Collections Agency

How stolen items from Germany’s colonies made their way to museums in Berlin.

By Götz Aly

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

The atrium of the Berlin Ethnological Museum, 1887. Wikimedia Commons.

In a publication from 1899, Felix von Luschan, the curator responsible for the South Seas section of the Berlin Ethnological Museum, twice identified a collector he called “Seagull.” The Seagull was a German gunship. In 1885 Adolf Bastian, the museum’s director, had singled out Jakob Weisser, the purser on the German warship Hyena, for special praise for having demonstrated “his interest in ethnology” during several voyages, in particular by collecting for museums in Berlin and Dresden. A detailed list has survived from one especially impressive haul; it bears the title “Collection from the Easter Islands at the behest of Captain Geiseler, commander of the MS Hyena, compiled by Purser Weisser.” When he acknowledged receipt of this ethnographic booty, Bastian expressed his regret that the Hyena had been too small to carry away one of the famous Easter Island head sculptures. He added that he hoped (in vain as we know today) that a “larger warship would visit [the island]” to rectify “what had been missed out on.”

The colonial aggressors didn’t always “pay” for what they carted off with tobacco, beads, knives, and mirrors. Often, they just looted valuable cultural items while carrying out their punitive raids. In his 1904 book Bilder aus der Südsee: Unter den kannibalischen Stämmen des Bismarck-Archipels (Pictures from the South Seas: Among the Cannibal Tribes of the Bismarck Archipelago), the deputy governor of German New Guinea, a lawyer named Heinrich Schnee (brother of the physician Paul Schnee), let that particular cat out of the bag. According to Schnee, “the natives of Pak Island,” one of the Admiralty Islands, had “treacherously” murdered two merchants named Müller and Andersen in August 1893. In retribution, six years later, the crew of the gunboat Seagull embarked on a punitive expedition. On board were Governor Rudolf von Bennigsen, Schnee, and Max Thiel, the director of the German trading company Hernsheim & Co.

The inhabitants fled to the interior of the island, whose difficult terrain was intimidating, and the Germans began to commit their usual crimes. “In order to teach the Kanaken a painful lesson,” Schnee wrote in his memoirs five years later, “their canoes were destroyed” on both sides of the island. (The derogatory term Kanaken, or Kanaker, was typically applied to the native peoples of Germany’s South Seas colonies. It came from Hawaiians, who called themselves Kanaka maoli. Neighboring peoples referred to them simply as Kanaker.) Before that took place, Schnee and Thiel had arranged for “particularly valuable objects from the natives’ riches to be secured for transport to the Ethnological Museum in Berlin.”

Bennigsen, however, wrote in his official report to the Imperial Colonial Office that the Germans had committed everything, even the most impressive works of art, to the “sheaves of fire” ascending skyward: “The destruction of the beautifully built huts with their wealth of household effects, weapons, and food, which give evidence of the natives’ artistic sensibilities and diligence, was a very heavy blow and a long-term reminder not to approach European government representatives with hostility and betrayal.” Bennigsen was most likely trying to conceal his private acquisition of valuable cultural items. Stuttgart’s Linden Museum still possesses more than 290 of the 348 items from the Bismarck Archipelago that Bennigsen “donated” in 1901. They include pieces collected from “New Guinea, New Mecklenburg, New Pomerania, the St. Matthias and Admiralty Islands, etc.”

For his services, Bennigsen was awarded a medal by the Württemberg royal family in 1902. Bennigsen’s successor as governor, Albert Hahl, was also happy to keep the deliveries to Stuttgart flowing. In 1912 he was awarded the Württemberg Friedrich Medal with Commander’s Cross Second Class in recognition of having donated 460 items to the Linden Museum between 1899 and 1910. These were no ordinary objects: “The number of items may appear small, but most of the items sent in by Hahl were quite large and beautiful. Among them were first-rate carvings, dance implements, and masks. Hahl always placed great value on only sending lovely, large, unique things and not small everyday items.” In addition, he had also mediated in the museum’s acquisition of a “great number” of other collections.

Canoe from the South Seas department in the Ethnological Museum, Berlin, 2011.

Hernsheim & Co. ran a number of trading posts in the Admiralty Islands. As the 1920 edition of a German colonial lexicon explained, the behavior of the populace there “required various punitive expeditions by police troops, in part with the help of German Navy warships.” Schnee was present when the Hernsheim vessel Mascot, together with the small cruiser Sea Eagle, a nonarmored warship built especially for colonial punitive actions, launched a further destructive raid. (Other small, swift, nonarmored cruisers used exclusively against the barely armed Indigenous peoples of the German colonies were the Buzzard, the Falcon, the Condor, the Cormorant, and the Vulture, all of which were built between 1890 and 1894.)

