+1(978)310-4246 credencewriters@gmail.com

I’m working on a history writing question and need a sample draft to help me learn.

Write down several stereotypes about Africa. Now read the Achebe, Wainaina, Nyabola, and Chirikure pieces? How many of your items overlap with their critiques?

According to Achebe, Nyabola, and Hicks, what leads to Africa’s name being tarnished (to use Achebe’s term)? In other words, what factors/events lead to the denigration of Africa?

Do “Unearthing the Truth” and the “Guns that Shoot Twice” change your perception about Africa’s deep past? If so, what and why? If not, why?

How is Sauti Sol’s song a good example of moving beyond what Nyabola calls, “Africa for beginners”?


Copyright 2020. Pluto Press.
All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except fair uses permitted under U.S. or applicable copyright law.
The Gun That Shoots Twice
The seven-pounders are most excellent guns, as they are made to
stand any amount of knocking about, and also to be mounted and
dismounted in a very short space of time. They are much disliked
by the natives of the country, who call them ‘them gun that shoot
twice’ – referring to the explosion of the shells, which they consider
distinctly unfair, taking place as it does so far away from the gun,
and mostly unpleasantly close to themselves, when they are, as they
fondly imagine, out of range.
Captain Alan Boisragon, Commandant
of Niger Coast Protectorate Force (1897)1
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Along the Niger River since 1894 Alan Boisragon had seen scores
of military ‘punitive expeditions’ in the bush, with warships, Maxim
machine guns, rocket launchers and Martini-Henry rifles. In the
passage above, he is describing the rifled muzzle-loading mounted
carriage field gun, known as a ‘seven-pounder’ because of the weight
of the shell that it fired (about 3.2 kilograms), in his popular account
of the military attack on Ubini2 (Benin City) by Niger Coast Protectorate and Admiralty forces in February 1897. Boisragon does not
record the number of casualties from the shelling of the city, of scores
of surrounding town and villages, of incessant firing of machine guns
and rockets into the bush, during this 18-day attack. He does not take
stock of the numbers of killed and wounded soldiers and displaced
people in the many, many previous ‘expeditions’ and attacks, or reflect
on the extent of death and injury in the many as yet unplanned expeditions of the coming months and years, as yet unnamed: Opobo,
Qua, Aro, Cross River, Niger Rivers, Patani, Kano, ‘opening up new
territories’, ‘journeying into the interior’, ‘pacifications’, exacting punishment for supposed offences against civilisation.
Undetained by any question of African deaths, this description in
fact came from an autobiographical adventure story, in which Alan
Boisragon told of his own escape in the face of attack, one of just
two survivors of the earlier supposedly peaceful expedition to the
City in January 1897, during which perhaps seven (or perhaps five)
Englishmen were killed, and how he and his comrade had to walk
through the jungle for five days before finally returning to safety
and civilisation – ready to exact a brutal revenge on his ‘barbaric’
attackers and the heart of their ‘uncivilised’ power – the so-called
city of blood.3
The Daily Mail and The Times led the newspaper coverage of this
Boys’ Own yarn of ‘massacre’ and heroism and to which the February
‘punitive expedition’ was the necessary response. A year later, the War
Office was issuing medals commending soldiers described as members
of ‘the squadron sent to punish the King of Benin for the massacre of
the political expedition’.
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This is a book about that violent sacking by British troops of the
City of Benin in February 1897. It rethinks the enduring effects of
this destruction in Britain today, taking stock of its place in a wider
military campaign of regime change, underscoring its status as the
pivotal moment in the formation of Nigeria as a British protectorate and British colony, exposing how the many ‘punitive expeditions’
were never acts of retaliation, and trying to perceive the meaning and
enduring effects of the public display of royal artworks and other
sacred objects looted by marines and soldiers from the Royal Court
now dispersed across more than 150 known museums and galleries,
plus perhaps half as many again unknown public and private collections globally – from the Met in New York to the British Museum,
from Toronto to Glasgow, from Berlin to Moscow, Los Angeles, Abu
Dhabi, Lagos, Adelaide, Bristol and beyond. Some of these objects
have a truly immense monetary value on the open market today,
selling for millions of dollars.
Objects looted from the City of Benin are on display in an estimated 161 museums and galleries in Europe and North America.
