Claims for Colonial Objects and for Colonial Archives [chapter]

Jos van Beurden
2022 Disputed Archival Heritage  
Can the Two Meet? Jos van Beurden During five centuries of colonialism, numerous historical and cultural objects disappeared from colonial contexts to European metropoles. So did innumerable colonised archives, constituted in the same contexts. In bilateral negotiations between former colonial powers and their successor states, colonial objects and colonial archives are rarely linked. While the current discussions about returns in the heritage sector, the media and among the public are
more » ... by colonial objects, colonial archives are an essential ingredient for the reconstruction of our memory of the colonial experience. This chapter looks for more balance and links between colonial objects and archives in negotiations about their return. It investigates cases in which negotiations about the return of disputed colonial archives and objects were linked and what the effect of this connection was. Successively, the chapter will review the negotiations between Ethiopia and Italy after the Second World War, Papua New Guinea and Australia in the 1970s, Indonesia and the Netherlands in 1975 and the ongoing negotiations between Rwanda and Belgium. It discusses in four conclusions and two observations to what extent displaced colonial archives and objects are comparable and can be dealt with in the same breath, how their linking plays in the current debate about returns and how this dealing with objects and archives in one breath works in another category of contested materials, namely Nazi loot. An Object Man's Archival Encounters Unlike most authors in this volume, this writer is not a specialist in archival matters but one who knows about disputable objects from colonial contexts. Yet, he has always had archival encounters. One was recognising that displaced colonial objects did not always dominate the debate about returns: there were times that displaced archives were at the forefront. The first agreement in Europe that covered restitution issues was the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. Its articles XCV and CXIV dealt with the restoration of records, papers and documents of whatever nature to their countries of origin. These papers were more essential for these countries than cultural Claims for Colonial Objects and Colonial Archives 263 objects, at a time when there were no public institutions like museums to play a role in nation-building. European sovereigns, noblemen and wealthy businesspeople had their own private collections. The Treaty of Westphalia applied to European countries only and not to their colonial possessions. 1 Another discovery was about the interconnectedness of colonial archives and the fear of incrimination. Many colonisers made archival documents disappear, as they did not want to pass them to their successors. When King Leopold II handed over Congo Free State to the Belgian government, he ordered the burning of all archives in his colonial possession so that no one would know what he had been doing in Congo. It took his assistants eight days to finish the job. 2 The British government conducted this politics of oblivion at the eve of the independence of tens of colonial possessions. Archival documents that might embarrass members of the police, the military and the civil service had to be repatriated or to be 'destroyed under statute'. From Malaysia, for instance, 'five unmarked lorries' carried their documentary cargo to an incinerator in Singapore. 3 The Netherlands was no exception. An Assistant-Resident in the Dutch Indies disappeared 'abruptly' from the official archival records after he had reported serious atrocities in the colony. 4 olonial records often had to do with the control of resources. The Africa Museum in Belgium is the keeper of old records about geology, biology, minerals and natural wealth in Belgium's former colonies in Africa; the DR Congo, Burundi and Rwanda. It preserves 280 private archives of Belgian people in colonial Central Africa with such data, as well as data about police, military, health, etc. 5 The strategic value of these records came into the open in 1960, when the DR Congo claimed these records upon its independence. But the Belgian government did not give in 6 . France did something similar after Algeria's independence in 1962. Without the Algerians realising it, colonial officials shipped 200,000 boxes with records to Aix-en-Provence in France in 1961 and 1962. The papers were related to political parties, military operations, the organisation of villages and infrastructure. For half a century, Paris has ignored Algerian return requests, though President Macron is reported to be willing to provide copies of archives dating from the French colonial period. 7 n their selection of records that had to be preserved, some colonial powers showed a neglect of local people that was racist. Most Namibians have to live without person-related archives, as the South African colonial administration classified them as non-white under apartheid laws, and thus as unimportant. Such records are the type that 'confirm rights and privileges of individual citizens..., confirm identities ... and carry proof of economic transactions', information about matters such as children, marital status, property and employment. The only archives related to non-white Namibians that were considered worth of keeping initially were contractual records, but even these were destroyed, as their research value was considered minimal. 8 Namibia's National Archive has tried to retrieve military archives from Germany, but so far to no avail. At Namibian independence,
doi:10.4324/9781003057765-15 fatcat:dlkk6vrxcrf3lb4e4d4gqb2fuq