Robber's Paradise: The European Museum of Overseas Stolen Treasures

Diamond, looted by the Dutch army on Lombok, Indonesia

'All praise to Amsterdam! The city with the rich past has made it self with one deed into Europe’s multi-cultural capital: by opening The European Museum of Overseas Stolen Treasures - With the Statues of the Thieves. In a new and spectacular building, designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer and situated halfway between Amsterdam’s financial district and the international airport Schiphol, the subject is the history of the European conquest of the other continents. Here is on display how throughout the ages Europeans accumulated wealth by looting countries overseas.

All treasures here on display were brought home by European conquerors from battlefields and ruined cities. Pars pro toto: each overseas stolen art object is a telling symbol for the much larger stolen wealth. Main point: in this museum the exotic objects tell the visitors more about the Europeans than about their original makers and owners.

The European Museum succeeds in overcoming barriers while it tells histories Europeans are not keen to hear. Nowadays Europeans don’t like to be reminded of the facts that their working capitals were taken by force from the other continents. The museum makes the seemingly abstract origins of the European wealth visible and tangible in chronological walks and comparative roamings through halls filled with beautiful and curious objects of exotic art and culture. And it exhibits not only on the crimes of the robbers, but also the actions and publications of their critics.

In previous centuries Europeans have been extremely proud of their intercontinental war booty, as still can be seen in many museums. But yesterday’s war trophies are today’s shamefull and painful memorial objects.
An example is the Lombok Treasure. A century ago the gem-studded daggers, golden and silver vases, rings and opium pipes were widely on display in several national museums – to commemorate a victorious colonial war. Now these same treasures offer a fine example of how history is rewritten by the power of silence. In the past ostentatiously on display in the Rijksmuseum or National Museum, in the present almost completely ignored.

Is Europe a real community and does it have its own identity? This question is here definitely affirmed because museums from all over the continent could contribute overseas stolen cultural goods. The British Museum, the Louvre, the Museum of the Vatican, the Museo de América in Madrid, the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin and many other major and regional museums have been kind enough to send important objects from their collections on permanent loan to Amsterdam. One of the strongest bonds among the countries of the European community appears to be their common histories of plunder overseas.

Ofcourse Europeans were not the only looters. In the front hall famous monuments tell about plunder in the past when the sparse population of Europe still lived in the stone age. The Akkadian king Naram-Sin conquered more than 4200 years ago the Lullabi, a people in the Persian Zagros Mountains. On his commemoration monument the king is the tallest figure, he climbs over the dead bodies of the enemy to the victory. Conquerors from Elam took the monument of Akkadian propaganda a thousand years later as a war trophy to their capital Susa. French archaeologists discovered it among the ruins of Susa and took it to Paris in 1898. Kept safely in the Louvre the old sculpture has been nicely repaired in 1992.

In a letter to God, whom he calls Assur, the Assyrian king Sargon II tells about an expedition to Musasir in 714 BCE. Proudly he enumerates the many treasures he looted from the local temple. In passing he notes that after the successful conquest he deported the local population.

All cultures were started when groups of men accumulated wealth by stealing women from neighbouring peoples. The supreme God Zeus himself kidnapped Europe from Phoenicia as still can be seen on many monuments and on the Greek 2-euro coin (2002).
Alexander of Macedonia is called Alexander the Great because he was the first and at once very successful European looter. He took many treasures from Asia and Africa, mainly from Egypt, Babylon and Persia. Alexander is the most famous historical figure in world history. He was the first European with his portrait on silver and gold coins.
Flavias Titus sacked the temple in Jeruzalem in 70 CE and came home in a lavish triumphal procession with treasures, slaves and other loot, as still can be seen sculptured on the Arch of Titus in Rome. A replica of the Arch is erected in the European Museum in Amsterdam.

