and claimed that they did it in the monarchs’ name, they would be lauded by their parliament as aggressive entrepreneurs.

How did Great Britain come to be so great, with such an expansive empire? By polite request? Or by criminality on a scale that renders the present looting miniscule? Not that it is miniscule if you have been burnt out of you house or seen you family business go up in flames, but comparatively miniscule when compared to theft of an entire country’s natural resources. To my mind it is part and parcel of British life, albeit dormant for over a century, not to say extremely shameful but nonetheless, how we stole our way into having an empire.

Maybe it is only me and my warped sense of seeing things that makes me feel the current looters as part of an ignoble tradition that stretches back to the buccaneers and the East India Company, et al. The history books, written mostly by the winners, abound with examples of criminality, only it comes under euphemisms such as “colonialism”.

Nowadays the looters face a custodial sentence and the opprobrium of the community. If they had committed similar offences centuries ago then their descendants would be sitting in the House of Lords, or residing in a comfortable stately home, with title and fortune.