Stealing Africa. How Britain looted the continent’s art

(Aljazeera) - During war and colonisation, Western nations participated in the theft of thousands of pieces of African art. This is the story of the role Britain’s anti-slavery mission played in looting African artefacts, and of the campaign to get them returned.

Stealing Africa. How Britain looted the continent’s art

Nowadays, the sleepy town of Chibok in northern Nigeria is notorious for the kidnapping of 276 children by Boko Haram. But go back 115 years and this tiny farming community perched atop a hill fought one of the greatest resistances to British colonisation.

In November 1906, around 170 British soldiers launched what that country’s parliament called a “punitive expedition” against the town for carrying out annual raids along British trade routes in Borno state.

In defence, during an 11-day siege, Chibok townsmen shot poisoned arrows at the soldiers from hideouts in the hills.

The fiercely independent “small Chibbuk tribe of savages”, as they were described in a report presented to Britain’s parliament in December 1907, had been “the most determined lot of fighters” ever encountered in what is now modern-day Nigeria. It took British forces another three months to annex Chibok, and only after they discovered their natural water source and “starved them out”, the report said.

The arrows and spears the Chibok townsmen had used against the British were then collected and sent to London where they are held in storage today. But curator labels available online about the background of the items at the British Museum – which holds around 73,000 African objects – make no mention of how the spears got there, nor of the town’s resistance against “punitive” colonisation.

Shrouded in a storeroom, those arrows point to a wider conflict unfolding about artefacts looted from Africa during wars and colonisation and held in Western museums.

While many Western curators defend their collections as “universal”, representing the art of the world regardless of how they were acquired, critics suggest they have not done enough to accurately present the complex histories of the objects that were taken.

Historian Max Siollun recounts Chibok’s capture in his book, What Britain did to Nigeria, which examines the legacy of Nigeria’s violent colonisation in its rapidly expanding modern crisis. He believes historical narratives – largely written by Europeans – were deeply flawed, neglecting “a much more interesting and deeper history”.

“It is very dangerous to rely on the victor’s account as the sole account of history,” he says. “There is a proverb about this … the tale of the hunt will always be the hunter’s tale until the lion learns how to tell its story.”

Critics also accuse Western museums of participating in a gross abuse of power.

“Museums were definitely devices that helped to shape colonialism and stories of conquests and the legitimising of the conquests,” says Ayisha Osori, director of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), headquartered in Senegal. She is co-leading a four-year, $15m initiative by the Open Society to help nations get back their cultural treasures held abroad.

“If we use the Benin kingdom in Nigeria, the Dahomey kingdom in Benin [Republic] and the Ashanti kingdom in Ghana – a lot of violence was how these things were taken,” she says.

Six decades on from independence, African governments are actively seeking the return of stolen artefacts. Historically, European authorities refuted claims for return on the basis that they could not determine who the original owners were. Other excuses, according to Abba Isa Tijani, the director general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, included concerns that returned artefacts would not be properly managed.

So, Nigerians formed an independent body in 2020 – the Legacy Restoration Trust – to act as an intermediary and manage negotiations with foreign museums. Tijani believes it was the best step forward and is designed to survive changes in Nigerian politics.

Nigeria has since been proactively clinching agreements for returns with institutions in the United States, Germany, Ireland and Britain, including the University of Aberdeen, the Church of England, the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles, the National Museum of Ireland and Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum.

As we spoke, Tijani was in the middle of finalising the return of three Nigerian artefacts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, announced in June – two 16th century Benin Bronze plaques and a 14th century Ife head. He hoped that more museums with similarly stolen Nigerian objects would consider returning them.

But negotiations with the British Museum have often reached an impasse. Britain’s government recently adopted a “retain and explain” stance for state-owned institutions, meaning that monuments and contested objects will be kept but contextualised. European state-owned institutions require new laws to be able to return their collections. This has been enacted in France and Germany but British institutions are still prevented from doing so by the British Museum Act of 1963 and the National Heritage Act of 1983. The UK government has said it has no plans to amend those laws to enable return.

The Benin Dialogue Group, a network of Nigerian representatives and European museums including the British Museum, have been engaged in decades-long discussions about loaned returns with few tangible timelines. “We thought that this is the group that will enable the United Kingdom to succumb to the issue of repatriation,” says Tijani, but “this process is not very clear.”

He says Nigeria “will not relent”, and hopes to “talk more with the British Museum and then come up with a very concise, concrete, timely repatriation of our objects.”

The British Museum told Al Jazeera it was “engaged in a series of dialogues with different parties in Benin, especially the Legacy Restoration Trust, and is aware of widespread hopes of future cooperation.” It would not offer any clarification on a date for loaned returns.

Chapter Two: Slavers turned merchants...Read More