We Will Show You Looted Benin Bronzes But Will Not Give Them Back: Second Defeat And Permanent Humiliation For Benin?
"There was a dim grandeur about it all, and also these seemed to a fate. Here was this head center of iniquity, spared by us from its suitable end of burning for the sake of holding the new seat of justice where barbarism had held away, given into our hands with the brand of Blood soaked into every corner and ........ fire only could purge it, and here on our last day we were to see its legitimate fate overtake it." - H. R. Bacon, Benin the City of Blood. (1)
Readers will recall that in a previous article we mentioned that the so-called Benin Dialogue Group has so far not provided the public with any reliable detailed information on the proposed revolving exhibition of looted Benin artefacts in Benin City that is intended to be 'loaned' to Nigeria. This is a very interesting way of dealing with matters of interest to the public in Nigeria and elsewhere by public institutions financed by the taxpayer. (2) We are still waiting for information on the following:
a) Which institutions will 'loan'?
b) Who will appoint the curator/director of the exhibition, which nationality?
c) What are the number and names of the looted artefacts they will 'loan'?
d) What are the costs of the 'loan' – any interests and fees- to be paid?
e) What are the costs of transportation from Europe to Benin City?
f) What are the costs of insurance?
g) Which insurance company or companies will be involved, Nigerian or Western?
h) What is the time-frame for the exhibition start?
It will be interesting to know how the Nigerian Government will explain to its people that it is making payments to the British regarding the Benin artefacts that the British stole in 1897 which are now being displayed in Benin City but continue to be under British ownership. The average Nigerian will think the world has been turned upside down. Instead of obliging those who steal to return the objects and pay a penalty, they are now being rewarded for displaying the stolen objects.
While waiting for more information, we continue our reflections on a project we think has not been carefully thought out and, in view of the historical background of looting, burning, destruction and general havoc caused by the British invasion of 1897, constitutes an insult to Nigerians and Africans.
Members of the nefarious Punitive Expedition of 1897 posing proudly with looted Benin artefacts.
There is no need for us to rehearse here the history of the invasion, looting and burning of Benin City in 1897 by the United Kingdom, a country with which the Kingdom of Benin had no common borders, a country from Europe, that set out to establish its hegemony over Africa, some thousands of kilometres away from the British Isles. It was the refusal of Oba Owonramwen to submit to the attempts of imposition of British rule that led eventually to the nefarious invasion. (3)
Readers will also recall the collecting methods of Western expeditions to Africa as exemplified by the notorious Djibouti - Dakar Expedition which went through several African countries, including Nigeria, in 1931-1933, stealing artefacts, intimidating, and threatening those who refused to give up religious or cultural objects. (4)
At the moment, the German Humboldt Forum, Berlin, is in the process of completion and the looted Benin artefacts in the Ethnology Museum, Dahlem, Berlin, will be transferred to the new institution. Several NGOs, united under the umbrella of No Humboldt 21, have made protests questioning the legality and the legitimacy of ownership of looted artefacts by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. (5) The World Museum, Vienna, formerly Völkerkunde Museum, that has closed its African Section where the Benin artefacts are for 17 years, will be reopening in October 2017. (6)
Ever since the looting of some 3500 Benin artefacts, the Oba of Benin and his people have been requesting their return but have had no success. (7) The British have always refused but were not averse to selling them. (8)
The major Western museums issued in 2000 a statement, Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, by which they claimed that artefacts that have long been in the museums, no matter how acquired, have become part of the culture of the countries where they are located; they were not going to repatriate such artefacts. (9)
During an International Symposium in 2006, organized within the context of the Benin Exhibition Benin - Kings and Rituals: Royal Arts from Nigeria, the Benin delegation stated that if all the museums holding Benin artefacts returned one artefact each, the Oba of Benin and his people would be satisfied. He got an immediate negative response came from Christian Feest, then Director of the Völkerkunde Museum. (10)
The United Nations, UNESCO and other bodies have urged the return of artefacts to their countries of origin but to no effect. (11)
We should also remember, particularly as regards security in museums, that the colonialists did not build any first-class museums in all the decades of their rule. Most modern museums in the African countries were built after Independence or shortly before Independence. Moreover, we should remember that the colonialists did not provide any of the African museums with materials and objects of European civilization even though it was always alleged that they were bringing civilization to Africa. Which civilization, European or African? In this, we recognize the lies of colonial propaganda. How were they going to bring European civilization to Africa when they were not even ready to bring European paintings and artefacts to museums in Africa? On the contrary, the European colonialists spent much time and energy in looting African artefacts for their museums at home. Consider the Benin Punitive Expedition and the Dakar - Djibouti Mission as well as the various stealing by adventurers such as Leo Frobenius, not forgetting the activities of the Christian missions in collecting and sending 'heathen' artefacts to Europe. (12)
It is against the background of the history of colonialist activities in this area as well as the present conduct of Western institutions, that we must evaluate the proposed revolving exhibition in Benin City.
So far, we do not know who submitted the proposal to set up a rotating exhibition of looted Benin artefacts in Benin City with European 'ownership' of the artefacts. Since the proposal is presented in the name of the so-called Benin Dialogue Group, in the absence of any clear evidence to the contrary, it must be assumed that both Nigerians and Europeans bear joint responsibility and paternity of this singular arrangement. Whether there was also an official Benin delegation involved in the decision, is not clear.
Oba Ozolua with attendants, Benin, Nigeria, now in World Museum, formerly Ethnology Museum, Vienna, Austria.
