Dubiously Acquired Objects: On Götz Aly’s “The Magnificent Boat”

Erin Thompson reviews Götz Aly's “The Magnificent Boat: The Colonial Theft of a South Seas Cultural Treasure.”

Dubiously Acquired Objects: On Götz Aly’s “The Magnificent Boat”

The Magnificent Boat: The Colonial Theft of a South Seas Cultural Treasure by Götz Aly. Belknap Press. 224 pages.

“HOW DID THIS get here?” It’s a question asked by more and more visitors to the Western museums that hold artifacts from around the world. We look at physical anthropology collections and wonder if mourners consented to the digging up of their family members’ graves. We walk through sculpture galleries of deities and question whether their worshippers agreed to the departure of their gods. In The Magnificent Boat: The Colonial Theft of a South Seas Cultural Treasure (originally published in 2021 in Germany and newly available from Belknap Press in an English translation by Jefferson Chase), German historian Götz Aly reveals that a case full of fishing nets might have an even darker backstory.

Aly’s great-granduncle, an Imperial Navy chaplain, took part in the subjugation of the territory that became German New Guinea in the mid-1880s. The official creation of the protectorate, which encompassed the islands in the Bismarck Archipelago as well as a chunk of what is now the main island of Papua New Guinea, merely solidified what had been years of functional control by German merchants and missionaries. Their orders were backed up by the force of the Imperial Navy, who were often called in on “punitive expeditions” to punish Indigenous resistance.

In his brief, powerful book, Aly tells a sweeping history of colonial exploitation by focusing on the story of the journey of a single boat from its birthplace in the 1890s on the island of Luf in the Bismarck Archipelago to Berlin’s Ethnologisches (Ethnological) Museum in 1903. Through the Luf Boat, now a centerpiece of the controversial new Humboldt Forum, Aly demonstrates the intimate relationship between the devastation wrought by markets and militaries and the curators who swooped in to “rescue” the remnants of supposedly dying cultures.

Luf, a little under three square miles, once supported hundreds of inhabitants. Needing to work only a few hours a day to harvest the island’s bananas, taro, coconut, breadfruit, and fish, they crafted technologically sophisticated seagoing boats capable of carrying 50 people and possessed the incredible navigation skills necessary to make weeks-long journeys against the wind. In their leisure time, they learned complex oral mythologies and histories and carved their heroes on their boats, houses, and tools.

Thus, when German trading firm Hernsheim & Co. arrived in the Bismarck Archipelago in 1876, they found its inhabitants “had little desire to slave away on coconut plantations for the benefit of an abstract global market.” And so, they called in the Imperial Navy, who “burned down all the huts, smashed all the canoes, murdered and raped, and allowed the Indigenous population to perish from starvation or disease so that the colonists could transform” this island group “into a profitable coconut plantation.”

For what end was all this suffering? What was the wealth that justified the attack on this careful equilibrium? It was copra: dried coconut. Once shipped to Europe, oil could be extracted from the cakes and used for soaps and margarine. Unimaginable, mostly unrecorded suffering unspooled across German New Guinea for the sake of artificial spread.

The most devastating attack on Luf came soon after Hernsheim & Co. set up their first trading post on the island itself, in 1881. The next summer, as Eduard Hernsheim was traveling in Germany, he heard that this outpost had been set on fire and one of his nearby ships had been attacked. Hernsheim petitioned Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who immediately agreed to discipline the islanders.

In December 1882, hundreds of Imperial Naval men bombarded Luf’s villages with cannon fire, then disembarked. They spent 11 days traversing the island, carrying out Bismarck’s orders to “destroy villages, crops, and canoes.” The commanders reported the destruction of no fewer than 67 dwellings and 54 boats, many at least 50 feet long. The Germans suffered no losses. They did not report any shots fired upon them at all.

We do not know how many people the naval force killed directly. The number was probably low, since the Lufites would have heard the Germans coming and taken shelter in the forest. But with their homes and crops burned, and their farming and fishing tools destroyed, survival was difficult. When the troops returned three months after the expedition, they counted only around 50 people living on the island, instead of the 300 to 400 islanders they had reported seeing during the expedition itself.

Hernsheim & Co. had probably hoped to make the Lufites economically dependent on the low wages they offered for work on their plantations. The raid left too few islanders alive to process all the coconuts the company planned to plant. This miscalculation was only a small hurdle. Eduard Hernsheim simply did what other entrepreneurs were doing all over the region at the time: kidnapped men from distant islands and brought them to Luf to work. Few such laborers ever returned home. We do not know why the Hernsheim & Co. trading outpost and ship were attacked in 1881, but it is likely the Lufites were resisting a kidnapping expedition of the same nature.

Depriving islanders of the equipment they needed to feed themselves was part of the colonizing strategy, but the men of the Imperial Navy did not destroy everything they found. After all, it was just as effective to take artifacts during raids and ship them to German museums, which could display them as evidence of European superiority. A beautiful South Seas fishing net lying in a case in a museum today might have been twisted together from breadfruit fibers by someone who would starve in its absence.

