Questioning Britain’s Legal Title to the Rosetta Stone

Although details of the document were printed in Col. Robert Wilson’s History of the British Expedition to Egypt in 1803,  it is surprising to note that it was not until 2004/2005 that the British Museum confirmed for the first time that it had legal title to the Rosetta Stone. This was spawned by a request for the return of the stone to Egypt, made by Dr Zahi Hawass, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo. Once the facts were made known to him, Dr Hawass apparently accepted this legal position.

The legal title is based on Article 16 of the Articles of Capitulation of Alexandria, whereby all those treasures discovered by the French were to be handed over to the victorious British to whom they had surrendered at the end of August 1801. One of these items was the Rosetta Stone, and the wrangling over its ownership between the two opposing generals, John Hely-Hutchinson of the British and Jacques-Francois Abdallah Menou of the French, greatly delayed the relief of the besieged city of Alexandria which had been entirely surrounded by an allied Anglo-Ottoman army.

When Egypt made the request to the British Museum, archivists in the Dept of Ancient Egypt and Sudan consulted the original documents of the Articles of Capitulation, and confirmed that the articles had indeed been signed not only by Hutchinson and Menou, but also by Hassan, the  Kapudan Pasha, (the Ottoman High Admiral and commander of Turkish forces in Alexandria); Osman Bey, the Mameluke ruler who succeeded the now dead Murad Bey as governor of the country after the departure of the British had signed the surrender of Cairo in June on behalf of the highest Minister of the Ottoman Empire, the Grand Vizier, but only Hassan [often mistakenly written as Hussim] signed on behalf of the Sultan in Alexandria: these men represented the only recognised government of Egypt at the time, ergo, legally, Egypt agreed to the British confiscation of the treasures.

However, one could argue this legal title is not ironclad. The Kapudan Pasha, [also incorrectly referred to as the ‘Capitano Bey’ or ‘Capitan Pascha’ by contemporary British sources], represented  the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople, emperor of a military dictatorship which had governed Egypt after a successful conquest in 1517 under Selim I. The rule of the Ottomans had been poorly administered by the provincial Egyptian leaders – the Mamelukes – who had continually squabbled over power since the Ottoman conquest and been a troublesome adjunct to the unwieldy empire. Though great warriors, the Mamelukes were at worst corrupt and destructive, taxing the peasantry to the point of extortion. They had done just the same to French merchants operating in Egypt, thus giving Bonaparte and the French government the excuse they needed to invade in 1798.

When the Ottomans returned with the help of the British in1801 to expel the French, they intended to deal harshly with Egypt’s unruly Mameluke governors as well, who had failed to prevent the sacrilegious occupation of Ottoman soil by the heathen revolutionary French. Only weeks after Menou’s surrender at besieged Alexandria, the Kapudan Pasha executed the plan known as the ‘Murder of the Beys’, in which he invited various key Mameluke leaders of Cairo to join him in Alexandria for celebrations and reassurances of Ottoman goodwill. When they arrived the Kapudan Pasha contrived to send the Mameluke leaders across the surrounding lake-waters of Alexandria to the city itself on an evening pleasure-cruise, their bodyguard having gone ahead. He had arranged to ‘receive’ an important message from Constantinople at the last moment, and made his apologies to his guests, and was rowed back to shore, but promised he would join them shortly. Once upon the water, the Mamelukes saw that they were headed not for Alexandria but to the waiting Ottoman warship the Sultan Selim I, and cried out that they were betrayed. The Pasha’s bodyguards descended on the Mameluke leaders with swords and opened fire at point-blank range. Alerted by the gunshots, British officers on the far shore witnessed nearly the entire incident. Osman Bey, new provincial governor of Egypt, was among the dead.

After confronting the Kapudan Pasha with the facts, Hutchinson insulted him before his followers, calling him a ‘coward, liar and assassin’, causing the Pasha to burst into tears with apparent remorse. Enraged by this assault on the Mamelukes, whom the British army had been tasked to protect and restore to proper rule, Hutchinson also had word that the Ottoman army of the Grand Vizier had imprisoned various of the other Mameluke beys still in Cairo. Hutchinson was unequivocal: if they were not released, he ordered, he would march his army southwards and destroy the Vizier’s forces.  The Mameluke beys were released at once, and the Grand Vizier’s troops pulled back from Cairo for fear of the advance of the British.

Given these circumstances, it is clear that the British held the upper hand in negotiations with the French. The Ottomans had seen how British troops had defeated their common enemy in open battle, and had no illusions that should Hutchinson so choose, this military machine would turn its bayonets upon the Sultan instead.  The signature of Hassan Kapudan Pasha could thus be considered made under some duress.

That being said, most diplomatic treaties or agreements of this nature are agreed under some duress, be it political, trade or military. What is in question here is whether the Rosetta Stone was won at the equivalent of gun-point, or by fair treaty, and by a nation delivering up its cultural heritage of its own free will. Those who would quote the Articles of Capitulation of Alexandria 1801 as a valid receipt: that  ‘Egypt’  disposed of its treasures willingly and legally should re-examine the circumstances surrounding such an agreement.

It is by no means difficult, either, to question the general validity of a document signed over two hundred years ago, in a  world which was radically different to that which we inhabit today. The imperial powers involved have long since collapsed, and Egypt is no longer the Nile province governed by a sultan in Constantinople, but an entirely independent nation-state. We must therefore question the  relevance of the signatures on the Articles of Capitulation or, indeed, question what right they should have to limit the cultural expression of an entire people.

– Jonathan Downs

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2 responses to “Questioning Britain’s Legal Title to the Rosetta Stone

  1. I wonder why it took until 2004/2005 to make that claim??? something doesnt sit right with me. :/

    • The most recent claims for the stone from Egypt were made by Zahi Hawass, once he became Secretary General of the Supreme Council Antiquities, which was not until 2002 – primarily it has been his efforts to reclaim Egyptian artefacts from around the world. Claims for artefacts suffer from a very clever bureaucratic grey area: owing principally to the Elgin Marbles fracas the British Museum is regularly distanced from the House of Commons, so that ministers can say ‘it is a matter for the Museum’ likewise, museums, much as the Neues Museum in Berlin recently said re the bust of Nefertiti, that a claim is not ‘official’ because it does not emanate from the govt. of Egypt, i.e., not signed by the Prime Minister.

      Apparently the first demand for the stone was handed by the SCA to the British Embassy in Cairo, mystifying the embassy staff as the embassy sees no connection between itself and the British Museum, but doubtless took the petition and agreed happily to ‘pass it on’. This is why, first, the claim was not actioned immediately by HM Govt or the British Museum. Eventually an honorary archivist checked the record in the summer of 2004 and responded to Dr Hawass: technically Egypt had no legal claim to the stone. I discovered this myself only by chance from the museum in Feb 2005. Since then, the SCA requested a loan of the stone for the opening of its Grand Museum in 2012 and since that, simply demanded its return.

      I hope this clarifies the delay in claim and response. It is possible that no earlier claims were made for the stone because it wasn’t really believed in Egypt that return was really possible – but Dr Hawass, now a minister in the new regimme in Egypt, had already succeeded in reclaiming thousands of pieces, and decided to go for the big items.
      – Jonathan Downs

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