The agency of objects
A contrasting choreography of flags, military booty and skulls from late nineteenth-century Africa
in Dividing the spoils
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The later years of the Victorian era saw a series of ‘small wars’ and large battles conducted in Africa. This essay analyses two of these taking place in successive years (1897 and 1898): the Benin Punitive Expedition in the riverine creeks of south-eastern Nigeria and the Battle of Omdurman in the deserts of Sudan. In spite of their clear imperial motivations, in both cases military engagements were justified as defensible retaliation for the actions of what were represented as callous rulers. Yet the two conflicts otherwise contrast sharply in scale, in how they were reported, what was acquired by way of booty and in the ultimate fate of what was brought back from each. Some objects were judged appropriate to the royal collections, others to the national collections or smaller military museums, with significant numbers shifting between them. Each relocation, it is argued, represents a different commodification. The complex range of divergent object biographies is discussed, exploring how some have retained an enduring status as trophies while others have taken on a new personhood beyond the circumstances of their original acquisition.

Dividing the spoils

Perspectives on military collections and the British empire

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