Monthly Archives: November 2018

Returning looted artefacts will finally restore heritage to the brilliant cultures that made them



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One of the plundered Benin plaques, at the British Museum.
Shutterstock.

Mark Horton, University of Bristol

European museums are under mounting pressure to return the irreplaceable artefacts plundered during colonial times. As an archaeologist who works in Africa, this debate has a very real impact on my research. I benefit from the convenience of access provided by Western museums, while being struck by the ethical quandary of how they were taken there by illegal means, and by guilt that my colleagues throughout Africa may not have the resources to see material from their own country, which is kept thousands of miles away.

Now, a report commissioned by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has recommended that art plundered from sub-Saharan Africa during the colonial era should be returned through permanent restitution.

The 108-page study, written by French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr, speaks of the “theft, looting, despoilment, trickery and forced consent” by which colonial powers acquired these materials. The call for “restitution” echoes the widely accepted approach which seeks to return looted Nazi art to its rightful owners.

The record of colonial powers in African countries was frankly disgusting. Colonial rule was imposed by the barrel of the gun, with military campaigns waged on the flimsiest excuses. The Benin expedition of 1897 was a punitive attack on the ancient kingdom of Benin, famous not only for its huge city and ramparts but its extraordinary cast bronze and brass plaques and statues.

Three British soldiers in the aftermath of the Benin expedition.
Wikimedia Commons.

The city was burnt down, and the British Admiralty auctioned the booty – more than 2,000 art works – to “pay” for the expedition. The British Museum got around 40% of the haul.
None of the artefacts stayed in Africa – they’re now scattered in museums and private collections around the world.

The 1867 British expedition to the ancient kingdom of Abyssinia – which never fully acceded to colonial control – was mounted to ostensibly free missionaries and government agents detained by the emperor Tewodros II. It culminated in the Battle of Magdala, and the looting of priceless manuscripts, paintings and artefacts from the Ethiopian church, which reputedly needed 15 elephants and 200 mules to carry them all away. Most ended up in the British Library, the British Museum and the V&A, where they remain today.

Bought, stolen, destroyed

Other African treasures were also taken without question. The famous ruins of Great Zimbabwe were subject to numerous digs by associates of British businessman Cecil Rhodes – who set up the Rhodesia Ancient Ruins Ltd in 1895 to loot more than 40 sites of their gold – and much of the archaeology on the site was destroyed. The iconic soapstone birds were returned to Zimbabwe from South Africa in 1981, but many items still remain in Western museums.

Zimbabwe’s soapstone birds, photographed in 1892.
Wikimedia Commons.

While these are the most famous cases, the majority of African objects in Western Museums were collected by adventurers, administrators, traders and settlers, with little thought as to the legality of ownership. Even if they were bought from their local owners, it was often for a pittance, and there were few controls to limit their export. Archaeological relics, such as inscriptions or grave-markers, were simply collected and taken away. Such activities continued well into the 20th century.

Making them safe

The argument is often advanced that by coming to the West, these objects were preserved for posterity – if they were left in Africa they simply would have rotted away. This is a specious argument, rooted in racist attitudes that somehow indigenous people can’t be trusted to curate their own cultural heritage. It is also a product of the corrosive impact of colonialism.

Colonial powers had a patchy record of setting up museums to preserve these objects locally. While impressive national museums were sometimes built in colonial capitals, they were later starved of funding or expertise. After African countries achieved independence, these museums were low on the priority list for national funding and overseas aid and development, while regional museums were virtually neglected.

Nowadays, many museums on the African continent lie semi-derelict, with no climate control, poorly trained staff and little security. There are numerous examples of theft or lost collections. No wonder Western museums are reluctant to return their collections.

If collections are to be returned, the West needs to take some responsibility for this state of affairs and invest in the African museums and their staff. There have been some attempts to do this, but the task is huge. It is not enough to send the contentious art and objects back to an uncertain future – there must be a plan to rebuild Africa’s crumbling museum infrastructure, supported by effective partnerships and real money.

The rightful owners

The Hoa Hakananai’a: a Moai at the British Museum.
Sheep, CC BY-NC-ND

Will the Musée de Quai Bramley, that great treasure house of world ethnography in Paris, which holds more than 70,000 objects from Africa, be emptied of its contents? Or the massive new Humboldt Forum – a Prussian Castle rebuilt at great cost to house ethnographic artefacts in Berlin which opens early in 2019 – be shorn of its African collections? There are already fears at the British Museum that a very effective campaign may lead to the return of its Rapu Nui Moai statues to Easter Island.

This year is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Magdala, and the V&A Museum has entered into worthy discussions to return its treasures to Ethiopia. But there are reports this would be on the basis of a long-term loan, and conditional on the Ethiopian government withdrawing its claim for restitution of the plundered objects. The Prussian Foundation in Berlin entered into a similar agreement, unwilling to cede ownership of a tiny fragment of soapstone bird to the Zimbabwe Government in 2000.

The report by Savoy and Sarr offers hope that such deals could become a thing of the past and that Africa’s rich cultural heritage can be returned, restituted and restored to the brilliant cultures that made it.The Conversation

Mark Horton, Professor in Archaeology, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Why the Pilgrims were actually able to survive



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‘Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor’ by William Halsall (1882).
Pilgrim Hall Museum

Peter C. Mancall, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

Sometime in the autumn of 1621, a group of English Pilgrims who had crossed the Atlantic Ocean and created a colony called New Plymouth celebrated their first harvest.