Let us begin with this question: What does it mean that, in scores of
museums across the western world, a specially written museum interpretation board tells the visitor the story of the Benin Punitive Expedition?
One of the largest of these collections of violently stolen objects,
trophies of this colonial victory, is the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers
Museum – where I am Curator of World Archaeology. Are museums
like the Pitt Rivers just neutral containers, custodians of a universal
heritage, displaying a common global cultural patrimony to an international public of millions each year, celebrations of African creativity
that radically lift up African art alongside European sculpture and
painting as a universal heritage? The point of departure for this book
is the idea that, for as long as they continue to display sacred and royal
objects looted during colonial massacres, they will remain the very
inverse of all this: hundreds of monuments to the violent propaganda
of western superiority above African civilisations erected in the name
of ‘race science’, littered across Europe and North America like war
memorials to gain rather than to loss, devices for the construction
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of the Global South as backward, institutions complicit in a prolongation of extreme violence and cultural destruction, indexes of mass
atrocity and iconoclasm and ongoing degradation, legacies of when
the ideology of cultural evolution, which was an ideology of white
supremacy, used the museum as a tool for the production of alterity:
tools still operating, hiding in plain sight.
And so this is a book about sovereignty and violence, about how
museums were co-opted into the nascent project of proto-fascism
through the looting of African sovereignty, and about how museums
can resist that racist legacy today. It is at the same time a kind of
defence of the importance of anthropology museums, as places that
decentre European culture, world-views and prejudices – but only if
such museums transform themselves by facing up to the enduring
presence of empire, including through acts of cultural restitution and
reparations, and for the transformation of a central part of the purpose
of these spaces into sites of conscience. It is therefore a book about a
wider British reckoning with the brutishness of our Victorian colonial
history, to which museums represent a unique index, and important
spaces in which to make those pasts visible.
The Pitt Rivers Museum is not a national museum, but it is a
brutish museum. Along with other anthropology museums, it allowed
itself to become a vehicle for a militarist vision of white supremacy
through the display of the loot of so-called ‘small wars’ in Africa. The
purpose of this book is to change the course of these brutish museums,
to redefine them as public spaces, sites of conscience, in which to
face up to the ultraviolence of Britain’s colonial past in Africa, and
its enduring nature, and in which to begin practical steps towards
African cultural restitution.
Stand in the Court of the Pitt Rivers Museum and go up to the Lower
Gallery. Walk with me to the east wall and stop in the still, dark space;
the vast silent expanse of the museum is behind us and before us is a
cabinet of sacred and royal objects, dimly lit, returning our gaze. Let
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us step before the glass ‘in order to soak up the fugitive breath that this
event has left behind’.4
Hold your phone up against the plate glass of the triple vitrine.
The silence and stillness are not natural conditions for the displaced
objects on display here. They are the effect of a stilling, as when detention interrupts transit, and of a fracturing, as when a shrapnel shell
explodes at its target, and of a silencing, as when a gun is silenced.
The Victorian wooden case is nine feet high. There are more than
a hundred objects contained within: bronze and wooden heads, brass
plaques, ceremonial swords, armlets and headgear, boxes and carved
ivory tusks, one burned in the fire of the sacking. The title reads:
‘Court Art of Benin’, and then an interpretation panel states:
Benin is a kingdom in Nigeria, West Africa. It has been ruled by
a succession of kings known as Obas since the fourteenth century. Benin is famous for its rich artistic traditions, especially in
brass-casting. In January 1897 a small party of British officials and
traders on its way to Benin was ambushed. In retaliation a British
military force attacked the city and the Oba was exiled. Members
of the expedition brought thousands of objects back to Britain. The
Oba returned to the throne in 1914 and court life began again. The
artists of Benin continue to make objects for the Oba and the court,
and rituals and ceremonies are still performed. The objects displayed
here were made between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries.
