In April 1868, 13,000 British soldiers invaded Magdala where the Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros II had built his royal fortress. After defeating the Abyssinian forces, the British troops forced their way into the mountain fortress of the Emperor who committed suicide to escape capture.
The British troops who were on an expeditionary mission took with them more than the captured comrades. Before setting the fortress ablaze, the treasures were transported on 15 elephants and over 200 mules. These treasures are the famous Maqdala Treasures.
Also, in 1897 during the Benin Punitive Expedition, 1200 British soldiers invaded Benin in response to the Massacre of British citizens. After the fall of the Benin kingdom, the British forces looted various treasures. Among these are more than 1000 metal plaques known as the Benin Bronzes.
The Fate of Looted African Arts
The British aren’t the only ones who looted treasures from Africa, it was a common theme for colonial masters. Most of these treasures are in Museums all over Europe while others are in the hands of private individuals. According to reports, the British Museum in London has at least 73,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa. Also. France has 90,000 artifacts and Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa has more than 120,000 artifacts. While Germany’s Humboldt Forum has around 75,000 artifacts.
Recently, attempts have been made by individuals, private organizations, and even foreign governments to return the looted African arts. Some of these treasures like the 600 years old Ife Terracotta and a few artifacts from the Maqdala treasures have been returned. Also, 26 items belonging to the Benin Bronze collection are reportedly on display for the last time in the French museum, Quai Branly Museum. The exhibition will last from 26 to 31 October while the signing and transfer of the artifacts will take place on 9th November in Paris.
While a few of these items are making their way back to Africa, several more are yet to be returned. Here is a list of 10 looted African arts that will be returning to Africa.
10 Looted African Arts that will be Returning to Africa
While there are more than ten artifacts that have made their way back to Africa, we decided to choose the most iconic ones. Nevertheless, there are still many more stuck in western museums. We look forward to the day all African arts will find their way back in the continent.
#1. The Benin Bronzes
These are among the most cherished cultural heritage of the Ancient Benin Kingdom, now part of Benin City, Nigeria. These are a collection of more than 1,000 metal and wooden plaques and sculptures that adorned the Benin Royal Palace. Many of these looted African arts remain locked away in British museums. Interestingly, France and Germany are returning back some of these artifacts that are in their possession.
#2. The 125-Year-Old Head of Oba
This is a metal statue of the King of Ancient Benin city which was among the items looted by the British soldiers during the 1897 raid. The Oba’s head statue is a celebratory monument that commemorates a King’s predecessor. This metalhead statue was likely made between the 14th and 19th centuries. It was later purchased by the University of Aberdeen in an auction in 1957. However, after a recent internal review, the University reached to return the statue with no conditions attached.
Statues of the Royal Treasures of Abomey kingdom (Now the Benin Republic)
Among the 26 artifacts to be repatriated from France to The Republic of Benin are the three royal treasures of the Abomey Kingdom. These are the half-man half-lion statue of King Glele, the half-man, and half-bird of King Ghezo, and the half-man half-shark of King Behanzin. All three royal statues are on display for the last time in the Quai Branly museum.
#3. Half-man half-bird Statue of King Ghezo
King Ghezo is the 9th King of the Kingdom of Abomey. His reign lasted from 1818 to 1858 after overthrowing his brother Adandozan in a coup. During his reign, Ghezo increased the military might of the people of Abomey and conquered many territories. His war captives were sold into slavery and this way the people of Abomey kingdom became very wealthy. King Ghezo’s symbol is unity and his royal monument is the half-man half-bird statue.
#4. Half-man half-lion Statue of King Glele
King Glele is the 10th King of Abomey and the successor of King Ghezo. Like his father, Glele favored the slave trade and continued his father’s war campaigns. His reign lasted from 1858 to 1889 and his royal symbols are the lion and ritual knife. His royal monument is the half-man half-lion statue.
#5. Half-man half-shark Statue of King Behanzin
King Behanzin succeeded his father King Glele and his reign lasted from 1890-1894. Behazin’s reign was short-lived. After the French invasion, Behazin spent the rest of his life in Martinique and Algeria in exile. Behazin’s symbol is the shark and his royal monument is the half-man half-shark statue.
The Thrones of King Ghezo and King Glele
The thrones of Kings Ghezo and Glele are the royal seat of the 9th and 10th Kings of the Abomey Kingdom. The thrones are part of the 26 artifacts on display in the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. These 19th-century thrones are said to be made of wood and bronze.
#8. Doors of King Glele’s Palace
The Palaces of the ancient Kings of Abomey now the Republic of Benin are 12 in total and cover over 40 hectares. Each palace is unique from the other and built to the specification of the king. The Gates of King Glele’s palace has unique sculptures on it. These intricately carved sculptures are made of wood and adorn the entire surface of the doors.
The Magdala Treasures
The Scheherazade Foundation, a non-profit organization in the UK purchased some of the artifacts looted by the British soldiers during the Magdala raid. The foundation’s intent is to restitute these items back to Ethiopia. Among the recovered items is an Ethiopian Coptic Bible and the Imperial shield shown below. The Ethiopian Coptic bible is one of the oldest and most complete bibles on earth.
The push for the restitution of looted African arts came shortly after the gruesome murder of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020. This incident sparked a global outcry that spread throughout Europe, bringing the issues of racism and slavery back to the limelight. Former colonial powers were forced to confront this reality.
Many western nations argue that the reason why they cannot return looted artworks is that many African nations cannot take care of them. However, these art pieces belong to Africa and should be there. Whether Africans will value it or not is a story for another day. What do you think should be done to expedite this process? Share your opinions in the comment box below.