If the proposed scheme were to be implemented, it would be an important victory for Western States and museums. The project would imply:
1. The renunciation by the Oba, the people of Benin and Nigeria of their rights to seek the return of the artefacts looted by the British Punitive Expedition in 1897 and possibly other artefacts looted/stolen under unclarified circumstances. The rights of the Oba of Benin would have been signed away without his express consent. Can the Oba make such a renunciation without consulting his people?
2. Even though other African peoples and States are not involved in the current discussions and thus have no means of influencing decisions, patterns set up by the project would be applied to them;
they would have difficulties in arguing for other solutions, better than what the Nigerians have secured. We should bear in mind that the people of Benin have one of the best claims to recover looted artefacts. Should they fail with their claim, countries like Congo, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Republic of Benin, Zimbabwe and others would have tremendous difficulties to obtain any restitution of their looted artefacts from Western States.
3. Western States and their museums would be the great beneficiaries of this scheme. The West needs no longer have any bad conscience that it has not returned African artefacts looted during the colonial period despite the claims of African peoples for their return. It would be easily answered that the West has organized exhibitions of the artefacts in the corresponding countries.
4. The moral and political pressure from international organizations such as United Nations, UNESCO and ICOM would have been neutralized or at least considerably reduced without the West having to return the artefacts as required by countless resolutions.
5. The poverty of African museums in terms of numbers and quality of African artefacts in their possessions, would have been sealed forever.
Where else can they obtain African artefacts of quality, if not from those who looted our artefacts in the colonial period?
6. There would be no hope of possible restitution of African artefacts in future.
7. How much Western States would benefit financially from this scheme has not been stated but if we realize what can be done in the question of insurance, we can imagine the following:
a) Extremely high premiums to be paid by Nigeria.
b) The relevant insurance would be made with a British or other Western insurance company.
Relief plaque with Oba Esigie with Ugie Oro Staff, Benin, Nigeria, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
The problems raised by the proposed display of looted Benin artefacts in Benin City are enormous and we cannot pretend to be able to enumerate or discuss them in the absence of detailed information by the proponents. But we have some basic doubts about the scheme.
When Italy requested the restitution of looted Italian artefacts that were in several American museums and institutions, the objects were returned, with Italy exerting some pressure on the American institutions - The Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Princeton University's Art Museum. The Italians organized in Rome an exhibition of the returned looted artefacts entitled “Nostoi: Returned Masterpieces” (“Nostoi: Capolavori Ritrovati” (13) Nobody ever suggested having an exhibition in Rome with ownership of the objects remaining with the American institutions that would take them back to the USA. Similarly, when looted objects were being returned to Greece, Turkey or Peru, nobody suggested there could be displays in those countries with the objects remaining in the ownership of those institutions that had been keeping them. (14)
When Cambodia asked for restitution from Denver Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, The Norton Simon, Sotheby's and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, no one thought of any loanexhibition. (15)
From all requests by States for restitution, there has been straightforward restitution, sometimes after disputes, but it appeared to all that the correct solution was to return the object requested. It is only in the case of Nigeria that the Western museums have come up with a scheme that appears as a return, for the objects are exhibited in the requesting country but, the objects remain in the ownership of the holders. It would be obvious to all that there is here a differentiated treatment.
Whilst in most cases, the requested object is returned and the disputes between the parties are settled, in the case of Nigeria, the objects are not returned and the relations between the parties about the object, continue with potentiality for further disputes. In the case of Nigeria, there seems to be a wish to prolong the dependence of Nigeria on the Western States and museums. But why the differentiated treatment for Nigeria? We can only surmise that this is based on the established general disrespect for Nigerians and Africans, evolving from slavery, colonialism and the resultant racism. The worst aspect of this ill-treatment is that it has gone on for so long, some five hundred years, that both the perpetrators and their victims sometimes behave as if they did not realize this. (This ill treatment is very generalized. Look at the usual treatment of Africans at Western airports.) They seek to find other grounds for the differentiation but they find none and remain embarrassingly silent on this discrimination. When other States request the return of looted artefacts, they eventually get them. When Nigerians and other Africans make similar requests, they are met with derision, vituperations and insults regarding their inefficiency made by the very States that stole their artefacts. Illegal holders of stolen objects have the impudence to insult the owners for making claims for return.
Perhaps, we should not be too surprised that the museums are proving to be one of the last bastions of racism and colonialism, despite all declarations to the contrary. The renaming of many Western museums into 'World Museums' and the tremendous efforts made by the high priests and priestesses of universalism in Berlin, Chicago, London, New York, Paris and Vienna to convince us that they were created or are there to serve the world and humanity did not deceive or convince anyone but themselves. The histories of the violent acquisitions of artefacts from Africa, Asia, Australasia and the Americas are too well-known to be hidden. Western museums have been true to their original purpose of demonstrating the supremacy and superiority of the conquering and destructive colonial and imperialist powers, guarding in their fortresses the universal loot of the military powers. The links between colonialism, imperialism and museums are too evident to require any further demonstrations. The cynicism of the museums reaches a climax when they pretend to serve the various African and Asian diasporas that have been created in the previous imperial States. The exile, uprooting of many non-Europeans, through the hegemonic Western economic system of exploiting cheap labour, surely cannot be advanced as justification for looted artefacts.
Altar Group with Oba Ewuakpe. Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnology Museum, Berlin, Germany.