Roman emperors proclaimed Christianity the official state religion. From Constantine around 330 until Charles V around 1550 and long after Christian emperors proudly showed their ambition to put a cross upon the whole world.
When the feodal kings had no more dominions to hand out, Europe experienced an overproduction of aristocrats and knights. Overseas expansion was the solution. The medieval crusades against Islam were holy wars and urgent quests for new territories.
The Holy Office of the Inquisition forced uniformity in behaviour and thoughts upon the Europeans with terrible force. Limitless consolation the European believers have found in the relics of saints from Africa and Asia. Many European cities grew around the bones or the skull of someone from the Near East. In 828 the Venetians Buono da Malamocco en Rustico da Torcello stole the human remains of the saint and evangelist Marc from Alexandria in Egypt. The arrival of the relic gave a crucial boost to Venice as a centre of European riches. Depicted on a magnificent mosaic in the San Marco in Venice the famous robbers are still being honoured today.
The museum shows in several large halls precious objects looted by the European crusaders in Constantinople in 1203. Possibly the most famous looted goods in Europe are the four larger than life-size copper statues of horses outside on the front of the San Marco in Venice. When the horses had to flee the air pollution in 1997, they found a new home in the attic of the church and were replaced on the outside by replica’s. The horses on the San Marco embody two millennia of cultural plunder. In the era of the classics they were stolen by men from Byzantium from Greece or Rome and taken to Constantinople (now Istanbul). After the Fourth Crusade in 1203 they were taken by Venetian crusaders and brought against their will – together with ships full of other treasures – to Venice.

European discoverers and conquerors fought often with extreme violence. Cortés in Mexico (1519), Pizarro in Peru (1532), Willem Kieft on Manhattan (1643) are some of the Europeans who committed mass murders among native peoples overseas.
The many conquests filled the European museums with numberless trophies and memories. Europeans don’t like to acknowledge that the origins of their wealth were stolen overseas by force, though precisely these facts are widely represented by the colonial war trophies in many museums. The citizens of Europe are surrounded by exotic jewels and statues and other cultural heritage that prove how their forefathers considered the rest of the world a Robbers’ Paradise.
What Europeans collectively like to deny, is staring them in the face all over Europe in many museums, and even in the streets. For example in Lisbon, Portugal, the monument for Pedro Álvares Cabral (1467-1526) is situated on a high pedestal near the entrance of a park. This bronze copy of a monument in Rio de Janeiro was a present of the government of Brazil to the former motherland. The sculptor Rudolfo Bernardelli (1852-1931) changed his nationality into Brazilian. In this statue he has expressed wonderfully an essential feature of European colonialism. The larger than life admiral depicts the first European who landed in Brazil in 1500.

Seen from the front the monument seems to represent one person: a polite gentleman, waving his hat. But his crusader’s flag is attached to a lance and is blocking the view. He seems straight forward but hidden behind his back and the flag Pedro Álvares Cabral is accompanied by two men, the padre and the colonist.

In the past centuries Europeans have erected in the colonies and at home many statues and monuments in honour of imperial discoverers and conquerors. These monuments reminded the passers-by about the courage, sacrifices and victories of the pioneers.
In the formerly occupied countries most colonial monuments were torn down as symbols of te hated power during the liberation struggles. However in the former 'mother countries' they are still standing in the streets, executing their old work: to provide the European enterprises overseas with a dignified, even noble image.

Far from a proposal to destroy the colonial monuments in Europe too, this is a plea to keep them in good shape because they can teach us and future generations a lot about how Europe became rich.
The portrayed admiral, general or buccaneer usually carries at least a stick. More often his main attribute is a sword or a lance, or he leans against a cannon. While the statues celebrate and commemorate the life and works of discoverers and heroes, they also show and teach that practically all Europeans overseas always carried a weapon, simply because violence was the pillar upon which all their business rested.

Standard of Ur, ca 2500 BCE. Victory feast. The Standard of Ur is a lectern-shaped box, made about 4500 years ago in the city of Ur in the south of Iraq. On all sides tiny pieces of mother of pearl, pink carnelian and lapis lazuli have been pressed in a thin layer of bitumen. On one side the horizontal rows of realistic figures depict scenes of a war. On the other side the king and his friends enjoy the victory banquet while looking at a procession of men and animals packed with loot. Height 21,5 cm, width 49 cm, depth 4,5 cm. British Museum, London.

