Wednesday, February 3, 2021

World War Zero

Stanley - Thursday

Last December I wrote a blog about a quandary I have with respect to the disposition of some of my African art when I die.  I am particularly worried about one piece - a 500-yer-old terracotta head from the Kingdom of Ife in the country now known as Nigeria.

It concerns me because there is a reasonable likelihood is that it was stolen from Ife - even though I have formal documentation that it was legally exported from Nigeria. It was not given to me by the Nigerian government, but rather I bought it from a gallery in Johannesburg.

In recent years, there has been a growing movement to repatriate such works of art to their countries of origin. The modern movement was probably started by the famous actress Melina Mercouri, who became Greece's first female Minister of Culture of Sports. 

Melina Mercouri

In that capacity, she told the world that the Elgin Marbles (or Parthenon Marbles, as the Greeks call them) had no right to be in the British Museum because they had been stolen. 

Parthenon Selene horse

A Centaur and a Lapith fighting

In a famous 1983 television debate, the Museum director, David Wilson, responded that they had been a gift to Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin. "A gift from the occupying Turks," Mercouri responded, "who had no right to them in the first place." In a talk to the Oxford Union debating society she explained what they meant to Greeks: "They are our pride. They are our sacrifices. They are our noblest symbol of excellence. They are a tribute to the democratic philosophy. They are our aspirations and our name. They are the essence of Greekness."

To this day, the Marbles are still in the British Museum.

You may wonder how this is connected to the title of the blog: World War Zero.

When I think of the First World War, I think of a Bosnian-Serb nationalist, by the name of Pricep, assassinating the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. (I remember the date only because June 28 is my brother's birthday.) Five weeks later, the situation had escalated into a war in which almost all European nations were involved, drawing into the fray their territorial possessions around the world, including Africa. The United States eventually joined in April, 1917. 

The toll was horrendous, far surpassing any conflict that had gone before: an estimated 9 million combatants and 13 million civilians. It also changed the world politically and financially.


When I think of World War II, what comes to mind is the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1938 and the subsequent declaration of war against Germany by the United Kingdom and France two days later. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941 brought the United States into the mess. WWII became the costliest war in history in terms of loss of life: a total of between 70 million and 85 million dead, once again with more civilians killed than military personnel. Of course, it also had. profound impact on the world politically.

German troops advancing

Both WWI and WWII had dramatic and memorable events that kicked them off.

What about World War Zero?

Towards the end of the Nineteenth Century, a British army officer, Major General Sir Charles Callwell, wrote a sort of how-to book titled Small Wars: Principles and Practice

For the flavour of the book, here are some quotes:

Small wars are 'campaigns to punish and wipe out an insult or avenge a wrong.'

Small wars are fought 'to chastise a people who have inflicted some injury.'

Small wars are undertaken 'for some ulterior political purpose or to establish order in some foreign land - wars of expediency, in fact.' (Think trade, money, territory; don't think charity or philanthropy!)

The history of small wars has been obscured by the big conflicts of WWI and WWII - to such an extent that they barely warrant mention in the history books and are often not thought of as wars at all. 

On Wednesday, September 23, 1986, Queen Victoria became the longest reigning monarch in English history. The Western Gazette reported 'The Victorian Age has been one of peace.'

Queen Victoria

 The Western Gazette then went on to detail what that peace looked like:

Afgan war 1838-1840,

first Chinese war 1841,

Sikh war 1845-46,

Kaffir war 1846,

second war with China 1849,

second Afgan war 1849, 

second Sikh war 1848-49,

Burmese war 1850,

second Kaffir war 1851-52,

second Burmese war 1852-53,

Crimea 1854,

third war with China 1856-58,

Indian Mutiny 1857,

Maori war 1860-61,

more wars with China 1860 and 1861,

second Maori war 1863-65,

Ashantee war 1864,

war in Bhootan 1864,

Abyssinian war 1867-68,

war with the Bazotees 1868,

third Maori war 1868-69,

war with the Looshais 1871,

second Ashantee war 1873-74,

third Kaffir war 1877,

Zulu war, 1878-79

third Afghan war 1878-80,

war in Basutoland 1879-80,

Transvaal war 1879-81,

Egyptian war 1882,

Soudan 1885-89,

third Burma war 1885-92,

Zanzibar 1890,

India 1890,

Matabele wars 1894 nand 1896,

Chitral campaign 1895,

third Ashantee campaign 1895,

second Soudan campaign 1896.'