How little has changed over the decades since February 1899 when
Charles Hercules Read and Ormonde Maddock Dalton, the Keeper
and Senior Assistant respectively in the Department of British and
Medieval Antiquities and Ethnography at the British Museum introduced their catalogue Antiquities from the City of Benin by telling the
same story of ambush and retaliation – ‘objects obtained by the recent
successful expedition sent to Benin to punish the natives of that city
for a treacherous massacre of a peaceful English mission’5 – with the
following note of explanation:
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Captain Gallwey, of the East Lancashire Regiment, [was] sent on a
political mission in 1892. Four years later a larger mission, under
Consul Phillips, was attacked on its way up from the coast, and
the majority of the party were massacred. This outrage led to the
despatch of a military expedition, which destroyed Benin City, and
made accessible to students of ethnography the interesting works of
native art that form the subject of the following pages.6
The museum may operate to stabilize and reproduce certain narratives, and to repress and diminish others – but only ever provisionally.
Insofar as the museum is not just a device for slowing down time, but
also a weapon in its own right, then to what extent are its interventions with time like the brute force of field guns manned by Captain
Boisragon’s African forces, carried through the jungle by men selected
for their physical strength, a projection across time and space, where
some kind of explosion is yet contained in each brass object within
this vitrine, unfinished events from which the curator might feel safely
out of range, having taken place so far away across time and space:
another continent, another millennium? By intervening with time,
decelerating memory, displaying loot, what kind of ordnance has the
museum brought within its glass cases, caught between one shot and
another, between the projection and the return? What do we see when
a light is shone into these most hesitant, uncertain of spaces, unresolved and raw? What connections will be made when human time
and space re-align and the thing is still here? Each stolen object is an
unfinished event, its event-density grows with each passing hour. The
Victorian soldiers and museum curators said these were ‘ju-ju’ fetishes
whose power needed to be broken. Spend time in front of this case
and the solid and the visible seem to soften, as when brass is cast, to
blend with memory and with knowledge, at a tipping point. A new
conjunction is coming about for museums and empire. What is this
moment? How does loss come into view?
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Objects from Benin’s Royal Court, burnt to the ground by British
troops, are displayed in the ‘court’ and galleries of this Oxford
museum. What kind of archive is this replica, this stagey performance in a windowless space today curated to enchant, a century and
a half ago built to shape knowledge, to redraw the world? Anthropologists have a word for it: Myth. And myths are temporal devices.
Myth serves, as does music, as Claude Lévi-Strauss famously argued,
to ‘immobilize the passage of time’, so ‘overcoming the antinomy of
historical and elapsed time’. The technologies of the museum and the
archive – the museum label, the zip-lock bag, the conservation lab –
are analogous interventions. They are forms of notation: dal segno (‘go
back to the mark’). Among the outcomes of these technologies are
provisional and contingent stoppages in time, rendering fragments
as objects, which are wrought as cadences. A form of secondary deposition emerges in the museum, like curtain calls.7 In 2017, Edward
Weisband8 observed that various spectacular or dramaturgical political and symbolic forms, which he calls ‘the macabresque’, tended to
accompany mass violence during the 20th century – a kind of sadistic,
performative self-creation that emerges hand-in-hand with the inflicting of loss, the myth of the ‘primitive’ in violence extended across
time: the weaponization of time itself.
Benin City lies on a high sandy plain to the north of the Niger Delta
in Edo State, Nigeria, in an area of former tropical forest. Today, it
is a city of 1.5 million people and the centre of a major precolonial
kingdom of the Niger Delta, which once controlled the land and river
systems that connected the African interior with the maritime world
of the Bight of Benin and the Atlantic Ocean. The city first emerged
during a period of urbanisation and state formation along the tropical
belt of West Africa, some one thousand years ago, which saw the
emergence of the great centres of Edo, Yoruba, and Akan pre-colonial
states: Benin, Ife, Ilesa, Oyo. Kumasi, Begho – with Aja and Fon
states and urban polities such as Dahomey emerging later, from the
16th century. The Kingdom of Benin has been ruled by an unbroken
line of Obas (Kings) that began with Ewuare I who reigned from
1440 ce – a century before Queen Elizabeth I came to the English
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throne – and had its origins in the late Iron Age urban societies of the
10th or 11th century ce onwards: when he was crowned in 2016, the
current Oba, Ewuare II, became the fortieth Oba in an unbroken line
across eight centuries. The Kingdom grew in power and scope during
its involvement in European and transatlantic trade from the 16th
century, at first with Portuguese traders, and later British and French
– central among which was the slave trade. By the 19th century,
Benin City was a sacred monumental landscape of courthouses, compounds, and mausoleums, the centre of royal and religious power
encompassed in an ancient network of ditched and banked earthwork
enclosures, and with central repositories of thousands of unique artefacts that bore witness to the kingdom’s past – a kind of unseen city,
a centre for changing forms of religious observance and royal power
over centuries. The sacking of this city, more than twelve decades
ago, involved the looting of more than ten thousand royal and sacred
In the artificial, darkened secondary landscapes of this museum, let
us understand this place not as some dazzling gathering of the flotsam
and jetsam of the colonial past, but, following the lead of Laurent
Olivier,9 understand these fragments of cultural history as forms of
human memory. As the visionary archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes
once put it, archaeologists are ‘instruments of consciousness who are
engaged in reawakening the memory of the world’.10 The memory
here which must be recalled to allow other pasts to re-emerge, to be
no longer silenced, is a memory of loss through extraction, where the
bronze plaques and other royal and sacred objects looted from Benin
City were no more side effects of empire than palm oil or rubber
were side effects of empire; in fact, they form an enduring part of the
ecology of militarist colonialism.
