From an eminent and provocative historian, a wrenching parable of the ravages of colonialism in the South Pacific.
Countless museums in the West have been criticized for their looted treasures, but few as trenchantly as the Humboldt Forum, which displays predominantly non-Western art and artifacts in a modern reconstruction of the former Royal Palace in Berlin. The Forum’s premier attraction, an ornately decorated fifteen-meter boat from the island of Luf in modern-day Papua New Guinea, was acquired under the most dubious circumstances by Max Thiel, a German trader, in 1902 after two decades of bloody German colonial expeditions in Oceania.
Götz Aly tells the story of the German pillaging of Luf and surrounding islands, a campaign of violence in which Berlin ethnologists were brazenly complicit. In the aftermath, the majestic vessel was sold to the Ethnological Museum in the imperial capital, where it has remained ever since. In Aly’s vivid telling, the looted boat is a portal to a forgotten chapter in the history of empire—the conquest of the Bismarck Archipelago. One of these islands was even called Aly, in honor of the author’s great-granduncle, Gottlob Johannes Aly, a naval chaplain who served aboard ships that helped subjugate the South Sea islands Germany colonized.
While acknowledging the complexity of cultural ownership debates, Götz Aly boldly questions the legitimacy of allowing so many treasures from faraway, conquered places to remain located in the West. Through the story of one emblematic object, The Magnificent Boat artfully illuminates a sphere of colonial brutality of which too few are aware today.
A major contribution to the debate over whether and how to repatriate the countless objects and artworks acquired through dubious means that reside in the museums of former colonial powers…As an indictment of German colonial policies and leading scholars’ complicity in them, the book is unsparing and convincing.
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.
The book is not just about museum politics and shifting postcolonial meanings of non-western objects. Museum collections are a metaphor. They stand for a larger, unresolved debate about the moral contradictions facing postcolonial western societies whose contemporary prosperity is rooted in the pillaging of the peoples and cultures they once ruled. If the ethos of the moment stands on injustice, The Magnificent Boat makes an excellent contribution that exposes and reminds us of it.
Aly’s detailed account follows German ships as they arrive at Luf Island to punish the local population for an earlier fight with Germans, burning homes and forests, stealing food and clearing land for the coconut plantations where the remaining islanders were enslaved…He draws widely from official documents and accounts where Germans wrote openly about violence in the South Seas.
Concise and convincing, this damning account reveals the painful legacy of colonialism.
Well written and full of disturbing detail—a new and much-needed perspective on an iconic museum object.
A lot has been written recently about looted art, but there’s been less talk about much greater colonial crimes. Aly shows that there’s no separating the two.
Aly’s entertainingly written and comprehensively researched study shows that the Luf Boat was by no means fairly acquired by the German Reich.
Anyone who sees the so-called Luf Boat in the future will immediately have in mind the murderous cruelty of the Germans.
This is a harrowing book, in which readers will learn more about the everyday brutality of colonialism than in any postcolonial studies tract.
- 224 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
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