Africa’s colonial legacy is long and brutal. From centuries of slave trade to the pillaging of ancient art and artefacts, to this day the continent still feels the effects of occupied devastation.
However, the return to Africa of art and artefacts looted and sent to museums around the world has been gaining momentum as countries call their former colonial occupiers to account.
European colonial empires were carved out following the Berlin Conference in 1884, which formalised the occupation of countries in Africa. Europe viewed the African continent as a honeypot of gold, diamonds, bronze and many other minerals and artefacts which would ultimately enrich many of its monarchies – and it did.
Thousands of these artefacts stolen from their respective regions haven’t been returned. Among them are the Benin Bronzes from the Kingdom of Benin which were lost after the desire for control over West African trade and territory ultimately led to a British invasion of Benin in 1897. Benin City was burned by the British, who then made the kingdom part of British Nigeria (which became Nigeria after the country gained independence in 1960).
Thousands of objects were looted and later auctioned and made their way to museums in Europe.
Now, after years of pressure, Germany has announced that an agreement has been reached to return hundreds of priceless artefacts and artworks that were looted from Nigeria in colonial times and were on display in German museums.
The Benin Bronzes, which include artefacts made of bronze, ivory, wood and terracotta, are ancient pieces which are mainly figurines of rulers and are an important part of Nigerian custom and culture.
One can’t help but question the decision to return the artefacts in 2021. The effects of colonialism are still so prevalent in poorer communities and countries, and the artefacts are a stark reminder of everything that was stolen from a continent once so rich in history.
While the gesture is noble and does contribute to the debate about historical restitution, it took too long to come by.
European and American artefacts, for the most part, are displayed in museums of their owners’ choosing and are held as sacred objects that remain in their respective regions, while Africa has not been so fortunate and, decades after liberation, much of our artistic and cultural history is still in the hands of our oppressors.
In England, for example, the Cullinan Diamond, which was discovered in 1905 in South Africa, and is reported to be worth $400 million (R6.1 billion), can still be seen around the neck of Queen Elizabeth. The diamond was cut into the 530 carat Star of Africa stone and nine additional gems.
European museums also house much of the plundered loot from Egypt’s rich history, including the Rosetta Stone and the bust of Queen Nefertiti.
While the horrors of the past can never be erased, efforts towards compensation and restitution are just one step towards acknowledging a country’s unjust colonial occupation.
*This article was updated on August 19 to correct inaccuracies.