The immense loss involved in the British cultural atrocity at Benin
City is coming into view for white museum staff in Europe and North
America in the 2020s, but in truth it has always been hypervisible for
some museum visitors, and for so many more unable or unwilling ever
to step their foot inside an anthropological, ‘ethnological’, ‘ethnographic’, ‘Völkerkunde’, or newly rebranded ‘world culture’ museum.
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The new awareness among curators, refracted through a new enthusiasm for ‘decolonisation’, in word if not in deed, comes not through
some sudden enlightenment to the intertwined history of anthropology and empire, or to the processes of institutional racism, on the
part of either the bureaucrats or the connoisseurs of these red-bricked,
steel-girdered railway-station-like edifices. This new scramble for
decolonisation throws up new dangers: of obfuscation, of tokenism,
of the co-option of activists, of the appropriation of the labour of
‘source’, descendant and diasporic African communities, of the cancellation of outstanding debt, of a hundred varieties of side-step that
allow violence to persist. But there the loss can be seen in a new way,
nonetheless. Why is this, why now?
Since one of the principal arguments of this book will be that ethnological museums should be seen as a kind of device, an implement or
weapon just like those displayed in the traditional cabinets of so-called
‘primitive technology’, but forged for a new Anglo-German ideology
of imperialism made in the final third of the 19th century, then an
analogy might be drawn with one of the main lessons of the anthropology of science and technology. We became familiar in the 1980s
with the idea that our knowledge of the world is shaped by society –
‘socially constructed’, as the theorists used to say. Back then, the study
of science and technology gradually introduced material things into
those accounts of knowledge production – the social agents including
objects as well as humans: in Bruno Latour’s business school theory of
‘actor-networks’ in which ‘technology is society made durable’,11 and
in the techno-feminism of Donna Haraway, where the overarching
figure of the cyborg rose up in answer to the question of the day:
‘the social construction of what?’.12 Those debates in material culture
studies, those rhetorical switching of position between subject and
object to suggest the agency of things in human life, or the making of
our bodies and worlds through doing rather than just saying, are long
behind us.13 But a lesson from the early days of that phase of academic
study may yet be pertinent here. Before academics generalised their
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idea of ‘object agency’ to all spheres of the material world, a primary
body of work – known at the time as ‘the weak programme of science
and technology studies’ – showed how visibility is produced when
things fail.
Perhaps the most famous example was Ruth Cowan’s study of the
relative efficiency of gas and electric domestic cooling: ‘How the
Refrigerator Got its Hum’.14 The influence of factors other than pure
rationality, Cowan argued, can be seen when a more efficient technology like the gas fridge loses out to the less efficient electric fridge.
So too, Mike Schiffer showed, for the story of how the electric car
lost out to the internal combustion engine.15 We might express these
observations – where the failure of a technology causes it to emerge as
an object for anthropological study – in less convoluted ways today,
by simply observing that most technology is taken for granted most
of the time, it goes unnoticed and so remains effectively unseen, even
when we’re looking straight at it – until it fails. A key snaps in the door
lock. Your shopping bag splits when you’re only halfway home. The
car won’t start and it is suddenly visible in a way that it wasn’t only
five minutes before. A tanker spills oil into the ocean and its contents
are suddenly, shockingly, revealed. Burning ancient fossil fuels sets
the Global South alight. The gasket blows and the train grinds to a
halt. Technological failures are, at whatever human or global scale,
primarily visual moments; the thing is suddenly seen, flashing up in
the moment and demanding our attention because action is required.