Can we for a moment imagine that when China requests the return of the thousands of objects stolen from the Summer Palace, Beijing, in 1860, that a similar scheme is proposed? That objects will be displayed in a revolving exhibition in Beijing but they will continue to be in Western ownership and will be returned from time to time to Europe. Can we imagine such a situation? Obviously not. The West has, despite hostility to China, too much respect for that mighty nation and its people to make such a ridiculous proposal. Clearly, there is not between China and the Western States that relation of master and servant, superior and inferior, that would make such a proposal imaginable. The West has no such respect for, or fear of, Nigerians and Africans. These are former colonized and dominated peoples. This lack of respect for Africans has been demonstrated repeatedly. The wonder is that many educated Africans do not seem to have drawn any conclusions on the essential characteristic of 500 years of Afro-Western relationships. (16)
The proposal to establish an exhibition in Benin reminds me of someone who has stolen my Mercedes-Benz and when requested to return the stolen vehicle makes the following proposal:
I will bring the vehicle at an agreed date and time. Your wife (or wives, I know this is possible in Nigeria and Africa) and children may admire the car, sit in it with you at the steer and we can drive to places you or they choose. At the end of the day, I will take the car back but the next day it can be brought back. You will of course pay for the petrol costs, insurance and any eventual repairs.
The proposal also reminds me of someone who has stolen my CDs who makes the following proposals:
I will bring the CDs to your next birthday party along with best DJ who will play as long as you want. After the party, we will take the CDs away with us but anytime you need to hear the best African music, call us and we will be with you. The CDs will be kept at the Kalamazoo Hotel music lounge which you know.
Readers will by now have drawn the conclusion that I regard the proposed scheme to establish a revolving exhibition in Benin City with continued ownership by the Western States and museums as bad and offensive. It is offensive as far as it constitutes a permanent denial of the rights of the people of Benin to own their own cultural artefacts. The proposal is also a discrimination against African peoples in questions of restitution of looted/stolen objects. It is offensive towards the memory of all those who lost their lives and properties in the notorious invasion of 1897.
They treat us Africans as children who should be protected for their own good. This corresponds to the views of the old European philosophers and ethnologists. In colonial times, the Europeans treated their African employees as children and would speak to them in corresponding manner. What the proposed exhibition says is:
'You can have a look at these artefacts but we want them back and cannot allow you to have complete control over them since you are not capable of looking after them well. You are not able to protect them and they will soon be lost. We have to keep them for the sake of humanity'.
This is, in effect, also the argument of those Western scholars who say that from
a moral point of view, Benin has absolute right to have her artefacts back. They
add however that, if this should happen, it would mean African art and art
history do not have their rightful place in art history because they would not be
represented in British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art, the Louvre
and the Ethnology Museum in Berlin. This is a manifestation of the age-long
Western belief that they have, perhaps from God, a duty to protect the artefacts
of others from their own weaknesses and follies. It is the same spirit which
animates a collector like Barbier-Mueller who made huge profits from
collecting African artefacts, including many objects from Nigeria, which he sold
to the Musée du Quai Branly, even though he was a member of their selecting
committee. He declared that the African artefacts in Western collections should
never be returned to Africa: “We Westerners are the ones who confer the quality of art to
these objects. These statues should not return to Africa.” (17)
An exhibition in Benin City as proposed will constitute a daily insult and provocation for all those who must pass by that museum/exhibition every day. The exhibition might become an object for protest by those who have grievances.
Bust of Queen-Mother Idia, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnology Museum, Berlin, projected for transfer to Humboldt Forum, Berlin, Germany.
What then is the alternative proposal to the proposal by the so-called Benin Dialogue Group?
1. Treat the request for the return of the Benin artefacts as all other such requests and not invent any self-serving scheme that will prolong the sad history of the notorious looting.
2. The ownership question must be settled before any other matter, such as security or insurance is considered. There can hardly be any meaningful discussion on security when we do not know what objects are to be secured. If only a few items are to be returned, discussion on the issue would be meaningless. Similarly, if only few objects are to be returned, do we need to worry much about their security? Finally, security of artefacts in Nigeria, should be left to the Nigerian authorities. It is their responsibility. If they feel they need the help of other States and their museums, they will say so. Equally, we cannot meaningfully discuss insurance when we do not know what objects, number and quality, are to be insured. Nigeria might decide not to insure certain artefacts. After all, not all artefacts in Western museums are insured. Security and insurance of objects are not constitutive elements of the right of property.
It follows logically from the foregoing that the museums should finally state precisely the number of Benin artefacts they are holding. We cannot fruitfully and meaningfully discuss these matters when we are not sure about the numbers and qualities involved. In this context, this writer wrote an article about the difficulty in knowing where the 400 Benin artefacts that used to be in the Field Museum, Chicago, in 2006, are now to be found. (18) There has been no reaction from Field Museum or any other museum. One might have thought that 400 Benin artefacts were important enough for us to want to know their whereabouts. Apparently, museums and their officials do not think so. They have more important matters to worry about than the whereabouts of 400 Benin artefacts.
3. Return a certain proportion of the 3500 objects that were looted. Each museum should return at least 90 per cent of the objects it now holds illegally. There is no reason the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, that holds admittedly 508 Benin artefacts should not return 90 % of those pieces. British Museum could return 90% of the 900 pieces it allegedly holds. The World Museum, Vienna could return 90% 0f the 167 pieces it holds. Queen-mother Idia, and the other famous Benin nobles should return to Benin where they belong and not be kept in the British Museum or in the Humboldt Forum where they are treated as foreigners. It is interesting to note in this context that the other African queen in German captivity, Nefertiti, is considered a' Berlinerin' whilst Queen- mother Idia remains a foreigner, unknown to many. (19)
Nigerian/Benin experts would make the necessary selections to ensure that Benin has those artefacts that records its history and represent the ethos of the people. Queen-Mother Idia, Oba Esigie, Oba Akenzua I, Oba Ewuakpe, Oba Ozolua, and all pieces that constitute records of Benin history and culture should be returned. These historical figures have no role in Austrian, British, German, or Dutch history.
4. Agreements should be made regarding the remaining Benin artefacts left in Western museums.
5. Western museums may make replicas of objects they think their people still need to know about after a hundred-year presence of Benin artefacts in their museum.
