Collections, Colonialism, and the Ugly Truths of our Past
This piece has been written by Royal Cornwall Museum’s Trainee Curator, Dan Wills, following on from his Autumn exhibition, ‘Ugly Truths’. The exhibition was an exploration of British colonialism and the commemoration of difficult history through the lens of the South African War (the ‘Anglo-Boer War’), 1899-1902.
Aimed at expanding global power and influence, centuries of British conquest came at the devastating expense of communities across the globe. At its peak, the British Empire controlled 24% of the Earth’s land surface and had colonised space on all but one of the seven continents – Antarctica.
At the Royal Cornwall Museum, our collections include many objects that were stolen by British invaders and brought here to Cornwall by collectors. At a time when expansionism and greed have led to the appalling invasion of Ukraine, it is of paramount importance that we are honest and transparent in unearthing the dark reality of British history and the collections we take care of. This is not about ‘tearing up’ or ‘sanitising’ history, but rather unwrapping a broader range of narratives so we can holistically understand our past and its repercussions. This can be an incredibly conflicting and uncomfortable experience. Our recent exhibition, Ugly Truths, was purposefully curated to start a conversation with our visitors regarding British colonial history. We achieved this through the lens of one of Britain’s most expensive and bloodiest colonial conflicts: the South African War (1899-1902), also known as the Second Boer War.
Africa had been invaded and settled by Europeans from around 500 years ago. The Dutch officially colonised South Africa in 1652, growing to a substantial and oppressive power by the mid-1800s. The Boers (meaning Afrikaner farmers) were descendants of the Dutch and European colonists. British desires for further influence on the continent and its resources led to operations aimed at expanding their territory into the independent Boer states of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Tensions escalated and by 1899, conflict was inevitable.
While we may presume colonialism to be a solely national issue, Cornwall had indisputable roots in the South African War. Regarded as among the best miners in the world, groups of Cornish men had already emigrated to South Africa to mine diamonds and gold throughout the 19th century. Pockets of these groups were part of Uitlander (outsider) communities. These communities would eventually be used as an excuse for British military intervention: to protect them from the Boers while furthering their ‘stake’ in the region. During the conflict, the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry 2nd Battalion fought at Paardeberg in 1900 and assisted in the capturing of Bloemfontein. Clearly, we should never just presume Cornwall’s innocence when discussing and asking ourselves what role our county played in Britain’s colonial past.
Having quickly realised that their opponents were incredibly skilled fighters, the British adopted hugely controversial policies to overcome the Boers. The Scorched-Earth policy, for example, saw the British attempt to flush out and starve Boer forces by flattening forty towns, burning crops, poisoning wells and slaughtering livestock. The destruction was indiscriminate. Some locals did resist, although this was made nearly impossible for people of colour who were forbidden from carrying arms. Boer refugees and native Africans were then interned in British-built and managed concentration camps. Neglect and gross mismanagement led to overcrowding, malnutrition and rampant levels of diseases (such as measles and typhoid). Almost 50,000 innocent people – tragically, mostly children – lost their lives in these hellish places. The camps stand as a shameful stain on British military history.
At the conflict’s conclusion, returning servicepeople brought back many objects from southern Africa to Cornwall. Some would eventually become part of the Royal Cornwall Museum’s collection. For example, the yataghan bayonet and scabbard (in the image) were taken from the battlegrounds of the conflict off the dead body of a Boer soldier. This is clearly an object with a morbid and morally challenging past. It was likely stolen as a trophy of the conflict; to commemorate and glorify combat experience and success.
Museums across Cornwall and the UK – including RCM – have long displayed objects of this nature to celebrate our former dominance of parts of the globe, supposedly validating the Empire’s existence and expansion. Therefore, the historical interpretation of British history has long been constructed primarily by objects obtained solely by the victors. For years, this produced an incredibly skewed and one-sided version of history which glorified the success of the Empire, belittled foreign cultures and ignored innocent communities that ultimately paid the price for British expansionism. These objects now stand as poignant and indisputable reminders of Britain’s violent past.
Today, the interpretation of these objects must be expanded upon to ensure that we present a full account of their history and why they are here. We must be committed to transparency and honesty about where such objects came from and why they are here – if we know the answers. The Ugly Truths exhibition was a first step in achieving this and many anonymous visitor responses echoed this idea that we should be fully transparent about our history and tell the story of the past ‘as it was’.
Discussions of repatriation are already a key priority for many institutions – RCM included. Repatriation entails the potentially lengthy but hugely important process of returning objects to their original homes. Certainly, sending items back can be hugely beneficial in building bridges and starting the process of healing inter-generational trauma that exists in many indigenous communities and peoples affected by colonialism. Among the objects displayed in Ugly Truths, the pictured wooden weapon had been stolen from its original home by a man who fought in the South African War. This is an example of an object that may wish to be returned to its original home in time. We must constantly ask ourselves whether it is morally acceptable to hold onto an item that could have profound cultural significance to the community that originally possessed or even made it?
To conclude, museums must work collectively and collaboratively so that decolonisation remains a key cornerstone of our work. Not only will this ensure we are building a healthier relationship between us and our history, but it will also allow museums to become progressively welcoming spaces for a wider range of people and so better accommodate the communities we exist to serve. While Ugly Truths used the South African War as a lens into this hugely important issue, any of Britain’s colonial conflicts could tell of similar – or potentially worse – stories. It is the role of the modern museum to uncover why the victorious in history are not always those with the most righteous or just ambitions – the British included.