It can happen very quickly. In such moments, we see the device, as
if for the first time. Those anticipatory periods of time before such
moments, sensed but not seen, operate at a very different pace, like a
museum vault that is filled with all the darkness of a coal mine. Often
with the first possible signs of failure come new gestures of anxiety, or
of denial of course, as the driver kicks the tyres to check the pressure
of thin air contained in rubber.
The colonial museum has failed. This failure is why it can be seen
by white curators now, myself included, with a new clarity and intensity, an event horizon of colonial ultraviolence is illuminated at once
suddenly and yet unfolding over decades and centuries – like the
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impact and human after-effects of cartridges shot from a machine
gun, like an oil slick, like some Victorian smog leaching in through
the cast-iron air-vents of the museum. This failure of the ethnological
museum is a breakdown in its temporal and visual regimes, which use
displays to make it seem like the moment of military victory against
‘primitive’ people is timeless and unending. The perspective of contemporary archaeology might trace this, working as it does between
place and memory in the material remains of the recent past and the
near present: exploring its ‘photology’, which is to say knowledge
made by the casting of light,16 but also needing to find a new language
for the knowledge of loss.
The invention of ethnological displays was surely as significant
a technology in the history of Victorian colonialism as the Maxim
machine gun: Hiram Maxim’s invention of 1884 (the same year as
the opening of both the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Berlin Conference) was adopted by the British Army in 1889 and by the Navy
in 1892, was the first recoil-operated machine gun. Known variously
as the ‘Pom Pom’, or ‘piss-gun’, due to its use of water as a coolant
and its ability to spray bullets from its barrel, this weapon could fire
ten bullets per second, six hundred per minute.17 The Maxim transformed jungle warfare, at first when mounted to gunboats on rivers
and creeks, and then increasingly when carried for miles by teams of
carriers through the bush. Procedures of looting too became a new
dysfunctional kind of artillery weapon, making a bang but still en
route to some further distant target, a double explosion, its aim to
denigrate and to shame the enemy beyond the present moment, while
also making some memoir in the name of the idea of superiority and
victory in the face of the sheer immensity of loss wrought through
machine guns and rockets against bows and arrows and muskets.
There was never any coherent or scholarly strategy to this de facto
policy of cultural under-development, by which culture was not just
throttled but decimated, wilfully; therein lies the truly unquantifiable
horror that came to overwhelm the whole.
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The troops took royal and sacred objects, dividing them amongst
themselves, and the administrators took photographs, developing
multiple copies for inclusion in soldiers’ diaries and albums, just as
the artefacts were negatives for future histories. These parallel acts of
taking began a dislocation of time as well as place. In the spring of
1897 in press reports of the attack, earlier photographs of the Palace
of Benin, taken by trader Cyril Punch on his visit to the city in 1891,18
and by Liverpool trader John Swainson of Pinnocks when he joined
a visit to Benin City in March 1892, were circulated to the press
and widely used in the press coverage, presented as if they were new
images.19 Six or seven cameras were present at the Phillips incident
in January 1897; Alan Boisragon recorded how when they arrived at
Gwato: ‘some of our demon photographers – I believe there were six
or seven cameras amongst our party of nine – began taking photos of
everything they could get within range of. Amongst our photographers was a Mr. Baddoo, a man from Accra, on the Gold Coast, the
Consul-General’s chief clerk.’20
Perhaps there were a dozen cameras when the city was sacked,
perhaps more. The photographic archives are scattered across
museums, archives, and private collections, just like the objects, and
are poorly documented at present.21 The photographers almost certainly included three Protectorate staff: Dr Robert Allman, aged 42,
Principal Medical Officer; Hugh Nevins, District Officer for the Benin
Division, and Reginald Kerr Granville, District Officer for the Warri
Division.22 Through a camera, through a museum display, through a
gun that shoots twice, an event, through violence, can encompass a
kind of fragmentation that means it can’t quite end.