6. Transportation costs of the artefacts from Europe to Nigeria shall be borne by the relevant museum.
7. Other African States and their specialists should be invited as observers to all meetings of the so-called Benin Dialogue Group.
8. All activities of the Group and its deliberations should be made public and published at a definite site of the internet.
9. There should be discussions on the benefits Western museums have obtained in the 120 years in which they kept the Benin artefacts. For example, the British Museum charged fees for using images of the Benin artefacts. Sylvester Ogbechie has written:
'Not only do Western museums hold African art objects literally in bondage, they assert an ownership claim to copyright of those objects. This is akin to double dispossession of the African producers of these artworks, who are denied physical ownership and also…claims to copyright ownership. … African cultures and societies who produced these artworks own any intellectual property rights that may accrue to the artworks. Any counterclaim of the sort the British Museum and other 2 Western museums make on these artworks) is false and fraudulent, and completely illegal'. (20)
No African finds it easy to accept that in order to use the image of Queen- mother Idia he or she must pay fees to the British holders of an artefact looted by the British in 1897.
10. Copyright issues should be discussed and settled. For instance, should Benin/Nigerian writers pay copyright fees to British Museum for using the image of the ivory hip-mask of Queen-Mother Idia?
11. Any merchandising of Benin artefacts should transfer 70% of the proceeds to the Oba of Benin.
12. Compensation to Benin should be in cash and not in scholarships for training future museum officials. It should not be enough, after all these years of holding illegally the Benin artefacts, to say to the people of Benin, 'Here are some of your artefacts, good-bye'.
It is often said that the western museums have looked well after the Benin artefacts. What is not said, is that they have done well with the artefacts. They have derived enormous benefits from the presence of the Benin artefacts in their museums in addition to copyright charges for usage of the Benin images.
The 'care argument' is one of those useless arguments that appear at first sight reasonable, especially if one does not have present in mind all the relevant facts. The Benin artefacts had been guarded at the Oba's Palace for some 600 years before they were stolen by the British who had studied the matter beforehand. They were not found by accident. The Foreign Office had reasoned that the proceeds of sale of the artefacts would be enough to cover the costs of the projected invasion. It is not as if marauding troops accidentally found these objects. Experts planned the loot. The objects were found in a Royal Palace and not on a rubbish heap. The view then that somehow those who stole the artefacts had rendered Benin a good service by looking after them well, is therefore nonsense. After they had killed hundreds of people for these treasures, how were they to handle the valuable looted objects? Can a person who has stolen precious objects turn up decades later and plead that he had looked after them well and therefore should be allowed to keep them or be compensated for the care? We have not heard such an argument being offered in any restitution case except when it concerns African artefacts, another reflection of the ingrained Western prejudice that Africans cannot look after their artefacts even in the very moment when the West is stealing 600 years old objects.
We need not dwell too long on past iniquities but the present imbalance of ownership of African artefacts as between Western States and African States cannot be ignored and must be addressed and corrected. Those who have used violence to rob others of their resources, including artefacts as in the notorious Punitive Expedition of 1897 and have used unconscionable methods, such as demonstrated in Phantom Africa to loot/steal artefacts, including religious objects and children's dolls, should not be allowed to present themselves as having rendered the victims a great service while still refusing, after hundred or more years, to return some of the stolen objects.
Altar Group with Oba Akenzua I, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnology Museum, Berlin, Germany.
We maintain that our contemporary Westerners appear to be worse than their
forbears. Whilst the old colonialists and imperialists seemed to have believed in
what they did, our contemporaries appear as cynics and opportunists: they
declare themselves as against racism, colonialism, and imperialism and yet
are not prepared to give up any of the advantages and objects the evil doctrines
brought them. They reject looting but keep all the loot in their museums. Many
Westerners who have profited from African art, have even expressed the view
that African art objects should never be returned to Africa. Greed seems to be the creed here.
The strange and insulting proposal to set up a rotating exhibition of looted Benin artefacts in Benin City where the British Army looted the precious objects must be rejected. The complications and difficulties of the unusual project arise primarily from the unwillingness of contemporary Westerners to admit that the brutal invasion of 1897 was unjustified and the looting of the Benin artefacts, condemnable. They seem to be of the view that their ancestors per se could never have done anything wrong towards Africans. It is the same belief that makes it difficult for Westerners to apologize for colonialism or slavery. The same attitude prevents Germans from accepting their responsibility for the massacre of the Herero and Nama even though the facts recorded by their own officials and writers have led to this conclusion many decades ago. The same spirit animates the Musée du quai Branly that displays without shame on the serene banks of the Seine looted African objects as described in Phantom Africa by Michel Leiris. Quel monde, mon Dieu! (What a world, my God!)
But must Africans continue listening to the lame and mendacious explanations that are often offered?
If after 57 years of Independence Nigeria has not been able to persuade any of the holders of Benin artefacts (21) through the 'policy of quiet diplomacy' to return even a single artefact (from Western museums and not customs or police seizures), we submit the policy has totally failed and should be abandoned without further ado. Cambodia, Ecuador, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Turkey and other States that pursued different policies have been more successful.
The proposal to establish an exhibition of looted Benin artefacts in Benin City, with ownership remaining with Western museums that have been holding illegally the stolen artefacts for 120 years (hundred years and twenty years) should be rejected.
It is our considered and humble submission that it would be in the interest of all concerned - Oba of Benin and the Benin people, the Nigerian Government and its citizens, African States and their peoples - that no such scheme be established. If after honestly considering all the relevant facts, no better solution can be found, the status quo should be maintained and we should continue to strive for full return until the Western States accept that it is wrong to loot artefacts of others and not return, at least, a respectable proportion of the looted artefacts.
