Colonizers Were and Are The Real Looters

Home News & Politics Colonizers Were and Are The Real Looters

Colonialism and settler-colonialism rely upon the consistent theft, resource extraction, and looting of Indigenous people’s land, goods, bodies, and lives.

When you hear pundits moan and whine about the immorality of looting, what they’re usually referring to is people breaking into stores and taking goods from inside during a protest or riot. A recent example of this was the looting of a Target—just one store owned by a multi-billion dollar corporation—in Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd. Conservatives and liberals alike complained, saying that peaceful protest is far more effective and considerate. It’s no surprise that people generally only have a problem with these acts when they’re done by Black or brown people. To me, the destruction and stealing of private property owned by people who won’t miss it is not really violent. Even if you consider this type of protest violent, it is a necessary violence of resistance, used justifiably in response to violence by the state. What I want to focus on is a type of looting white people know very well: colonization.

Colonization is vast, demonic, and ongoing. As such, I’ve decided to highlight some of colonialism’s “greatest hits” if you will.

Looting as in Taking Land 

In 1850, the state of California passed a law to remove Indigenous people from their land, separate them from their children, strip them of their languages, and create a system of indentured servitude. As if this wasn’t enough, the next decade was marked by militias who attacked and killed native people. What happened in California is just a tiny taste of what colonizers did—and continue to do—to Indigenous people in the settler-colonial project called the United States. Who are American politicians to condemn looters and rioters when they don’t support returning lands back to Indigenous communities? If they cared so much about stolen property, wouldn’t they want to restore this land we live on to its rightful owners? Of course not. 

It’s not just the United States that’s made a name for itself by displacing, murdering, and oppressing native people. Israel has also spent the past several decades on a mission to ethnically cleanse Palestine and finish stealing the small parts of the country they haven’t yet claimed as their own. (That’s what annexation is. It’s just a fancy word for stealing land that isn’t yours). Zionism is colonization and colonization is looting. Do you know how much fertile land Israel has taken from Palestinians? This is, of course, by design. All colonial projects are. They are not happy accidents that benefit white people. They are the deliberate disenfranchisement and murder of Indigenous people.  

Looting as in Stealing Artifacts 

If you’ve ever walked through museums like the Louvre, the British Museum, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you may find yourself wondering why some of the world’s greatest art is there, rather than in their countries of origin. The answer—of course—is colonialism, war crimes, and theft. 

A Benin Bronze plaque in the British Museum, London, collection. Photo: Michel Wal, via Wikipedia.

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of this looting is the theft of the Benin Bronzes— artifacts not actually made of bronze. These precious items were made of brass, ivory, and wood, the most famous of which are 900 brass plaques stolen from the Kingdom of Benin’s royal palace by British troops in February 1897, after they invaded Benin City (now in southern Nigeria) in a violent raid to take revenge for the killing of a British official a month earlier. The British soldiers wrote in their diaries about how they “collected” anything of value from the palace. 

The British are so attached to the stolen goods they now claim that they wouldn’t even loan a 16th-century ivory mask of a famous Oba’s mother to the Nigerian government for a cultural festival free of charge, instead asking for a $3 million insurance. This isn’t the first time the British have tried to profit from or have profited from goods that don’t belong to them in the first place. In the 1950s, the British Museum sold some of the Benin Bronzes brass plaques back to Nigeria for a museum in Lagos—back to the place they stole them from! You simply cannot make this up. 

Interior of the Benin king’s palace in 1897 after the raid by British looters/(CREATIVE COMMONS/REGINALD KERR GRANVILLE)

Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr told NPR, “The problem is you can’t lend people an object that fundamentally belongs to them.” He’s right, but the normalization of colonialism and the white looting of African goods has made it so that white people all over Europe get to decide the fates of precious items from a continent they ravaged. 

And when western states aren’t looting art from the continent of Africa, their governments are stealing its wealth and ensuring its reliance on them. Whether that is through pushes to privatization and market competition—which always benefit countries like the United States, not countries in Africa—or by giving tiny amounts of conditional aid. The looting of Africa is by no means a thing of the past. 

Looting as in Killing for Oil 

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of a war for oil is the Iraq War, beginning in 2003. Framed as a fight for freedom and safety against weapons of mass destruction-owner Saddam Hussein, the Iraq War never actually made anyone more free or safe, nor were there ever any WMDs. In fact, before the war, Iraq’s rich oil reserves were nationalized and closed to western oil companies. Now, it is almost entirely privatized, mostly by western oil giants like ExxonMobil, Shell, and Chevron. 

Though oil production has increased, 80% of that oil was being exported out of the country in 2013. It’s no secret that Iraq has been ravaged by violence and foreign intervention. Now, their natural resources are being exported while many Iraqis remain poor and without access to clean water and electricity. Of course, western oil companies don’t even employ Iraqis. Instead, they import western people into Iraq, where they live on compounds and probably party with the troops whose only job is to maintain US imperialist rule.

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A 2013 study found that the number of Iraqis killed in this war for oil was far greater than what had been previously reported. “From March 1, 2003, to June 30, 2011, the crude death rate in Iraq was 4.55 per 1,000 person-years (95% uncertainty interval 3.74-5.27), more than 0.5 times higher than the death rate during the 26-mo period preceding the war, resulting in approximately 405,000 (95% uncertainty interval 48,000—751,000) excess deaths attributable to the conflict.” This doesn’t include Iraqis killed by Daesh after the official end of the Iraq War. If we include that, the number is almost certainly more than half a million people. The Washington Post put it this way: “If we assume that 600,000 people died, that is about equivalent to the population of Washington, D.C., in 2010. As if every man, woman and child in the District of Columbia were killed in war, died as a result of failing infrastructure or were killed by Islamic State terrorists.”

So, who are the actual looters? Protestors stealing from a Target or colonizers taking land, people, lives, art, and oil?

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