Review | A stolen South Seas treasure that helps reveal colonial crimes


In “The Magnificent Boat: The Colonial Theft of a South Seas Cultural Treasure, Götz Aly, one of Germany’s most prominent historians of the Third Reich and the Holocaust, brings to light one of his country’s lesser-known historical crimes: the campaign of looting and destruction carried out as part of Imperial Germany’s colonization of New Guinea and Micronesia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Published two years ago in Germany and now available in English, translated by Jefferson Chase, “The Magnificent Boat” is 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. The recently opened Humboldt Forum has been at the center of these debates. Just last year, the German government agreed to send 20 valuable Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, from which they were looted in a late-19th-century raid. Here, Aly’s “jumping off point” to explore this dark history of colonial violence is a 50-foot-long outrigger sailboat, ornamented with ornate carvings and built out of wood without a single nail.

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The stunning craft in question comes from the island of Luf, which is now part of Papua New Guinea but was part of the German Empire from 1884 to 1914. The archipelago in which it is located still bears the name of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Aly has his own, more personal relationship to the region: The author first took an interest in the boat and this period of German colonial history because of a relative of his who had served as a chaplain in the imperial navy in the region at the time.

Today, the boat sits in Berlin’s Humboldt Forum museum. The exact method by which the boat was originally acquired is still a little murky. But the circumstantial evidence uncovered by Aly’s formidable research is pretty damning. The Germans at the time were interested in the islands for their natural resources, most notably copra, or dried coconut, which can be used to make soap and a variety of other products. The Indigenous inhabitants of these islands were devastated by the import of European diseases — syphilis worst of all — and by punitive expeditions carried out by the German navy in response to perceived acts of rebellion.

Not long before the boat was acquired in 1903, Luf was subjected to one of these raids, during which, Aly writes, “Germans burned down all the huts, smashed all the canoes, murdered and raped, and allowed the Indigenous population to perish from starvation or disease.” The exact number of islanders killed in the raid itself is unknown, but by a few years later, as a result of the devastation, Luf’s population of 300 to 400 had been reduced by about half.

In one of his best-known books, “Architects of Annihilation,” co-authored with Susanne Heim, Aly examined the role that Germany’s top scientists and academics played in the Holocaust. His latest work is something of a continuation, showing how the leading lights in the then-cutting-edge field of ethnography worked hand-in-hand with the German imperialist enterprise, eagerly paying high prices for cultural artifacts. The Luf Boat is just one particularly notable example: Today there are approximately 65,000 South Seas objects in Berlin’s museums, and, Aly writes, “every one of these items carries the legitimate suspicion of having been acquired at an unfair price or with deceit and violence by hunters, collectors, and traders of ethnographic valuables.”

“The Magnificent Boat” appears at a time of renewed focus on Germany’s pre-Nazi colonial history and atrocities such as the campaign of extermination against the Herero in what is now Namibia in the early 20th century. Aly said in a 2021 interview that until recently, he also shared the widespread view in Germany that the country’s colonial holdings outside Europe had been small and that “compared to what the English and Belgians did over the centuries, it wasn’t that bad.” It’s hard to imagine still holding such a view after reading this book.

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As an indictment of German colonial policies and leading scholars’ complicity in them, the book is unsparing and convincing. Its publication caused a stir in the German media, and its findings are now addressed in the Humboldt Forum’s publicity materials around the boat.

If anything feels missing from this account, it’s the islanders themselves. Given that this is not a work of pure historical scholarship but a contribution to contemporary debates, it’s striking that Aly seems to have little interest in the current condition of this region or how these events are now viewed in Papua New Guinea. A reader of the book might not even realize that the island of Luf is still inhabited. These omissions feel particularly glaring in light of how Aly excoriates the scholars of the era for viewing the islanders as history-less primitives who simply “died out” after contact with the modern world.

Aly writes at the end of the English edition that he is particularly happy that the translation will allow “interested Anglophone readers in Papua New Guinea to learn how many of their cultural treasure were once removed to Berlin.” This book might have benefited if its author had also tried to learn something from them.

The Colonial Theft of a South Seas Cultural Treasure

By Götz Aly, translated by Jefferson Chase

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