The proposal to establish a revolving exhibition in Benin, with ownership still remaining with the European States and museums, shows once again that our contemporary Westerners do not fully appreciate the historic significance of the invasion and destruction of 1897 and what it means, not only for the people of Benin and Nigeria but for all African peoples. The significance of Benin as an African civilization that was abruptly truncated by a European power evokes strong feelings in Africa and reminds us of European determination to assume control over our Continent and its resources and to subjugate us for ever.
Once again, our contemporary Westerners are missing a great opportunity to make a bold gesture that would not only revive our faith in the honesty and human feelings of the Westerners and convince us of their determination to break with the not so glorious past of their forebears on our Continent. They do not realize that since 1897 the invasion of the Benin Kingdom and the looting of Benin artefacts have come to symbolize more than the artefacts themselves.
Evidently many Westerners cannot appreciate how a people feel when their important artefacts which constitute the records of their history have been looted and kept elsewhere for hundred and twenty years. That this is beyond the horizons of many, is not surprising. They have not been at the receiving end of many of the evils of history, slavery, colonialism and racism and all that they imply. Imagine Nigeria had looted important British artefacts, kept some and sold the rest to other West African States, Ghana, Liberia, Burkina Faso and Gambia. When requested to return some of them, the African States get together and decide to hold an exhibition of the looted objects in London but retain ownership in the objects. How would the British and other Europeans feel? It is an equivalent offer, however, that Europeans are proposing to the people of Benin and Nigeria.
' The question of the meaning of the 'Benin bronzes' or 'Elgin Marbles' in London – 1900 or 2000 – is inseparable from the issue of British attitudes towards Africa and the Orient as sites, once for direct military and political colonisation, and now for their post-imperial economic exploitation and indirect manipulation. To return them would imply the belief, on the part of the British authorities, that the peoples of those parts of the world were now capable of competently looking after artefacts that were removed ostensibly on the grounds that the local inhabitants were unfit, because of the 'degeneration' of their societies, to act as their curators. Their return would also imply admission of their illegal possession by the British. Both implications remain largely unthinkable because post-imperial racism continues to be a highly significant aspect of British foreign policy. Though British society may be relatively 'multicultural' now, its ruling elite, like that of the US, is still predominantly white, middle-class and male.' Jonathan Harris. (22)
Kwame Tua Opoku. 1 October 2017.
Trophy Head, Benin, Nigeria, now in Musée du quai Branly, Paris, France. One of the objects looted by the British in 1897 from Benin, Nigeria.
1. R. H. Bacon, Benin: City of Blood (pp. 107-108) cited by the great Expo Eyo, “Benin; The Sack that was”, http://www.edo-nation.net/eyo.htm
2. K. Opoku, European museums to 'loan' looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria https://www.pambazuka.org/.../european-museums-'loan'-looted-benin-bronzes-niger
3. There are many accounts of the invasion of Benin but my favourite is this short account by
Sylvester Oakwood Ogbechie:
“In February 1897, an elite British force of about 1200 men (supported by several hundred African auxiliary troops and thousands of African porters) besieged Benin City, capital of the Edo Kingdom of Benin, whose ruler, the Oba Overawe sat on a throne that was a thousand years old. The British Punitive Expedition used Maxim machine guns to mow down most of the Oba's 130,000 soldiers and secure control of the capital city. They set fire to the city and looted the palace of 500 years' worth of bronze objects that constituted the royal archive of Benin's history, an irreplaceable national treasure. The king and his principal chiefs fled into the countryside, pursued by British forces who lay waste to the countryside as a strategy to force the people of Benin to give up their fugitive king. According to Richard Gott, for a further six months, a small British force harried the countryside in search of the Oba and his chiefs who had fled. Cattle was seized and villages destroyed. Not until August was the Oba cornered and brought back to his ruined city. An immense throng was assembled to witness the ritual humiliation that the British imposed on their subject peoples. The Oba was required to kneel in front of the British military “resident” the town and to literally bite the dust. Supported by two chiefs, the king made obeisance three times, rubbing his forehead on the ground three times. He was told that he had been deposed. Oba Ovonramwen finally surrendered to stem the slaughter of his people. Many of his soldiers considered his surrender an unbearable catastrophe and committed suicide rather than see the king humiliated. A significant number, led by some chiefs, maintained guerrilla warfare against the British for almost two years until their leaders were captured and executed. The remaining arms of the resistance thereafter gave up their arms and merged back into the general population.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2HHWsr3A2M Battle of Benin City -Kingdom of Bronze. From David Attenborough's 1975 television series The Tribal Eye.
4.Michel Leiris, Phantom Africa, English translation by Brent Hayes Edwards, see also K. Opoku, Who Is Afraid of Phantom Africa? - Modern Ghana
5.See Annex - Resolution of No Humboldt 21,3rd June,2013.
It is a pity that no one has found it useful or necessary to consult the European population about restitution of African artefacts. Most Europeans, at least the youth, would tell you that there is no justification for retention of looted African artefacts in European museums. My own experience with talking to young Austrians,15-18 years old, was the shock on their faces to hear that museums in London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna are keeping Benin artefacts that were looted by the British with military force in 1897 and that contemporary Westerners are not prepared to return any of these artefacts.
6. K. Opoku – Vienna World Museum is Shrinking
7. Petition to British Parliament Appendix 21 in Annex II below. See the exchanges between Toyin Agbetu and Neil MacGregor in Kwame Opoku – Is the De-Accession Policy of the British Museum a Farce? www.afrikanet.info › The correspondence between Neil MacGregor and Professor Tunde Babawale regarding the 'loan' of the FESTAC
icon, Queen-mother Idia, the correspondence between Bernie Grant, MP and Julian Spalding, Director, Art Gallery and Museum Kelvingrove Glasgow on Benin artefacts, can be found in Peju Layiwola and Sola Olorunyomi (Eds.),
Benin 1897.com-Art and the Restitution Question, 2010, pp.198-207.