Hernsheim & Co. also appreciated the value of German New Guinea’s cultural materials. The margins were good, especially after they introduced the islanders to tobacco. Once they were addicted, Hernsheim & Co. bartered cheap American plug tobacco both for copra and for tens of thousands of cultural artifacts that they then sold to Europeans or donated to museums to cultivate social and political favors.

Museum authorities knew very well how the artifacts they received into their museums were obtained, since many German ethnographers, including the founding director of the Berlin Ethnological Museum, began their careers as medical doctors in the colonial service. This training sometimes also resulted in an obsessive desire to collect human remains from colonized peoples. For example, Felix von Luschan, director of the Berlin Ethnological Museum, pieced together a network of traders and military officers to ship him skulls, sometimes taken from those executed for resistance. In 1924, his widow sold 5,000 of these skulls to the American Museum of Natural History, where nearly all of them still remain.

The German head of a trading outpost in the Bismarck Archipelago, who systematically looted graves to find skulls and artifacts, was killed in 1903. Afterward, the protectorate’s governor banned grave robbing—not because it was wrong, but because it “unnecessarily agitated the natives.” Luschan’s main supplier wrote him a letter to describe the new law, mocking it as nonsensical since “the natives don’t care about the skulls of their dead but, on the contrary, are only too happy if Papa and Mama can raise a small sum of money after their deaths.” Soon afterward, the same supplier shipped off a crate of 90 skulls from New Guinea, acquired for four marks each. Aly notes that this would have been about the price of a kilo of coffee in Berlin at the time.

Unsurprisingly, some of the race scientists most crucial to Nazi philosophy, including Otto Reche, Eugen Fischer, and Richard Thurnwald, either worked on skeletal material from the South Seas or went there to collect it themselves during this period. When scholars entered a village, the inhabitants usually fled, probably because they mistook the usually heavily armed Europeans and their police escort as kidnappers in search of laborers. Employees of the ethnological museums of Berlin and Hamburg solved this difficulty during an expedition to the South Seas in 1908 by engaging in what they jokingly called “anonymous purchases.” When villagers vanished, the scholars rifled through their dwellings, took any artifacts they desired, and left behind plugs of tobacco as “payment.”

It is estimated that more than 80 percent of the approximately 65,000 South Seas artifacts now in German museums were acquired during German colonial rule (1880–1914). In 1909, an ethnographer visited Luf and reported that all of its “objects of interest were carted off.” When he asked about their legends, all the islanders could tell him was “a single legend about the creation of coconuts.” Perhaps the Lufites were wary of sharing too much with a German outsider. But it must also be that so much death, loss, and forced labor made it unimaginably difficult to transmit their culture. The ethnographers who saw themselves as racing to preserve this culture were part of the killing machine.

The story of the Luf Boat itself is incomplete. Aly’s otherwise crisp narrative sometimes gets bogged down in a morass of maybes and what-ifs, which he conscientiously uses to bridge archival gaps. The only description Aly could find of how the boat left Luf is a brief passage in Eduard Hernsheim’s memoir, claiming that “[t]he last of these vessels that the dying tribe was able to produce later passed into my hands.” But even if we never recover the exact details, there is little hope that the hidden story will be a good one. Aly claims that “the reasonable assumption” to make when talking about the Luf Boat or any other cultural artifact that left German New Guinea is that they were “acquired by means of abuse of power, threats, punitive expeditions, dishonest dealing, and the exploitation of desperate people with no alternatives.”

Since Aly’s book was published in Germany in 2021, the Berlin Ethnological Museum has admirably integrated some of his findings into its presentation of the Luf Boat. Its website states that investigations into the circumstances of how the boat left Luf are ongoing, in cooperation with Papua New Guinea. There is even a video with a message from a descendant of one of the boat builders (although I will cynically say that I am not surprised that they found one who thinks the boat should stay in Germany).

For Aly, the point is not whether this object or another stays or returns. Rather, he demands that German museums “make all existing data about dubiously acquired objects from the colonial era accessible to the general public without restriction.” Only a fraction of the records of any ethnographic museum have been digitized. Researchers must travel to consult them on site, dealing with their different languages and (more challengingly) their sometimes indecipherable handwriting. And that is when the records are open to the public at all. Many museum records are simply closed to outsiders, or begrudgingly (and selectively) doled out to those who request them. You could say that the curators are still outgunning the South Seas islanders.


Erin L. Thompson (@artcrimeprof) is a professor at the City University of New York.

LARB Contributor

Erin L. Thompson is a professor of art crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. Her book, Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors (Yale, 2016), looks at the reasons people collect antiquities, and her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, The Paris Review Daily, The Kenyon Review, and others. For more, find her at www.artcrimeprof.com and on Twitter @artcrimeprof.


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