Surely taking trophies from the battlefield is a universal and timeless human practice in times of war? No, there was a new dimension
to these acts of taking, far more than just moving something from a
to b. This is a story of documentary interventions in the fabric of time
itself, to create a timeless past in the present as a weapon that generates
alterity – appropriations in form not so much as property as unspecified rights, interests, privileges and claims, including the rights of
mimesis and parody. This taking was no side effect of how the vio-
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lence grew, mere mementoes or keepsakes for scrapbooks and cabinets,
but ‘relics’ through which the violence, as both an idea and a reality,
would be continually surfaced and made to last. The photographs are
here in this book to remind us of how the museum operates as a camera: objects, images, time, knowledge drawn out into the future. Acts
of collecting slowed the pace of a violence wrought to turn the enemy
into the past – but never quite to a standstill. In the public museum
and in the private collection, artworks themselves became weapons –
but they are also much more.
One contribution of archaeological thinking – and one major
theme of this book – is to understand artefacts such as photographs
not as frozen moments of time, but ongoing durations. There were a
dozen or more cameras, in addition to those of the Illustrated London
News, present during the Punitive Expedition. In image after image,
bronzes, ivories and figures are laid out, sometimes in front of soldiers
in pith helmets, sometimes just stacked against the walls of palace
buildings. The soldiers and administrators took objects and they took
photographs, and there is a temporal affinity between these two types
of taking. As a technology, archaeology emerged hand-in-hand with
both photography and 19th-century European colonialism. All three
operated as devices for the marking of time. The very rawness of the
image and the thing means that the forms of knowledge and memory
that they constitute are open-ended, unresolved exposures. As in the
mimetic practices of the museum vitrine, so with the visual multiplications from negatives, images, objects and human lives were taken
hand-in-hand as modes of appropriation, dispossession and warfare.
The photographs that are reproduced in this book, from the archives
of the Pitt Rivers Museum, are not stills, just as the objects have not
reached their endpoint in the dark rooms of the museum: not stills,
but extensions of colonial violence. In this light, we might reflect on
Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s account, in his 1922 book on what he termed
‘primitive mentality’, of photography and the parting of body and
soul among Tsonga people in South Africa in the early 1890s:
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Almost everywhere photographic equipment appeared especially
dangerous. ‘Ignorant natives’, says [Henri-Alexandre] Junod,
‘instinctively object to being photographed. They say: “These white
people want to rob us and take us with them, far into lands which
we do not know, and we shall remain only an incomplete being.”
When shown the magic lantern you hear them pitying the men
shown on the pictures and saying: “This is the way they are ill-treating us when they take our photographs!”’ Before the 1894 war
broke out, I had gone to show the magic lantern in remote heathen
villages. People blamed me for causing this misfortune by bringing
back to life men who had died long ago.23
In January 1898, the 24-year-old Lieutenant George Abadie of the
West Africa Frontier Force recorded in a letter home to Jersey a trip to
the royal palace at Ilorin, the first visit of white men since the attack
by the Royal Niger Company eleven months previously – an attack
that will be discussed later. Abadie explained how his attempt to buy
horses from the Emir was unsuccessful, as he complained that the
Company had ‘burnt the greater part of his town last year and had
taken most of his horses’ – but he made a gift of five horses to Abadie’s
group nevertheless. The King also agreed to Abadie photographing
him – ‘but his chiefs would not, as they were afraid the camera was a
sort of gun.’24 Discussing this incident a century later, the historian
Laurence James interpreted the chiefs’ actions as their mistaking the
brass and wood of the tripod for the mounting for a Maxim machine
gun, so that as the soldier began to set up his photographic equipment,
his attendants fled, recalling the violence of the sacking of Ilorin less
than a year before.25 But another interpretation is possible, in which
there was a clear understanding of taking photographs as a form of
dispossession that operates by making a duration – just as the taking
of loot and its display in a museum creates a blurring – the weapons
employed by troops in destroying a city, the cameras employed as a
weapon of administration and governance, the object as a weapon;
the gun sights folding into the sextant, the camera lens and the glass
vitrine; the delay built into the cylinder of the bombshell and the
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aperture of the camera measuring out the period of exposure, and the
vast dark room of the museum – this blurring is ongoing today in the
colonial museum as a persistent regime of visuality and violence.