9. K. Opoku, 'Declaration on The Importance and Value of Universal Museums: Singular Failure of An Arrogant Imperialist Project'
www.afrikanet.info › Home › African Art
11. K. Opoku, Did Germans Never Hear Directly or Indirectly Nigeria's Demand for Return of Looted Artefacts? https://www.modernghana.com/.../did-germans-n++ever-hear-directly-or-indirectly-nige..
The United Nations General Assembly has since 1972 passed many resolutions on the Protection and the Return of Cultural Property.
· Resolution 3026 A (XXVII) of 18 December 1972
· Resolution 3148 (XXVIII) of 14 December 1973
· Resolution 3187 (XXVIII) of 18 December 1973
· Resolution 3391 (XXX) of 19 November 1975
· Resolution 31/40 of 30 November 1976
· Resolution 32/18 of 11 November 1977
· Resolution 33/50 of 14 December 1978
· Resolution 34/64 of 29 November 1979
· Resolutions 35/127 and 35/128 of 11 December 1980
· Resolution 36/64 of 27 November 1981
· Resolution 38/34 of 25 November 1983
· Resolution 40/19 of 21 November 1985
· Resolution 42/7 of 22 October 1987
· Resolution 44/18 of 6 November 1989
· Resolution 46/10 of 22 October 1991
· Resolution 48/15 of 2 November 1993
· Resolution 50/56 of 11 December 1995
· Resolution 52/24 of 25 November 1997
· Resolution 54/190 of 17 December 1999
· Resolution 56/97 of 14 December 2001
· Resolution 1483 of 22 May 2003 by the Security Council of the UN concerning Iraq
· Resolution 58/17 of 3 December 2003
· Resolution 61/52 of 4 December 2006
· Resolution 64/78 of 7 December 2009
· Resolution A.67/L.34 of 5 December 2012
· Resolution A/RES/70/76 of 9 December 2015
12. K. Opoku, Vatican owes Africa the truth | Pambazuka News
13.K. Opoku, Returned Stolen/Looted Art Displayed by Italy ...
www.afrikanet.info › Home › African Art
Byzantine material returned to Greece
www.telegraph.co.uk › ... › World News › South America › Peru
Yale set to return 4,000 Inca treasures to Peru | The Independent
www.independent.co.uk › News › World › Americas
Mexico Returns Historical Archaeological artefacts To Peru | News .
https://www.theguardian.com › World › Turkey
www.hurriyetdailynews.com › LIFE › ARCHAEOLOGY
www.look4ward.co.uk › Culture
After years of denial, MFA to return 'Weary Herakles' statue to Turkey ...
Khmer artefacts in London returned to Cambodia - The Archaeology ...
www.independent.co.uk › News › World › Asia
16. Chinweizu, The West and the Rest of Us: White Predators, Black Slavers, and the African Elite, Random House, 1975.
17.“Ce sont nous, Occidentaux, qui conférons à ces oeuvres une valeur d'art. Ces statues ne doivent pas retourner en Afrique” www.artscape.fr
See also Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller, museum founder and collector who opposed the return of artefacts to their countries of origin theartnewspaper.com/.../jean-paul-barbier-mueller-museum-founder-and-collector-wh
Nefertiti, the other African queen from Egypt in German captivity, whom the Germans call Nofretete, is regarded as a German, a Berlin lady whereas Idia, the Benin queen-mother from Nigeria, has not achieved the status of a German or Berlinerin even though the Nigerian came to Germany before the Egyptian queen. Idia was sold to the Germans in the same year as she was abducted by the nefarious Punitive Expedition of 1897. Nefertiti came to Germany, through the agency of the German archaeologist, Ludwig Borchardt in 1913. Thus, when Nefertiti arrived in Berlin, Idia had been there already since 1897. So why is Nefertiti a Berlinerin and Idia a foreigner? I suggest the ground could be the skin colour of the two African queens. Nefertiti, although Egyptian, is portrayed as fair skinned and almost a Caucasian. Idia is solidly dark. The features of the Egyptian queen are assimilated to those of Northern Europeans whereas Idia remains an African woman or if you like, a West African.
The merchandizing of the image of Nefertiti has reached extraordinary heights in German long ago. There are no household items, cups, napkins, exercise books, and pencils that do not bear the image of the 'beautiful one'. We have not seen any merchandizing of the image of Idia. You can find bust of Nefertiti in the museum and souvenir shops. Nowhere have I seen the bust of Idia for sale. The merchandizing follows what the museum managers and publicity agents consider appropriate for the vision of beauty. In short, the dark lady is not presented as representing a concept of beauty that the Germans want to project. Tell me there is no racial discrimination here and that the colours and features of the two queens from Africa are not relevant or important in understanding the relationships between Europe and Africa. We may also look at the other Egyptian queen, Tiye, mother-in-law of Nefertiti, who is not given that much publicity and has not been declared a Berlinerin, although both she and Nefertiti came from Amarna, Egypt to Berlin at the same time and are related. Tiya is depicted as having dark complexion and being of Nubian origin. That the skin complexion of the three African queens explains their different reception and perception by Germans can hardly be disputed. Racism in Europe goes far and deep and acts in various circumstances, important and unimportant. The underlying racism in such matters are much stronger than people, especially scholars are willing to admit.
