Not long ago the saying was, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” It was true. You could travel around the world, and no matter what time zone you were in there was a fair chance you were standing in or near the British Empire.
When I was young I read that England had a population of 35 million people and an area of 50,000 square miles, but the British Empire was 250 times the size of England and had a population of 458 million people.
Just look at this one-time list of British colonies, protectorates, and mandates in Africa alone: Benin, Basutoland, Bechaunaland, Brass-Bonny-Aopob-Aodh-Old Calabar, the Cameroons, British Central Africa, British East Africa, British Somaliland, the Cape Colony, Egypt, Bioko, Gambia, the Gold Coast, Kenya, Lagos, British Nigeria, Libya, Natal, Nyasaland, the Orange River Colony, Rhodesia, Matabeleland, Mashonland, Zambesia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tangier, German East Africa, Transvaal, Uganda, Walvis Bay, Zanzibar, and Zululand.
And that’s just Africa!
When I met Lolly, my beloved wife, who was raised on her grandfather’s tea and coffee plantation in southern India, her brothers and sisters, and many of her friends and relatives were leaving for England. Although they had never seen England, they said they were going “home.” To give you an idea how many people that was, a few years ago a reunion for Lolly’s school in Karachi was held in Toronto, Canada. It was attended by 450 people.
During the four years Lolly and I spent in England I ran across something I did not know. Lolly and I brought very little with us when we left Karachi, but over the centuries some of those canny Brits took a lot of stuff with them when they went back home, and not just from India.
While we were in England we could take a weekend off and take our time enjoying a great, historic city. I’m a lover of art galleries and museums, and what I found as I explored them in London astounded me. You don’t have to travel the planet to see much of the world’s fine art and great relics. It’s in London!
Really. You would not believe the things that are in London. Want to see the famed Rosetta Stone? Don’t go to Egypt; go to London. Want to see the great red granite statue of Amenhotep III? Don’t go to Egypt; go to London. Go to London to see more than 100,000 pieces of Egyptian antiquities — in the British Museum alone.
Want to see the human-headed bronze bulls of Assyria? British Museum. Statues, mummies, parchments, obelisks? British Museum. How many precious objects are stored in the British Museum? An incredible 8 million!
I am not exaggerating when I say I spent four whole days in the British Museum the first time I went there — and still hadn’t seen most of it. I stepped into one of the “rooms” and my jaw dropped open so far you could have used me for a carpet sweeper.
Ever been to Athens? I haven’t, but since we were going to spend four years in England, Lolly and I hoped to make it to Greece, to the Acropolis, and, of course, to the Parthenon.
We didn’t have to go. The Greeks may still have the outside of the Parthenon, but there in the British Museum, as I stepped into a basketball-court-sized room, I walked into the inside of the Parthenon and found myself staring open-mouthed at marble statues I had read about so many times, ranged around the room the same way they would have been ranged around the inside of the Parthenon — if they had still been in Greece, which they weren’t.
“How can this be?” I asked myself as I wandered around the huge room, looking at marble statues done by the famed sculptor Phidias 438 years before the birth of Christ.
I didn’t know the answer yet, but trust me, it be!
It turns out that in 1687 a Venetian expedition attacked Athens, then held by the Ottoman Turks. The Turks, high atop the Acropolis, fortified it, using it as a perfect location for their cannon. From there, they rained hellfire down upon the attacking Venetians, sneakily using the Parthenon as a gunpowder magazine.
Things were not going well for the Venetians until a Turkish deserter was brought before the Venetian commander, Francesco Morosini. The deserter revealed the fact that the canny Turks had secured their precious store of gunpowder from cannon fire by putting it inside the high marble walls of the Parthenon, which they felt certain the Venetians would not fire upon.
Morosini, faced with defeat, did what any military commander of his time might have done. He ordered his cannoneers to direct their fire upon the Parthenon. After several hours, a red-hot shell from a Venetian mortar cited on the Hill of Philopappus hit the Parthenon with horrendous results. The resulting explosion blew off the roof and smashed the central portion of the precious building, causing some of its walls to crumble. Three of the four walls of the innermost sanctuary of the building were damaged. More than three-fifths of their sculptures fell. The explosion was so great that 300 people were killed, marble fragments thundering down upon Turkish defenders and Venetians alike. Great fires broke out, fires that burned all that day, that night, and the next day.
All of which made it easy in 1799 for Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, to buy the fallen three fifths of the statuary for a mere £17,000 and ship them home to England. Hence the name of the marbles I was staring at in disbelief that day: The Elgin Marbles.
The British Museum, as incomparable as it may be, was only one small part of my education concerning the location of the world’s great treasures. My mouth dropped open even farther a few weeks later as I turned a corner in the National Gallery and walked into a room containing 28 Rembrandts! Can you imagine that? Twenty-eight of the most precious paintings in the world right there in one room! Not to mention the 13 Raphaels, 18 Monets, 13 Renoirs, 20 Canalettos, five Leonardos, and hundreds of other classic masterpieces. All in just one building in London.
And that was a small building compared to the 18-acre Victoria and Albert Museum. Can you picture 18 football fields of everything there is to see?
I’m not kidding when I say I spent at least three weeks in that place during our years there.
So. Want to see the world, Johnny?
Go see it — in London.