The photographs that punctuate this book are just such incendiary
projectiles, held in the archives of the Pitt Rivers Museum, a few metres
away from the looted objects in the gallery case. The passage of time
can be neither turned back nor halted, but the illusion of a stoppage,
even that made through the legerdemain of the museum curator, is
always in truth a duration. Museums are devices for extending events
across time: in this case extending, repeating and intensifying the
violence. But endurance must also always open up a space for something new to happen because each object, each photograph, each
memory, each fact, each thought or thing in the case of Benin 1897, is
a live event, behind the glass of the cabinets. Every sheet of glass holds
within it the certainty of a thousand future shards. What soldiers and
anthropologists and the brutish museums of Europe and America saw
as relics or curios are of course forms of cultural endurance unfolding
over centuries, which will outlast this wooden case, these steel mounts
in which they are held, but for which colonial histories need to be not
so much reversed as somehow dug into.
The purpose of this book is to take stock of the use of the anthropology museum during the 1890s as a weapon, a method and a device for
the ideology of white supremacy to legitimise, extend and naturalise
new extremes of violence within corporate colonialism – in order to
reclaim the vital function of these institutions in the future, to transform their purpose, to put an end to their function as the warehouses
of disaster capitalist-colonialism: dismantle, repurpose, restitute, recognise their status as sites of conscience. The book aims to break three
dominant narratives about key aspects of the sacking of Benin City.
First, to expand the story of the punitive expedition to become a wider
history of colonial violence in the 19th century. Second, to expose the
truth about the supposed official nature of the looting and sale of the
Benin Bronzes, and thus to trace how the sheer force with which a
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16 · the brutish museums
cultural centre was destroyed still fractures and splinters across time
and space throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. Third, to
reveal the intimate links of the narrative of the so-called ‘universal
museum’ with enduring processes of militarist-corporate colonialism
in 21st-century global capitalism. In each case, this is about stepping
back from a focus on nation states, understanding the intertwined
nature of German and British traders on the Niger River and museum
curators from Berlin to Oxford, and seeing African cultural restitution today as about more than just nation-to-nation, especially where
the European nation is often limited to the former colonial power:
the global geographies of the Benin Bronzes holds lessons for many
other cases.
In dialogue with Achille Mbembe’s account of ‘necropolitics’ – the
politics of who lives and who dies26 – this discussion of the human
cost of pillaged objects, displaced and displayed in western museums
as some kind of global treasure, introduces and experiments with a
series of analytical tools and lenses: an anthropological theory of taking
(Chapter 2), the longer-term histories of World War Zero (Chapter
4), the ‘necrography’ of loot, a kind of ‘necrological’ rather than ethnological knowledge (Chapter 12), the ‘chronopolitics’ through which
museums were weaponised in the name of ‘race science’ (Chapter 14),
in order to try to clear the ground for new kinds of global dialogue
and – crucially – action around cultural restitution. Along the way,
the three main forms of violence enacted in Benin 1897 – democide,
the destruction of cultural sites, and looting – are outlined, in the
context of their being outlawed under the Hague Convention of just
two years later (Chapters 8–11). A reassessment of the history of militarist-corporate colonialism in Africa is also called for, widening out
our awareness of the building momentum and scale of British ultraviolence during ‘World War Zero’ as it was conducted in the three
decades between 1884 and 1914 – where the British atrocities and
body count should be considered alongside how we think of German
and Belgian atrocities in Western and Southern Africa at exactly the
same time. Running throughout, I want to question the agency and
complicity of the anthropology museum – as a project put to work
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in the name of brutal colonial and racial violence. These are legacies
that our museums need to reject and to address – not defend. A major
conclusion of the book is that Britain needs to come to terms with
its Victorian colonial-militarist past in a totally new way – and that
anthropology museums offer spaces for doing this, sites of conscience,
and of restitution, reparation and reconciliation. In this respect,
I want this book to be read as a kind of defence of the unfinished
project of the anthropological museum – as long as we are happy to
invert, reverse, flip, repurpose and dismantle most of it.
The book has been written with this motto in mind: as the border is
to the nation state so the museum is to empire. Like the border uses space
to classify, making distinctions between different kinds of human, so
the museum uses time. Like the telegraph, the camera and the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology themselves, the museum seeks
to annihilate time and space, to weaponise distance. Like the camera,
the museum does not freeze time but controls exposure, measures out
duration. A time of taking is giving way to a time of returns, like the
gun that shoots twice, a second moment is coming. From the outset,
therefore, we need a theory of taking.
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