On this occasion, Schnee “rescued” several “artistically decorated supporting pillars” from an “especially lovely village on stilts.” The administration of today’s Berlin Ethnological Museum is still particularly proud of its South Seas collection, including “architectural elements in their original dimensions,” but its website provides no information about how these objects were acquired.

The South Seas traveler Johannes Wilda, whom Schnee had invited along, reported on a further expedition by the crew of the Seagull, this time aimed at “disciplining…the relatively wealthy” population of Buka, the northernmost of the Solomon Islands. As usual, the Germans secured “the ethnographically valuable things” before setting fire to all the huts they could find. In this case, the seizure of items on behalf of German museums was directly documented and was described as a punitive “repossession of property.” Schnee personally saw to it that the islanders’ canoes were hacked apart or burned, whereas the “well-made fishing nets of breadfruit fibers” were carefully packed for transport to Berlin.

Paul Boether, an imperial judge, did much the same when he led a campaign of murder and destruction against “natives” on March 9, 1901, in the vicinity of the Christian mission of Tumleo near Berlin Harbor (today’s Aitape, on the north coast of the island of New Guinea). At the “special request” of the missionaries, the “old barracks, the embodiment of the natives’ ancient cult of their gods and ancestors, was burned to the ground.” Before setting the fire, though, Boether had his men collect valuable “decorations from these extremely original houses” on behalf of German museums.

The ethnological collections in Berlin list Schnee as the source of a wide array of donations. Moreover, the sparse online inventory of the holdings of the Foundation of Prussian Cultural Heritage includes under Thiel’s name three valuable items that came from expeditions: a large carved wooden drum; a carved, painted disk from a communal men’s house; and an exquisitely made weathervane. Because the Seagull participated in many punitive expeditions, the name of the gunboat crops up quite a bit in the foundation’s online list of holdings, specifically in the attribution “Max Braun, Collector, MS Seagull”—Braun having been the vessel’s junior purser. On July 31, 1899, the captain of the Seagull reported to the admiralty in Berlin that, in addition to the regular crew, “the agriculturalist Parkinson” was on board “at the behest of the Ethnological Museum.” The Linden Museum lists the traveling researcher Bruno Mencke four times as the collector of objects that ostensibly originated from the Admiralty Islands. Mencke himself never visited the islands, but his fellow traveler Ludwig Caro did. Caro had served as Governor Bennigsen’s secretary and was killed along with Mencke in 1901 on Mussau Island, in the St. Matthias Group. The affluent Mencke is also known to have purchased ethnographic items from both Thiel and Parkinson. Several months after Mencke and Caro’s violent deaths, the Cormorant arrived to wreak vengeance. On board was Bennigsen, who was headed home. According to the official report, eighty-one “Kanaker” were killed in the attack. The unarmored Cormorant, which sported four guns, had been built especially for such punitive colonial missions.

From 1900 to 1902, it was under the command of Max von Grapow. Captain Grapow wrote of the forty objects in his “St. Matthias collection,” which he donated to the Linden Museum in 1908, “The items were acquired in July 1903 in conjunction with the MS Cormorant’s punitive expedition, ordered by the emperor in response to the murders of B. Mencke from Hanover and the ex-governor’s secretary Caro.” During his brief mission in the South Seas, Grapow commanded at least two other punitive expeditions, one in the Vitu Islands and one in Paparatava near Kokopo (New Britain). The Berlin Ethnological Museum also possesses holdings that came from the Cormorant, although no further information about their provenance is given.

In 1902, after a “criminal tribunal” on Mussau, the Braunschweiger Landes-Zeitung newspaper offered this criticism: “It turned out that the murdered man, Bruno Mencke, and his companions were themselves quite culpable in the sad event, not only because of their incomprehensible carelessness but also because they ruthlessly destroyed the few remaining coconut trees.” The two Germans and their native companions, it appears, had attacked the islanders’ very source of sustenance.

So much for the origins of many artworks and collections, which are seemingly unproblematic but on closer inspection deeply dubious—at least as far as one can tell from the listings that individual museums make publicly available online. Such listings represent only a fraction of these institutions’ total collections. The original records and inventories contain far broader and more detailed accounts of the valuable ethnographic items seized with the help of warships during punitive expeditions. For this reason, most museum directors still refuse to make the original handwritten records, the documentary basis of their holdings, broadly accessible in digital form.


Excerpted from The Magnificent Boat: The Colonial Theft of a South Seas Cultural Treasure by Götz Aly, translated by Jefferson Chase, published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.