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Spoiling the Spoils of War

Centre’s recent defeat in the SAA men’s basketball championship has left me contemplating why we  love to stuff our glass cabinets with bits of shiny metal. What is it about things acquired through competition and sweat that makes our hearts swell with victory or crash with defeat?

It isn’t just the collection of artifacts that makes them desirable, but rather the actual act of plundering them. The world’s museums are riddled with examples of exactly this, ranging from small items like buttons to chunks of twisted metal harvested from the battlefield.

These items, often well cared for and bestowed a place of honor, come to signify victory, honor, and adventure, in the eyes of the victor. Yet, in the eyes of the original owner, those items are a reminder of defeat, loss, and in a modern day, colonialism.

Museums exemplify the tension of trophy taking. On one hand, museums are the shiny cabinets of a high school trophy room where the receipt of conquest and destruction is encased. On the other hand, they are harbors of knowledge and preservation, our gateway to the past.

For example, the Neus Museum in Berlin proudly displays mummies taken from the tombs of Egypt and entire sections of walls that were obtained during the German invasion of Italy.  Sometimes these items are returned to where they came from, as in the case of the British museum, which is expected to return nearly 1000 bronze pieces to Benin this year.

Trophies in the States

In the case of the United States, my favorite such item is found not in the Smithsonian as one might expect, but rather further West, in Illinois. If you visit the Illinois State Military Museum, you will find not walls or mummies, but a leg. More specifically, the prosthetic limb of the Mexican general and legend Santa Anna, who is best known for his victory over US forces at the battle of the Alamo.

The general lost his actual leg during canon fire in an earlier conflict and held a funeral with full military ceremony to honor the leg’s service. When he later became president, he even built a shrine to his disjoined extremity.

Anna’s synthetic appendage arrived in Illinois in 1847, after it was captured by an Illinois military unit that fought in Texas in the battle of Cerro Gordo. The specially made cork prosthetic was abandoned by Santa Anna in his camp during the conflict, along with 20,000 dollars and a chicken sandwich.  According to reports, the troops gathered the money, ate the general’s lunch, and returned to Illinois toting the wayward prosthetic.

The leg was paraded around the states and hung in the Illinois State capital for nearly 100 years until it was handed over to the Illinois military, and eventually the Illinois State Military Museum.

Santa Anna's leg
Photo courtesy of Lane Christensen, Chicago Tribune. 

So, the question that remains to be addressed is this: will Santa Anna’s cork limb ever return to Mexico?

There have been attempts made over the years to petition the return of the leg and even send it home, but none have ever stuck. Even now, there are college students in Texas working to petition the return of the prosthetic to Mexico.

Santa Anna’s abandoned appendage is undoubtedly an interesting historical anecdote, but it also raises broader questions about the spoils of war, and whether nations have a right to repossess objects that might be considered historically important to their national story.  It is a question that historians have wrestled with over the years, especially when it comes to artifacts acquired during the exploitative colonial period.

Imagine, for example, if Canada had in its possession George Washington’s dentures (which were hilariously composed of human, cow, and horse teeth)?  Given our deep and abiding admiration (bordering on obsession) of George Washington (seriously, just check out the mural of him becoming a god in the capital rotunda) I imagine that the outcry would be immense and that the teeth would be promptly returned to Mount Vernon. Not because there is any immediate use for them, but because they represent our ability as Americans to tell our own story, and the stories of our heroes.

As the world struggles to decolonize museums and the historical record, the United States is not exempt from those same processes.  There have been requests made by the Mexican state, and by Santa Anna himself, to have the leg returned. Who controls the narrative matters, and the United States has the opportunity to support Mexico in how they represent their national history.

I’m no longer convinced that the “finders keepers, losers weepers” attitude  is a good enough reason to justify the hoarding of spoils of war. Because yes, in this case, the artifact in question is both whimsical and a little macabre, but perhaps inconsequential; however, it also sets a precedent that the U.S. and other powerful countries have a right to narrate and display the history of other nations. It’s time to start rethinking the spoils of war, even if it takes an arm and a leg (or in Anna’s case, just a leg) to get the job done.

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