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African antiquities: time to return the loot

The British Museum still refuses to follow countries such as France in returning artefacts stolen during the colonial era — this enables white supremacy and the belief that Africans were too primitive to be able to produce great works of art, argues ROGER McKENZIE

AN early scene in the iconic hit movie Black Panther shows the anti-hero, Killmonger, in a museum arguing that an artefact was not made by the Fula tribe as advertised but instead had been taken by British soldiers in Benin and was from the kingdom of Wakanda. A work of fiction informed by fact.

Earlier on this year the government of Germany at last agreed to return to Nigeria its share of the priceless artefacts that were stolen from the kingdom of Benin in 1897.

These treasures, the Benin Bronzes, were looted by the British from the ancient kingdom of Benin. Situated in what is now Nigeria, the kingdom was razed to the ground by the British in retaliation for the killing of a British force a year earlier that had tried to capture the ruler, known as the Oba.

The British imprisoned and then exiled the Oba and in the process, looted thousands of brass, bronze and ivory sculptures. Over the years the stolen booty was sold and dispersed to museums across the world.

The British Museum houses around 900 artefacts; hundreds of pieces are to be found in Scotland, France, the US and in Germany, where the Berlin Ethnologisches Museum has more than 500 of the pillaged pieces.

France agreed in 2020 to return hundreds of the treasures in its collection but, in contrast, the British Museum has steadfastly refused all calls for a return of the spoils of conquest back to their rightful home.

The museum claims a willingness to provide a permanent display of the Bronzes in Edo, Nigeria, but not to return ownership to the descendants of Benin.

The demand for the return of the Benin Bronzes is far from recent.

The descendants of the now non-existent kingdom of Benin have always demanded the return of their property.

This continued into modern-day Nigeria and was given a strong voice in Britain by the late great pioneering black Labour MP for Tottenham, Bernie Grant, during the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.

Grant was rebuffed in his requests to both the British Museum and the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow for the return of the looted treasures to their rightful owners.

In 1997 Kelvingrove claimed that its collection of Benin Bronzes played an important role in introducing visitors to the culture and religious beliefs of the kingdom.

Incredibly, it also claimed that because museums in Nigeria already had an excellent representation of the treasures, there was no need for any permanent restitution.

Missing from the response of both the British Museum and Kelvingrove is the undisputed fact that this is stolen property.

It is difficult to sustain an argument that stolen goods once found should not be returned to its rightful owners.

In the Britain the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act of 2009 gave national institutions, including the British Museum and the National Gallery, the legal power to return to their rightful owners the treasures they housed in their collections that had been stolen by the Nazis.

No such consideration has ever been given to goods stolen by the British imperial forces in Africa.

It is way past the time for this to change.

Anyone who can prove ownership of treasures in British museums, such as the Oba of Benin and his descendants, should be able to claim back their property.

It is insulting, to say the least, that anyone who has been robbed should have to go cap in hand to the people who now possess the stolen items — only to be refused.

Viewing their property in the home of the burglar is meant to suffice.

Returning the booty stolen by the British in their numerous conquests must be a priority for anyone who considers themselves an anti-imperialist.

This is not merely a question of property, financial or even aesthetic restitution. This is also about stolen memory and dignity.

Memory is the bedrock upon which one can build for the future. The stolen treasures are not just incredible works of art and important religious artefacts — they represent the memory of an almost forgotten advanced African civilisation.

Without the memory of places such as Benin or Great Zimbabwe, then all of us are condemned to either believe or not have the evidence to refute those who claim, in their white supremacy, that the people of Africa are far too primitive to be able to produce great works of art.

I am very proud to be the chair of the Bernie Grant Trust, set up in the memory of my friend and comrade.

Memory, as I have said, is critical but on its own it is not enough. There must be action to build on and celebrate the memory.

The trust will continue the campaign for the return of the Benin Bronzes and all the other loot stolen by the British on their imperial adventures.

Liberation will work with them to support this important campaign because the legacy of colonialism is there for us all to see. A short visit to the British Museum will prove my point.

Roger McKenzie is general secretary of Liberation and a long time trade union and anti-racist organiser.

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