Portuguese national hero Gil Eanes was in 1434 the first European who sailed beyond the Sahara. His statue looks out over the harbour of Lagos, Portugal. And like Cabral in Lisbon he is hiding something behind his back. The statue of the man with a sword behind his back seems to represent all Europeans who unexpectedly drew a weapon and attacked their hosts. Nicolás de Ovando on Hispaniola, Hernándo Cortés in Mexico, Francisco Pizarro in Peru, Hendrik de Kock at Java and the others. They were convinced of God’s plan that civilised man had to replace wild man.
While executing God’s will no Christian was obliged to keep his word of honour against a heathen. More than a thousand years Europeans taught each other that encounters with Moslems and other heathens were part of a holy war in which everything was justified, included breach of promise and sudden murder.

One of the oldest epics in European languages is the Song of Roland or Chanson de Roland. It taught Europeans in a few words one of their fundamental rules of life: 'paien unt tort et chrestiens unt dreit' – pagans are wrong and Christians are right, whatever they do (line 1015). The man with a sword behind his back seems a visual summing-up or emblematic figure of the total European colonial enterprise. The sculptor created a statue of Gill Eanes and at the same time a convincing monument for the readily violent European.

The European Museum exhibits the clear facts of the atrocities Europeans committed on the other continents, in the name of the Gospel and to get to cheap labour and materials and exploit man and nature. In several halls the mood of the exhibitions changes from accusing to apologetic. The exhibitions become almost a plea for understanding, showing how the Europeans from childhood onward were brainwashed by their culture and religion to conquer the rest of the world.
In their creation myth God commanded the Christians: 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.' (Genesis 1:28) Christ commanded his followers to conquer the world: 'Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.' (Matthew 28:19-20)
The extreme violence of the Europeans overseas was an expression of their cultural climate at home.

One of the many surprises in the European Museum is the ancient origin and continuously stronger presence of the martyrs. Gradually the armies of European martyrs multiplied. Saint-Augustine assured the adherents of the religion of love for all men that in a 'just war' they can be obliged to kill some. He developed the concept of Misericorditer: when Christians wage war and inflict pain on the infidel, they act out of love. Main topic: the religiously driven urgency of the Christians to bring the whole earth under the sign of the cross.

Another surprise is the growing presence of martyrs in the war between the peoples who followed the religion of Mohammed and the peoples of the religion of Christ. In 849 marauding Moslems attacked Rome and pope Leo IV proclaimed that all defenders of the city who died in battle would go straight to heaven. In 1095 pope Urbanus II extended the category of martyrs to the crusaders who fought in Spain and in the Holy Land. And in 1442 pope Eugenius promised prince Henrique of Portugal and the Knights of Christ an excellent seat in heaven if they were to die while fighting the infidels in Africa. Gradually all Europeans who fought overseas and died became a kind of martyr.
The Crusades and the war with Islam in Iberia – the reconquista of Spain – continued in the European conquest of America.

When God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses, he said sternly: 'You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.' (Deuteronomy 5:9)
Monotheists cannot be tolerant. For a believer the worst way to insult God is by praying to an idol or demigod, a sin that in many cases warranted death. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was an immensely popular anti-Islam preacher. His message was simply that Moslems dirtied with their presence the Holy Land, they disturbed God’s creation and deserved nothing but extinction by the sword. He added that Mohammed was not the last prophet but the antichrist.
Throughout the centuries preachers of intolerance have been very successful in Europe. Saint Dominic (ca 1170-1221), the founder the Order of the Dominicans (or the Domini Canes: the dogs of the Lord), was a champion of intolerance. The reverend fathers dedicated to the Holy Inquisition have contributed to society a whole range of torture instruments and theological arguments why the religion of love needed to be cruel. The priests' blessings made the whip and the rack respectable and soon no worldly authority could do without them.

