Is it time to return Africa’s history?

Brass plaque commonly known as "bronze" from Benin kingdom (Nigeria) at British Museum (London)) |  Michel Wal  | wikimedia commons

Brass plaque commonly known as "bronze" from Benin kingdom (Nigeria) at British Museum (London)) | Michel Wal | wikimedia commons

One of the lasting impacts of colonial rule in Africa has been the removal of pre-colonial African history. European museums house and showcase some of the best artefacts from these pre-colonial societies. Why, decades after independence, have these not been returned?Last month, Senegal opened a new four storey art museum dedicated to Black Civilisations. Many of the galleries in the building which can hold 18,000 works of art remain unfilled, waiting for the return of stolen goods.

Senegal’s culture minister called on the French to return all of Africa’s stolen artefacts.As long ago as the 17th century there existed a city state known as Benin in what is now modern day southern Nigeria. In 1668 the Dutch writer Olfert Dapper visited the city and marvelled at the beauty of it. However, little of that beauty is around for us to marvel at today, due to a British “expedition” in 1897 in which the city was destroyed and its art looted. Of all the art that was stolen, the most famous were the Benin bronzes. It’s been well over 100 years since these pieces were stolen by the British and placed in European museums, with one of the most famous and valuable collections placed in the British museum, almost 4000 miles away from where they were stolen.Nigeria has sought their return since gaining independence in the 1960’s.

In 2007 the Benin Dialogue Group (BDG) was formed to address restitution claims. It has taken until December of last year for the British museum to agree to loan some of the Bronzes to the Benin Royal Museum in Edo State. This is part of a wider move by European museums to loan artefacts to the Museum in Edo state on a rotatory basis. This is a not a permanent return of the artefacts. The Benin artefacts are just one example of colonial looting of African physical history.Why has it taken this long and why are we only starting to see a change in European attitude?

Firstly, there is a widely held view that African nations do not have the infrastructure to look after these artefacts. This is perhaps a resemblance of a wider held view within Western society that Africa is underdeveloped and reflects the images they see in the media. Secondly, it took a 2017 speech by President Macron in Burkina Faso in which he expressed his desire to return African art to the continent. The following year he received a joint report from Senegalese economist and writer Felwine Sarr and French historian Bénédicte Savoy which urged the President to return thousands of African artefacts.Why should these be returned? In essence the majority of these artefacts were stolen during colonial expeditions and conflicts. They were not gifted by the owners to the museums. Therefore, they remain a hangover from the colonial period, a reminder that the colonial powers wiped the majority of pre-colonial African history off the map to create states that suited their own purposes.

During the colonial period the European powers were able to extract the valuable resources the states they created possessed, often giving nothing of value in return. The least that could be done is returning the physical history that was stolen. Returning the stolen art will act as a reminder that African history goes back much further than the colonial period.

Surely the argument as to whether African states have similar infrastructure or capacity as European states to house these artefacts is irrelevant. It is up to those to whom they form part of a history to decide where they should be kept. Senegal has proven that African states have the capacity to build a museum capable of housing the stolen goods. Many other states in Africa, such as Ghana and Zambia, have national museums which should be filled with physical examples of their pre-colonial pasts.


The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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