Infatuation with Nefertiti reached its climax with Adolf Hitler who wanted to build a gigantic museum in Berlin with Nefertiti at the centre of it all. Hitler finally determined that Nefertiti should not be returned to Egypt as his advisers and John Simon, the great benefactor of German museums, especially those in Berlin, were suggesting. As far as I know, most Germans are not even aware of the presence of Queen-Mother Idia in Berlin. Only one German museum director once expressed admiration for the Benin queen-mother. He is not alone. Her people want her back in Benin City who revere her for her historical role in stabilizing and consolidating the Benin Monarchy. (See Iyoba Idia: The Hidden Oba of Benin
18. K. Opoku, Where are the 400 Benin bronzes? | Pambazuka News
https://www.pambazuka.org/governance/where-are-400-benin-bronzes see also Philip J.C. Dark, The Art of Benin, A Catalogue of A.W. F. Fuller and Chicago Natural History Museum, Collections of Antiquities from Benin, Nigeria ,1962.
20. Sylvester Ogbechie, Crown Fraud: Copyright and Looted Nigerian Cultural Patrimony ... aachronym.blogspot.com/2009/10/crown-fraud-copyright-and-looted.html See Peju Layiwola and Sola Oloruyomi,op.cit.p.6
21. See List of Holders of Benin Artefacts in K. Opoku, 'European museums to 'loan' looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria?'
22. Jonathan Harris, The New Art History– A critical Introduction, Routledge, London, 2001, p. 275
| No Humboldt 21
STOP THE PLANNED CONSTRUCTION OF THE HUMBOLDT FORUM IN THE BERLIN PALACE!
By 2018/19 the City of Berlin and the Federal Republic of Germany want the “most important culturally political project in Germany at the beginning of the 21st century” to have been completed: the project “Berlin Palace – Humboldt Forum.” This “project of the century,” will be located in the city centre and will cost 590 million Euros. The City of Berlin wants to contribute 32 million Euros to the project.
The president of the “Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz” (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation), Hermann Parzinger, first presented the concept in 2011. The concept's title is “The Humboldt Forum: 'To be in Touch With as Much of the World as Possible'”. Berlin's “non-European collections” are to be moved from current remote location of Berlin-Dahlin to the city centre. Moreover, the building of the central state library as well as the Humboldt University is to be used. The plan is to establish the “Agora”, a “Forum for Science, Culture and Politics” as the “heart of the Humboldt Forum.”
In Parzinger's concept the project's plans are being formulated in superlatives. This will not simply be an outstanding “location for the art and culture of Asia, Africa, America, Australia and Oceania.” The Humboldt Forum is also to become a unique “centre for the research of non-European cultures.” A “cultural centre of national and international distinction” is planned, with which Berlin wants to establish itself as “a leading cultural and museum city around the world.”
We demand that the work on the Humboldt Forum in the Berlin Palace be ceased and that a public debate is held: the current concept violates the dignity and property rights of communities in all parts of the world, it is Eurocentric and restorative. The establishment of the Humboldt Forum is a direct contradiction to the aim promoting equality in a migration society.
The State Museums of Berlin are not the “legitimate owners of their holdings”.
The majority of the over 500,000 valuable items from all over the world ended up in Berlin through colonial conquests. The Europeans often even resorted to physical violence, in order to gain ownership of central objects belonging to the colonised societies – for example thrones, sceptres and cult objects. By taking the credit for these objects, the city of Berlin receives material benefits as well as intangible advantages up until the present day. We demand the disclosure of the ownership history of all the exhibits as well as adherence to the UN Resolution which is unequivocal regarding the “repatriation of cultural artefacts to countries which have been the victims of expropriation.” The dialogue concerning the future homes of the plundered art and the colonial loot must be sought with the descendants of the artists and the legal owners of the exhibits. This is particularly important regarding the stolen human remains, which are currently to be found in the possession of the “Preußischer Kulturbesitz” foundation.
Berlin's colonial past is redeemed.
It is currently planned that the collections from all over the world will be returned to the palace of the Hohenzollerns, where Berlin's first overseas treasures have already been presented. As it was then, this is about nothing other than representing power and global relevance. For the descendants of the colonised, both national and abroad, it is particularly disrespectful, that this should take place in the resurrected residence of the Brandenburg-Prussian monarchs. The Hohenzollerns were primarily responsible for the enslavement of thousands of people from Africa as well as genocides and concentration camps in Germany's former colonies. Therefore we roundly reject any presentation of objects in the Berlin Palace which were brought to Berlin during colonial times.
The cultures of the world are discriminated against, being marked as “strange” and “other”.
As already was the case during those times when “exotic curiosities” were displayed in the “cabinets of wonders” belonging to the Princes of Brandenburg and the Prussian Kings, the Berlin Palace – Humboldt Forum will apparently serve the purpose of developing a Prussian-German-European identity. This concern is actually directly opposed to the aim of promoting a culture of equality in the migration society and is being pursued to the detriment of others. The supposed “stranger” and “other” will be constructed with the help of the often centuries old objects from all over the world, and the extensive collection of European art on Berlin's museum island will be put to one side. In this way, Europe will be constructed as the superior norm. We reject this degrading form of presentation. We demand that the “Preußischer Kulturbesitz” foundation makes an effort to ensure that experts from the countries of the global south are involved in presenting their own works in a way that promotes equality of opportunity, has an awareness of power dynamics and focusses on portraying similarities between peoples.
The “research on non-European cultures” is not problematized.
The exploration of the world and its populations by European “researchers” was a colonial project for many years and still affects the regimentation and exploitation of the global south to this day. One of the two people this project is named after, Alexander von Humboldt, was involved in this project to a great extent. The Spanish royalty and its overseas colonial regime, which was based on genocide and slavery, were particularly interested in the results of his expeditions in South and Middle America, and they supported him to the best of their ability. In this way, the Prussian “who really discovered America” who even stole buried corpses and shipped them to Europe, embodies colonial dominance. Humboldt is not an appropriate person to name an intercultural centre after.