In fact, there was a small war in every year of Victoria's peaceful reign.

British Press: 'Valiant British soldiers repelling vicious attack by local savages.'

Reality Press: 'Outgunned citizens attempting to repel hordes of plunderers.'

And that was only the Brits. Think also of the Germans, French, Italians, Portuguese, Spanish, etc., etc.

It is this mass of punitive expeditions, reprisal raids, campaigns, peace excursions, etc. that Dan Hicks, author of The Brutish Museums, calls World War Zero. There are two major reasons for it being much less well known than its two successors. First, in almost every case, the history of what happened was written by the victors (since most victims had no access or ability to write and publicise what happened). And second, in almost every case, the one-sided historical record indicated that the victims were to blame. Not surprisingly, as time passed, history books and newspaper reports pumped up the justification and heroism of the victors and showed the behaviour of the victims to have been increasingly barbaric.

One other fact invariably holds true: the victors were white, and the victims not.

In addition to the tens or hundreds of thousands of people killed by the white powers in these small wars, communities were destroyed, belief systems shattered, and families separated.

As horrific as these outcomes were, the worst and longest lasting, were the lies told by the perpetrators of the wars about the people they destroyed. It was these accounts that built the foundation of contemporary racism.

And now to circle back to the beginning of this blog. It was during these small wars that almost all of the artefacts in Western museums were looted. And many of these museums continue to weave a tale around the artefacts that only reflects the popular view of what happened. Dan Hicks suggests that at least the museums should 'fess up and place what they show into a realistic context, whether they come from Greece or Ife.



  1. Very good. All very true. And I'd add that mentality continued in many contemporary wars, like the Vietnam War, 3 million Vietnamese killed and 58,000 U.S. soldiers. And the press talks about the U.S. casualties, never the Vietnamese. People are still born with birth defects from Agent Orange and much of the arable land and forests were destroyed. And a lot of anti-Asian racism was deployed.
    Only point: Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, as titled in W.H. Auden's famous poem. I pay attention to this as I found out two years ago that I had Jewish relatives still in Poland then or who fled.
    An account of the Nazi take-over of their town is horrific and something I can't read again.
    I would venture to suggest that you bequeath that beautiful sculpture to a museum in Nigeria or to an Museum of African Art in the U.S. There are many here, and I'm sure any of them would be very glad to receive it and so many people would appreciate it in Nigeria or here.

  2. Thanks Kathy. Perspective is so interesting. I remember a dinner at a home of friends who are of a significantly different political persuasion. The conversation was about the Iraq war (another small war!). I asked what their guess was as to the number of civilian casualties. The answers all ranged in the low thousands - three thousand, four thousand, etc. I didn't know the answer, but suspected that they were orders of magnitude out. My research showed a huge range of estimates, from about 150,000 at the low end to a million at the high end. I think the important thing I took away from that dinner was how people (in this case all devout Christians) could be so ignorant of the consequences of what their country was doing. I could understand their position (but disagree) if they continued to support the war knowing what was happening to civilians.

  3. History is so full of pain and bloodshed. Have you ever noticed how war leaders are often called "great" conquerors? See: Napoleon Bonaparte.

  4. Oh, Stan, you know how much we are on the same page when it comes to this. The list of British "small wars" fails to mention the number of military actions by the Queen's and King's determined empire builders. "Putting down a rebellion," they called it. They wiped out tribes in Africa who objected to being taken over.

    “Whatever happens, we have got
    The Maxim gun, and they have not.”

    ― Hilaire Belloc

    1. Maybe we should write a movie titled Head of Terracotta, in which on Oba hires a detective to find what is rightly his. Of course obstacles will be placed in her way by pompous historians and defensive museum curators, not to mention paternalistic politicians.

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  6. During the Iraq war, I read and heard 4 million people were displaced, 2 million internally, 2 million people forced out. A former friend's family of scientists had to leave the country. War is the worst thing, the most destructive of anything -- land, resources, human beings, livelihoods. Children were orphaned in Iraq by the war. I can't understand anyone supporting a war, unless it was the Civil War or WWII, a defensive war against the Nazis and their allies. Or perhaps wars of independence.

    I'm sure many museums dealing with African art would love to inherit that lovely sculpture, either in Africa or the U.S.