Thursday, October 20, 2011

Richard Gott: Let's end the myths of Britain's imperial past

Richard Gott (author of Britain's Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt, - published by Verso) has an interesting opinion piece in the Guardian about British nostalgia about the days of Empire and false notions of the history of colonialism.
Half a century after the end of empire, politicians of all persuasions still feel called upon to remember our imperial past with respect. Yet few pause to notice that the descendants of the empire-builders and of their formerly subject peoples now share the small island whose inhabitants once sailed away to change the face of the world. Considerations of empire today must take account of two imperial traditions: that of the conquered as well as the conquerors. Traditionally, that first tradition has been conspicuous by its absence.[...]
The British understandably try to forget that their empire was the fruit of military conquest and of brutal wars involving physical and cultural extermination.

A self-satisfied and largely hegemonic belief survives in Britain that the empire was an imaginative, civilising enterprise, reluctantly undertaken, that brought the benefits of modern society to backward peoples. Indeed it is often suggested that the British empire was something of a model experience, unlike that of the French, the Dutch, the Germans, the Spaniards, the Portuguese – or, of course, the Americans. There is a widespread opinion that the British empire was obtained and maintained with a minimum degree of force and with maximum co-operation from a grateful local population. This benign, biscuit-tin view of the past is not an understanding of their history that young people in the territories that once made up the empire would now recognise.

I wonder to what degree current British school textbooks address these issues.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Quai Branly Museum to Return All Mummified Maori Heads

The Quai Branly Museum in Paris is organising the restitution to New Zealand of about 20 mummified Maori heads. Last year, the French parliament passed a law recognising the Maori heads as body parts and not museum objects (duh) which paved the way for their return to New Zealand. The first was taken back in May 2010 and last week Stephane Martin, the president of the Quai Branly Museum, said that the remaining heads held by French collections would be returned in an official ceremony in January. He insists however that this is purely on the grounds that they are human remains "that cannot be displayed and have no cultural gain, and would not be considering returning any other foreign artefacts in his museum's collection".

Mr Martin says the heads should be considered differently to other museum artefacts. "It's always uncomfortable to talk globally of restitution because each case has to be addressed distinctly and separately".

Australia Network News 'Paris museum returns mummified Maori heads', Oct 2011 09:16:00

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Namibian Skull Collection

Following protracted negotiations, it has been announced that the skulls of hundreds of Herero and Nama people slain by German colonial troops bent on subduing what they
called South West Africa will be returned to Namibia on October 4. Their skulls were taken to Germany for anthroplogical research from 1904 to 1907; but now more than 100 years later German authorities have finally agreed to return the skulls. Namibians have been agitating for reparations for the massacre of an estimated 65 000 Herero and Nama people by Germany.
The mass killings between 1904 and 1907 are regarded as the first genocide of the 20th century. On January 12, 1904 the Herero - led by Samuel Maherero - rebelled against Germany colonial rule. In August, German General Lothar van Trotha defeated the Herero in the Battle of Waterberg and drove them to the desert in the Omaheke Region, where many died of thirst when the Germans poisoned wells and the few other water sources. This was after the general had issued his 'extermination order', which sought to clear the land of all Herero people. In October of the same year, the Nama people also rebelled against the Germans only to suffer a similar fate. Estimates say when the uprising started, there were around 80 000 Herero but by 1907 there were just 15 000. In 1985, the United Nations Whitaker Report classified this as an attempt to exterminate the Herero and Nama people. The government of Germany acknowledged its guilt in 2004 but has ruled out any financial compensation. This has not stopped a group of Herero from suing Germany for its crimes against humanity, though the Namibia government has been strangely quiet about assisting their cause.

Philip T Shingirai and Mabasa Sasa, 'A long-awaited homecoming', Southern Times, 30-09-2011

Deborah Cole, 'Germany to hand back stolen Namibian skulls' AFP October 1, 2011