Gil Eanes’ statue in the harbour of Lagos, Portugal. The statue of the man with a sword behind his back seems to represent all Europeans who unexpectedly drew a weapon and attacked their hosts.

Christians and Moslems fought in the Holy Land during the crusades and in Iberia during the reconquista of Spain. The war with Islam developed into the conquest of America.
The European arrival in America was the worst man made disaster in history. Scientists estimate the total population of North- and South-America in 1500 upon circa 80 million. A century later the population of the America’s was at the most 10 million.
The European conquistadores were amply rewarded for their conquest of Aztec-Mexico and Inca-Peru. The discovery of the Potosí-silver mines in Bolivia (1545) brought fleets of ships filled with silver to Europe. Royal Customs in Seville put the value of the bullion imported from the New World between 1503 and 1600 – the gold converted to silver – at 3000 billion silver pesos.
According to another calculation: from 1503 until 1660 about 16 million kilo’s silver arrived in Seville, tripling the existing amount of silver in Europe. The Mexican silver peso soon became a world wide currency. It is calculated that in the two centuries between 1570 and 1780 Europeans shipped at least 100 billion silver pesos from America via Europe to Asia. In the shorter period 1550–1700 about eight million persons were worked to death in the silver mines in Potosí.

In the Spanish armada da plata ships full of sugar, pearls, cowhides and many more valuables arrived almost yearly in Europe. Adventurous Portuguese en Spanish navigators sailed across the oceans, while Italian and German bankers like the Welsers and the Fuggers invested in the exploitation of the colonies. From the start entrepreneurs from all over the European community particpated in the European businesses overseas. The enormous influx of wealth triggered in the sixteenth century the beginning of a new era in which Europe plundered the other continents and developed at home the High Renaissance and ever higher standards of living.
The only fitting term for what happened in the America’s is genocide: a decrease of the population within a century of 90 percent, the early death of in between 60 and 70 million persons.

Portuguese traders exchanged since 1450 in Senegal one horse for up to fourteen men. In this tradition Columbus sent in 1494 about 550 kidnapped and subdued men and women from the Caribbean to Seville, with the order to exchange them for horses and cattle.
Although Europeans shipped by far most prisoners from Africa to America, the museum shows how Columbus started the transatlantic slave trade from West to East with 'red slaves'.
No sugar without slaves. The transatlantic trade in human beings was strongly related with trade in sugar, coffee, tabacco and other addictive plants. The slave trade was from the start a collective enterprise of bankers, ship owners, captains, crews, gunsmiths and many others from all over Europe. Western historians calculated that Europeans – Portuguese, Dutch, French, English and others – exported almost twelve (11,7) million kidnapped and maltreated Africans to the America’s. During the voyage almost two million imprisoned Africans died. About ten (9,8) million Africans arrived in European chains in the New World as living merchandise. For centuries it was cheaper to import freshly caught Africans than to raise their children in bondage, and many slaves were worked to death within nine years.
Some estimate the total number of Africans who fell victim to the European transatlantic slave trade to be much higher, counting the Africans who were killed during the hunt, the gruesome walks to the coast and the disruption of societies.

The European Museum exhibits not only on the crimes of the robbers, but also the actions and writings of their critics. Some of the great men who discovered new lands beyond the common intolerance are cardinal Basilios Bessarion (1389/1400-1472), Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), Erasmus (1467-1536), Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484-1566), Johannes Wier (1515-1588) and Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592).
Like many other cultures European culture is built upon plunder and slavery, but only Europeans have developed a mature and effective critical tradition. In Europe many dared (and dare) to raise their voice against what they considered injustice. For instance: many cultures have known the institution of slavery, but only Europeans have developed an anti-slavery movement which in the end was successful.

This summing up is a short introduction to the European Museum with many halls and rooms, as described in the book Roofgoed or Robbers Paradise.'

Ewald Vanvugt
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