They hosted a group of about 90 Wampanoags, their Algonquian-speaking neighbors. Together, migrants and Natives feasted for three days on corn, venison and fowl.

In their bountiful yield, the Pilgrims likely saw a divine hand at work.

As Gov. William Bradford wrote in 1623, “Instead of famine now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God.”

But my recent research on the ways Europeans understood the Western Hemisphere shows that – despite the Pilgrims’ version of events – their survival largely hinged on two unrelated developments: an epidemic that swept through the region and a repository of advice from earlier explorers.

A ‘desolate wilderness’ or ‘Paradise of all parts’?

Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation,” which he began to write in 1630 and finished two decades later, traces the history of the Pilgrims from their persecution in England to their new home along the shores of modern Boston Harbor.

William Bradford’s writings depicted a harrowing, desolate environment.

Bradford and other Pilgrims believed in predestination. Every event in their lives marked a stage in the unfolding of a divine plan, which often echoed the experiences of the ancient Israelites.

Throughout his account, Bradford probed Scripture for signs. He wrote that the Puritans arrived in “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men.” They were surrounded by forests “full of woods and thickets,” and they lacked the kind of view Moses had on Mount Pisgah, after successfully leading the Israelites to Canaan.

Drawing on chapter 26 of the Book of Deuteronomy, Bradford declared that the English “were ready to perish in this wilderness,” but God had heard their cries and helped them. Bradford paraphrased from Psalm 107 when he wrote that the settlers should “praise the Lord” who had “delivered them from the hand of the oppressor.”

If you were reading Bradford’s version of events, you might think that the survival of the Pilgrims’ settlements was often in danger. But the situation on the ground wasn’t as dire as Bradford claimed.

The French explorer Samuel de Champlain depicted Plymouth as a region that was eminently inhabitable.
Source., Author provided

Earlier European visitors had described pleasant shorelines and prosperous indigenous communities. In 1605, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain sailed past the site the Pilgrims would later colonize and noted that there were “a great many cabins and gardens.” He even provided a drawing of the region, which depicted small Native towns surrounded by fields.

About a decade later Captain John Smith, who coined the term “New England,” wrote that the Massachusetts, a nearby indigenous group, inhabited what he described as “the Paradise of all those parts.”

‘A wonderful plague’

Champlain and Smith understood that any Europeans who wanted to establish communities in this region would need either to compete with Natives or find ways to extract resources with their support.

But after Champlain and Smith visited, a terrible illness spread through the region. Modern scholars have argued that indigenous communities were devastated by leptospirosis, a disease caused by Old World bacteria that had likely reached New England through the feces of rats that arrived on European ships.

The absence of accurate statistics makes it impossible to know the ultimate toll, but perhaps up to 90 percent of the regional population perished between 1617 to 1619.

To the English, divine intervention had paved the way.

“By God’s visitation, reigned a wonderful plague,” King James’ patent for the region noted in 1620, “that had led to the utter Destruction, Devastacion, and Depopulation of that whole territory.”

The epidemic benefited the Pilgrims, who arrived soon thereafter: The best land had fewer residents and there was less competition for local resources, while the Natives who had survived proved eager trading partners.

The wisdom of those who came before

Just as important, the Pilgrims understood what to do with the land.

By the time that these English planned their communities, knowledge of the Atlantic coast of North America was widely available.

Those hoping to create new settlements had read accounts of earlier European migrants who had established European-style villages near the water, notably along the shores of Chesapeake Bay, where the English had founded Jamestown in 1607.

These first English migrants to Jamestown endured terrible disease and arrived during a period of drought and colder-than-normal winters. The migrants to Roanoke on the outer banks of Carolina, where the English had gone in the 1580s, disappeared. And a brief effort to settle the coast of Maine in 1607 and 1608 failed because of an unusually bitter winter.

Many of these migrants died or gave up. But none disappeared without record, and their stories circulated in books printed in London. Every English effort before 1620 had produced accounts useful to would-be colonizers.

The most famous account, by the English mathematician Thomas Harriot, enumerated the commodities that the English could extract from America’s fields and forests in a report he first published in 1588.

The artist John White, who was on the same mission to modern Carolina, painted a watercolor depicting the wide assortment of marine life that could be harvested, another of large fish on a grill, and a third showing the fertility of fields at the town of Secotan. By the mid-1610s, actual commodities had started to arrive in England too, providing support for those who had claimed that North American colonies could be profitable. The most important of these imports was tobacco, which many Europeans considered a wonder drug capable of curing a wide range of human ailments.

These reports (and imports) encouraged many English promoters to lay plans for colonization as a way to increase their wealth. But those who thought about going to New England, especially the Pilgrims who were kindred souls of Bradford, believed that there were higher rewards to be reaped.

Bradford and the other Puritans who arrived in Massachusetts often wrote about their experience through the lens of suffering and salvation.

But the Pilgrims were better equipped to survive than they let on.The Conversation

Peter C. Mancall, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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