Restitution of Africa’s stolen artefacts

By September 21, 2022 No Comments

Africa, a home to many historical artefacts that are of great cultural heritage, lost large numbers of these objects to European raids. These works of art which are also of great economic value were connected to African people historically, culturally, spiritually, and religiously. Some were sacred. Experts estimate that 80-90% of Africa’s cultural heritage can be found in European museums.

When tourists hope to take a glimpse of the glorious past of African culture in connection with these artefacts, they don’t go to Africa; they go to Europe and other western countries to view African artefacts in their museums.

Across the western countries are stored the artefacts of Africa in their museums while African museums are graced with history of conquest represented by large pictures of the colonialists who pillaged and plundered the continent.

The story of the plundering and exploitation of Africa for cultural and economic interests will not be told without the mention of the stolen artefacts that these countries use to generate income through tourism.

Several African countries have called for the return of these artefacts to their rightful places. These countries have been fighting for many decades for the return of their artefacts stolen during colonial times. These objects were taken by force and violence as many were stolen even by missionaries. Calls are increasing for these artefacts to be returned to their original bases, where they have meaning and spiritual and cultural connections with the people.

In the wake of the Queen’s death, South Africa has resumed calls for the return of the largest diamond looted from the country by the colonial authorities and used to decorate the queen’s sceptre. It is famously known as the Great Star of Africa.

What do the monarchy boast of in their packaged aristocracy with a gem looted from an African country?

Read Also: The Queen’s legacy and holding her accountable

Oftentimes, Africa is presented as a place of poverty, disease-ravaged and a people who do not know the value of what they have. If Africa were backward and uncivilised, why would the colonialists target their artefacts to steal, depriving them of their cultural connections to these objects?

Many have argued that should these artefacts remain in Africa, that they would not be well taken care of as the people would not have known the value. I disagree with such thoughts as, if there was no meaning or reverence behind these artefacts which tell stories of the time, they would not be created in the first place. Another argument is that Africa lacks the facilities to properly keep these objects. Yet again, I disagree. Some of these artefacts could have been kept in sacred places. If there were places where they were kept at the time, how would there be an argument of a proper facility today?

It is not to be denied that the West has developed more preservation technologies than Africa but at this point in history, there should be collaboration.

Hanging these artefacts in Western museums implies a bold assertion that conquest of Africa continues.

Greek historian Polybius in The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage report of 2018, describes ‘the dual pain that the conqueror inflicts on the conquered by not only depriving him of his cultural heritage, but then inviting him to partake in the humiliating spectacle of passing through the various cities where his home country’s objects have now become the mere spoils of plundering. Polybius warns that such spectacles arouse as much anger as hatred by the victims, who plead to the future conquerors “not to create calamities of the other into the ornaments of their nation.”

The Times reported that, “Oxford and Cambridge have decided to repatriate hundreds (213) of items looted by British troops in 1897 from the royal palace in the Kingdom of Benin, now in modern-day Nigeria. The agreement marked a turning point in the debate over the future of the bronzes.”

A US based group named Restitution Study Group concerned with slavery justice disagreed. In a letter to the Charity Commission – which approves the Oxford and Cambridge universities relics transfer – preventing the repatriation of the Benin bronzes by the group, they argued that these relics should not be transferred. “Slave descendants have a co-ownership interest in these relics and we ask that you reject any request to transfer them to Nigeria. They are the wealth and legacy of slave descendants, not the slave traders… We want to secure access to these relics for our children and families at museums in the UK and USA… The Kingdom of Benin through Nigeria would be unjustly enriched by repatriation of these relics… Black people do not support slave trader heirs just because they are Black. Nigeria and the Kingdom of Benin have never apologised for enslaving our ancestors.”

The slave trade is a sad history of which the trade initiators and enablers have done wrong to humanity.

Considering the argument by the Restitution Study Group; the stealing, confiscation and appropriation of these cultural relics is a crime against the peoples of Africa. It is alienation from creativity, transmission of knowledge and deculturation of the people from their cultural heritages.

Slavery, colonialism  and socio-religious conquest is embedded in the artefacts of African origin resting in the European and American museums. It is a reminder of and continuance of the conquest, plundering and enslavement of Africa. The restitution of these stolen artefacts is a step in the reparation of the colonial crimes against Africans, restoration of historical justice and foundation of the new political order of mutual collaboration.

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