return of booty

Image: Scott Webb


The maintenance of “war trophies” by colonizers and “winners” helps to naturalize the violence of conflicts

In the past, some objects have already been returned both by the Brazilian government and by the governments of Uruguay and Argentina, countries that also participated in the war against Paraguay, which was devastated by it. The most important piece of the order that will now be forwarded is a cannon called “el cristiano”, which is now in the courtyard of the National History Museum, in Rio de Janeiro. It has this name because it was made with the melted bronze of bells from the old Jesuit missions in Paraguay.

This type of return of objects taken by countries, most often conquerors, from countries most often conquered, is becoming increasingly common, especially in Europe. In Germany, there is the already veteran return of artistic objects taken or bought at a low price by Nazi officials and leaders of murdered or fleeing Jewish families.

Recently, protocols for the return of objects of that type were signed by Germany and France to Nigeria and also to the Republic of Cameroon, in Africa. Germany is preparing to return a dinosaur fossil smuggled from Ceará to Brazil. France will do the same, returning 611 indigenous objects illegally taken from Brazil.

These returns are not always smooth. There are those who claim that these former Third World countries do not have the objective conditions to safeguard such objects. Others claim that many of them were purchased in legal and legitimate transactions. One should also look carefully at the generosity of returns. Denmark is going to return a sacred tupinambá mantle to Brazil, which it has had since the XNUMXth or XNUMXth century. Excellent. But it's one of five he owns. There are only ten examples of this remarkable piece left in the world. All are in Europe, where they will remain.

From the poems of Homer

The most spectacular case in this regard is that of the so-called “Treasure of Priam”, which the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann brought from what he supposed was the Troy of Homer's poems to Berlin at the end of the XNUMXth century. It contains numerous jewels and other valuables that Heinrich Schliemann thought belonged to King Priam of the legendary city taken by the Greeks in Homer's poems.

Critics of Heinrich Schliemann say that, using shovels and bulldozers where archaeologists now use teaspoons and toothbrushes, he destroyed more than he found. They say he achieved what even the Greek pirates did in Homer's poem: destroy Troy once and for all. As it turns out, those were the methods used by archeology at the time, not just by Heinrich Schliemann. He was interested in getting the most out of the least amount of time and expense.

In any case, it turns out that Heinrich Schliemann was not just an inexperienced archaeologist. He was also a naive historian. He treated Homer's mythical poems as if they were modern travel guides, taking them at their word. At the end of World War II, the Soviets quietly took the “Treasure of Priam” to Russia. For decades it was presumed lost, until in 1994 the Pushkin Museum in Moscow admitted that it owned it.

Germany wants the booty back. Russia refuses to hand it over, claiming it is compensation for the damage done by the Nazis on its territory. But… more people entered the story. Greece claims that part of the “Treasure” objects were obtained on the island of Mycenae, not Troy. Turkey claims that most of Heinrich Schliemann's excavations took place on its territory. Even the descendants of the British diplomat Frank Calvert, who showed the excavated site to the amateur archaeologist, claim that part of the loot was obtained from his former farm.

According to legend, the Trojan war lasted ten years. The legal controversy surrounding the “Treasury” can last for decades or hundreds of years. Returning to the case of the “El Cristiano” cannon, it would be better to return it. The maintenance of these “war trophies” helps to naturalize the violence of conflicts. If it were technically possible, the best thing would be to recast it in order to rebuild the bells of the old missions, which were destroyed so that a weapon of war could come into existence.

* Flavio Aguiar, journalist and writer, is a retired professor of Brazilian literature at USP. Author, among other books, of Chronicles of the World Upside Down (boitempo).

Originally published on the website of Radio France International – Brazil 

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