The cultural treasures of the world remain exclusively for the good of the people of the north.
In the written concept, the President of the foundation, Hermann Parzinger, invites “visitors from Asia or the descendants of indigenous Indian or African Societies” to the German capital. In an era where people drown daily in the Mediterranean Sea because they have no other means to enter Europe, such an invitation can only be described as cynical. Aminata Traoré, the former Culture and Tourist Minister of Mali, put it in a nutshell: “Our cultural works enjoy civil rights in places, where even our entire community is denied permission to stay.” We demand the “Preußischer Kulturbesitz” foundation to enable access to Berlin's non-European collections to all people of the world. The looted art must be returned – permanently. Moreover, this should take place through the loan the artworks to the countries without any cost to them in order to realize international exhibition projects in all regions of the world where the artworks now located here were created.
Berlin, 3rd June 2013.
Ivory hip-mask with image of Queen-Mother Idia,Beni,Nigeria,now in British Museum,London,United Kingdom.
APPENDIX 21. The Case of Benin- Memorandum submitted by Prince Edun Akenzua
I am Edun Akenzua Enogie (Duke) of Obazuwa-Iko, brother of His Majesty, Ondo, knob n'Edo, Oba (King) Erediauwa of Benin, great grandson of His Majesty Omo n'Oba n'Edo, Oba Ovonramwen, in whose reign the cultural property was removed in 1897. I am also the Chairman of the Benin Centenary Committee established in 1996 to commemorate 100 years of Britain's invasion of Benin, the action which led to the removal of the cultural property.
"On 26 March 1892 the Deputy Commissioner and Vice-Consul, Benin District of the Oil River Protectorate, Captain H L Gallwey, manoeuvred Oba Ovonramwen and his chiefs into agreeing to terms of a treaty with the British Government. That treaty, in all its implications, marked the beginning of the end of the independence of Benin not only on account of its theoretical claims, which bordered on the fictitious, but also in providing the British with the pretext, if not the legal basis, for subsequently holding the Oba accountable for his future actions."
The text quoted above was taken from the paper presented at the Benin Centenary Lectures by Professor P A Igbafe of the Department of History, University of Benin on 17 February 1997.
Four years later in 1896 the British Acting Consul in the Niger-Delta, Captain James R Philip wrote a letter to the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Salisbury, requesting approval for his proposal to invade Benin and depose its King. As a post-script to the letter, Captain Philip wrote: "I would add that I have reason to hope that sufficient ivory would be found in the King's house to pay the expenses incurred in removing the King from his stool."
These two extracts sum up succinctly the intention of the British, or, at least, of Captain Philip, to take over Benin and its natural and cultural wealth for the British.
British troops invaded Benin on 10 February1897. After a fierce battle, they captured the city, on February 18. Three days later, on 21 February precisely, they torched the city and burnt down practically every house. Pitching their tent on the Palace grounds, the soldiers gathered all the bronzes, ivory-works, carved tusks and oak chests that escaped the fire. Thus, some 3,000 pieces of cultural artwork were taken away from Benin. The bulk of it was taken from the burnt down Palace.
NUMBER OF ITEMS REMOVED
It is not possible for us to say exactly how many items were removed. They were not catalogued at inception. We are informed that the soldiers who looted the palace did the cataloguing. It is from their accounts and those of some European and American sources that we have come to know that the British carried away more than 3,000 pieces of Benin cultural property. They are now scattered in museums and galleries all over the world, especially in London, Scotland, Europe and the United States. A good number of them are in private hands.
WHAT THE WORKS MEAN TO THE PEOPLE OF BENIN
The works have been referred to as primitive art, or simply, artifacts of African origin. But Benin did not produce their works only for aesthetics or for galleries and museums. At the time Europeans were keeping their records in long-hand and in hieroglyphics, the people of Benin cast theirs in bronze, carved on ivory or wood. The Obas commissioned them when an important event took place which they wished to record. Some of them of course, were ornamental to adorn altars and places of worship. But many of them were actually reference points, the library or the archive. To illustrate this, one may cite an event which took place during the coronation of Oba Erediauwa in 1979. There was an argument as to where to place an item of the coronation paraphernalia. Fortunately, a bronze-cast of a past Oba wearing the same regalia had escaped the eyes of the soldiers and so it is still with us. Reference was made to it and the matter was resolved. Taking away those items is taking away our records, or our Soul.
In view of the fore-going, the following reliefs are sought on behalf of the Oba and people of Benin who have been impoverished, materially and psychologically, by the wanton looting of their historically and cultural property.
(i) The official record of the property removed from the Palace of Benin in 1897 be made available to the owner, the Oba of Benin.
(ii) All the cultural property belonging to the Oba of Benin illegally taken away by the British in 1897, should be returned to the rightful owner, the Oba of Benin.
(iii) As an alternative, to (ii) above, the British should pay monetary compensation, based on the current market value, to the rightful owner, the Oba of Benin.
(iv) Britain, being the principal looters of the Benin Palace, should take full responsibility for retrieving the cultural property or the monetary compensation from all those to whom the British sold them.
Oba Ovonramwen, during whose reign the British looted the Benin Bronzes with guards on board ship on his way to exile in Calabar in 1897. The gown he is wearing hides his shackles. Photograph by the Ibani Ijo photographer J. A. Green. From the Howie photo album in the archives of the Merseyside Maritime Museum
Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Kwame Opoku, Dr. and do not neccessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana.