maji maji: war?

German Colonial Loot in Ethnographic Museums

From 1884 the German Empire maintained several colonies in Africa, China, and Oceania. The largest, however, were in Africa: Togo, German Southwest Africa, Cameroon, and German East Africa. The accompanying political oppression and economic exploitation of the local population were met with resistance in several colonies and eventually led to bloody clashes. In 1904, the Herero and Nama rebelled in German South-West Africa, resulting in the first genocide of the 20th century and killing over 90,000 people.

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In July 1905, the so-called Maji-Maji Rebellion in German East Africa followed. This uprising resulted from the introduction of the poll tax, which drove the local population more and more into forced labor and forced them to resettle their plantation areas. One hundred eighty thousand people fell victim to this armed conflict, reducing the population by a third. By comparison, 15 soldiers and 450 askari – African soldiers fighting on the German side – died on the German side.

The Germans confiscated so-called “spoils of war” during this conflict. This was considered state property and was first sent to the central warehouse in Dar es Salaam. The Royal Museum of Ethnology in Berlin was informed of this by the Colonial Department of the Foreign Office.

© Mo.Zaboli

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The Museum then sent Karl Weule, the former director of the Leipzig Museum of Ethnology, who was on a research trip to German East Africa to sift through the spoils of the war. Weule chose 500 arrows, 1300 spears, 100 bows as well as drums and ammunition belts from the collection, which was shipped to Berlin in six boxes. In 1907 he also secured a bundle of war spoils for Leipzig through the Colonial Department. The spears, bows, and shield exhibited here bear witness to the short but intense German colonial rule on the African continent.


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Likewise, the application of classification systems in the museum is complex and is constantly changing. No classification system is perfect and is always anchored in history and culture. "TaxoMania" - a surrealistic cabinet of curiosities has arisen, a universe of objects that define and have been arranged, superordinated, subordinated, divided and categorized, and are filled with curious meanings and values that show the mania of arrangement: TaxoMania! TaxoMania is madness, excitement and the exaggerated form of correctness behind the law of arrangement. This all-out cabinet of curiosities of 2017 not only surrealistically interprets the classical principles of order, it develops on the idea and raises the question whether there can be an end to all forms of order.

© Mo.Zaboli

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The objects displayed here, the so-called “Benin Bronzes", come from the former kingdom of Benin, whose territory today lies in Nigeria. The memory of the kingdom, its traditional structures of rule, and its cultural heritage still play an important political and spiritual role in Nigeria today.

The kingdom was founded between 900 and 1170 and developed during the 15th century into a vast empire whose center was located in present-day Benin-City. At the head of the political system was the Oba. He embodied absolute power in the kingdom. Since 2016, the 39th Oba, Ewuara II N’Ogidigan, has held this office.

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Trade relations with Europe developed as early as the 15th century. At the end of the 19th century, the British Empire colonized vast areas around the kingdom with the aim of taking full control of trade and trade routes. The clashes between the Empire and the kingdom increased. In 1897, a British delegation was overwhelmed by Benin warriors. Great Britain subsequently sent a punitive expedition. British troops killed thousands of Benin fighters during the fighting. On February 18, 1897, the royal palace was taken, looted, and finally burnt down. 3,500 to 4,000 royal works of art were transported to Europe by British troops as spoils of war, the king was exiled, and several chiefs were sentenced to death. Most of the war booty was auctioned off in London auction houses to refinance the war and thus reached European and American museums.

© Mo.Zaboli

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After Great Britain, no other country has as many Benin Bronzes as Germany. The GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig and the Museum für Völkerkunde Dresden alone preserve more than 200 objects. Very few Benin bronzes remain in Nigeria. Restitution claims have so far been unsucessful.

The two Saxon museums in Dresden and Leipzig have the responsibility to tell this story and, together with Nigerian researchers and institutions, find a new way of dealing with this problematic heritage.

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collecting minkisi power figures in colonial times

Who collected these power figures, and why?

Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Robert Visser collected the Minkisi exhibited here by the end of the 19th century. Visser was born in Düsseldorf in 1860 and worked from 1882–1904 for the Dutch trading company "Nieuwe Afrikaansche Handels-Veenootschap" on the Loango coast (Central Africa) as head of a plantation for coffee, cocoa and rubber. Through his professional position, he was also involved in the systematic exploitation of the Congo. During his stay of more than 20 years in French, Belgian and Portuguese Congo, he sent four large collections of ethnographic objects to Germany. These were intended for ethnology museums in Berlin, Leipzig and Stuttgart.

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At the request of Karl Weule, the former director of the Leipzig Ethnological Museum, Visser donated 177 Minkisi figures to the museum, of which 92 are still in the museum's collection after exchange transactions and destruction during the Second World War.

Today, a large part of the Minkisi found in European museums originates from the period when Europeans such as the Portuguese, French, and Belgians began to divide the Congo among themselves (1880–1920). In exercising their supremacy, they partially confiscated and destroyed objects such as these. This was to ensure control over the population, which is why after 1885 attempts were made to prevent further production and use of the Minkisi. The Minkisi exhibited here thus belong to the cultural heritage of the Central African states.

© Mo.Zaboli
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