Rupert Arrowsmith is an art historian and author of Global Modernism: Early Twentieth Century Art and Literature in Tokyo, Shanghai, Calcutta, Bombay and London (I reviewed the book on this site on 21/07/2011; see also this earlier post on the Goan painter Angelo da Fonseca). Recently Rupert mentioned to me that a prominently displayed Buddha statue in the British Museum was brought to England from Burma by Capt Frederick Marryat. This caught my interest because Capt Marryat (1792-1848) was a pioneering writer of sea stories and I read him with much interest as a boy. I asked Rupert for more details and he sent me this:
One of the artworks I spoke about at the inaugural Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Yangon (February 4-6, 2013) was the large, very exquisite Buddha-image from Burma that now sits opposite the entrance to the Asian galleries on the second floor of the British Museum. It is an extraordinarily subtle piece (much better than the Greek rubbish downstairs in the Elgin Room), made using the inconceivably complex hollow lacquer method.
The sculpture hasn’t always sat opposite the entrance of the Asian galleries, oh no. Would you believe that when the Museum acquired it in 1826, they positioned it halfway up the main staircase between two stuffed giraffes? One struggles to imagine a more barbarous act.
And this is where the word acquire in my first paragraph ought to come in for a bit of scrutiny. It sounds official, doesn’t it? It sounds legitimate. It sounds legal. Of course this is what the museums of Europe want you to think: who today can think of an institution more respectable than that of the great European museum?
But this Buddha-image was not bought from anyone in Burma, nor was permission ever given for its removal. It was swiped during the anarchy following the British invasion of Lower Burma between 1824 and 1825.
The person who swiped it, and then handed it on to the British Museum, was Frederick Marryat, a high-ranking naval officer who later became the author of popular sea stories. The sculpture can only have occupied a monastery or temple, and it is unimaginable in the context of Burmese Buddhism that its pious custodians would have let it go without a fight. We shall never know what mayhem Marryat let slip on its behalf along with the dogs of war, for on his deathbed he instructed his daughter carefully to burn any and all papers, letters and journals in his possession relating to the war in Burma.
The word acquire, then, very often just means armed robbery with violence.
The Buddha-image wasn’t the only souvenir of Burma Marryat brought back with him from the war of 1824-5. He is now thought to have acquired more than 120 artifacts, including an important royal carriage. He later wanted to donate all of this to the British Museum in exchange for a lifetime position on the board of trustees, but the Museum said no. They didn’t say no because they were worried that there had been something unethical about Marryat’s methods. In a typically British twist to the story, they said it because they thought he was the wrong class, and would probably lower the tone of the boardroom.
Though I tend to agree with Kwame Anthony Appiah’s idea that it is intellectually healthful to have objects from diverse regions displayed in various parts of the world, rather too many objects that have been cut loose from their original contexts seem to have been brought to rest in Europe. With an artifact whose acquisition was as murky as that of this Buddha-image, the solution is obvious: give it back.
3 thoughts on “Captain Frederick Marryat and the British Museum Buddha”
I remember looking at this statue in British museum.
What do you feel about this idea of stealing and giving back of things? I don’t have clear ideas on this. In a nationalist sense, yes all such things should be given back. However, in the history, victors of wars were expected to loot, kill, take away what they found. That is how all wars were waged. If a part of Burma took things from another part of Burma, would it be expected to give it back or just because it is in the same country, it is legal? Are we not applying our ideas of today on what happened in the past – and so how much in the past we can/should go?
Captain Fredrick Marryat also took a boy the son of the Chief of the Kingdom of Ava (the King of Burma) back to England with him. The boy then lived at Kensington Palace with the Duke of Sussex. His was called Sophar Rangoon.
He was my 2nd great grandfather