“The town burnt furiously, all these three days of rain failing in any way to impede the progress of the devouring element. The thick thatched roofs of the houses, dry as timber except just on the outside, blazed as though they had been ready prepared for the bonfire, and the flames ran down the framework which supported the mud walls. In the larger houses, more substantially built, only the roofs caught fire; but the destruction was practically complete. Slowly huge dense columns of smoke curled up to the sky, and lighted fragments of thatch drifting far and wide upon the wind showed to the King of Ashanti, and to all his subjects who had fled from the capital, that the white man never failed to keep his word.” Henry Brackenbury (1)
We read with great interest the following from the Art Newspaper:
‘The gold head is now to be displayed in the exhibition Sir Richard Wallace: the Collector (20 June-2 January 2019), the inaugural show in the museum’s new exhibition gallery. Xavier Bray, the Wallace’s director, says that he is “keen to work with scholars and researchers in Ghana and internationally to develop our understanding of this incredible work of art”. The director is now making plans for a new permanent display of Asante art next year, after the temporary exhibition.’ (2)
We have discussed in a previous article the history of the British invasion of Asante, Ghana in 1874 and the subsequent plunder of Asante gold objects and other precious artefacts from the Asante capital, Kumasi. (3)
Readers will no doubt recognise that the generous offer of the director of the Wallace Collection to work with scholars and researchers in Ghana and internationally to develop our understanding of this incredible work of art”
comes at a time that many European museums are busy discussing the issue of restitution of looted African artefacts in Western museums. There is no word about restitution in the interview. It seems the museum and its staff are living in a world of their own. They are still in the Pre-Ouagadougou period. They do not realise that an offer to work with scholars from the countries of origin of the artefacts can no longer be seen as a great step forward. It has been the norm for a while. The museum is making an offer that should have come long ago, that is, before the late Asantehene, Otumfuo Nana Opoku Ware II and the present Asantehene, Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II requested the return of the Asante treasures and were turned down by the museum and the British Government. (4)
What will be the use of collaboration now? To give those who have been holding illegally for some 125 years looted Asante treasures more information and knowledge about the objects?
Two ceremonial swords, Kumasi, Ghana, now in Wallace Collection, London, United Kingdom.
They will turn around some years later and claim they have promoted research into our national treasures. The Director of the Wallace Collection, Xavier Bray, like his counterpart in the Victoria and Albert Museum, Tristram Hunt, all follow the line of policy laid down long ago by the British Museum and the British Government, not to cede to any request for restitution. The respectable directors are encouraged to offer any justification or explanation, however weak it may be so long as it ends the current discussion. The museum itself describes the golden head as follows:
‘One of the largest historic gold objects from Africa outside Egypt, this trophy head was made in the West African state of Asante, in the present-day Ghana. The Asante people controlled extensive gold resources and were renowned for the items they made from this precious metal. The head is among the most important and famous works of Asante art. It probably depicts a defeated enemy from a different ethnic group.’ (5)
If the museum is aware that the ‘head is among the most important and famous works of Asante art’ why are they keeping it in London? What are the Asante to show of their art, among a general suspicion and European propaganda that Africans have not produced anything worthwhile? This praise for Asante craftmanship comes from a museum that does not even have an African or Asante section but places Asante objects in a section named Oriental Armoury. This tendency to praise the craftmanship of looted objects one is holding is standard practice in western museums. Thus, Tristram Hunt, Director of Victoria and Albert Museum, praises the craftmanship of Ethiopians who made the looted Magdala treasures but refuses to return them to Ethiopia. (6) Could there be greater cynicism and hypocrisy? That craftmanship is Ethiopian and not British. Praising Asante craftmanship and preventing the Asante from using and praising their heritage because the looted object is kept in a London museum, a place that is clearly not part of Asante territory cannot be right and must be obvious to all as a ploy to hide their unwillingness to return the artefacts. Incidentally, I looked at the guide for the museum entitled, The Wallace Collection, and looked in vain for mention of what is praised as ‘among the most important and famous works of Asante art’. (7) There is no mention of the golden head nor of the golden Asante swords in the 256 pages of the guide. What does this say about the position of the Asante gold objects in the Wallace Collection?
Would a museum in London normally fail to mention one of its most valuable African objects in its guide that is to explain to a visitor what objects are to be seen there? Could it be that the Wallace Collection is so Eurocentric that it is embarrassed even by the presence of African objects in its collections that it does not want to draw attention to them? If the museum and its officials believe that such tactics would make us forget what stolen/looted objects they hold from Asante/Ghana, they are mistaken. More than hundred years detention of the looted objects of other peoples should have taught them that the historical memories of peoples last long. No African people would renounce voluntarily its right to recover treasures looted under threat of violence or with violence. Magdala (Ethiopia) 1868, Kumasi (Ghana)1874, and Benin City (Nigeria) 1897 should be enough to prove that the demand for justice does not disappear with time but rather intensifies and the looted objects achieve a higher status than they may originally have possessed.
Three finger rings,Kumasi,Ghana,now in Wallace Collection,London,United Kingdom.
In the interview with the director of the Wallace Collection, the attention is all on the big impressive gold head. No doubt the famous head deserves all the attention it gets but I cannot help feeling that consciously or unconsciously, emphasis on a few spectacular objects in cases where a large number of artefacts has been looted from a people, helps to minimize the impression of devastation that would emerge if a large number of the looted objects were displayed at the same time. If you see an exhibition of twenty looted Ethiopian treasures you may not be able to imagine the devastation that occurred at Magdala where it is said that 15 elephants and 200 mules were required to carry of the looted artefacts from the Magdala.
The items carried away by the conquering British army from Kumasi, burnt after the looting, have been listed by Henry Stanley Morgan who accompanied the invading army and reported on their exploits. (8)
We should repeat for the benefit of those who can hear, what the Asante people, supported by the Government of Ghana, have been asking from the British Government and their museums, in the words of the late Professor Adu Boahene, a leading scholar of Asante and Ghanaian history:
” What the Asante are asking the British Government to return to them are those regalia and ornaments that were taken away when the expeditionary force commanded by Sir Garnet Wolseley entered and sacked Kumasi in February 1874 and - the Golden Stool was certainly not one of those articles as implied by your correspondent. These articles included, according to H. M. Stanley, the famous American journalist and explorer who himself accompanied the expeditionary force and witnessed the sacking of the palace, "Strings of valuable Aggrey beads . . . Gold nugget and bead, bracelet and necklaces. Swords European and native . . . Gold and silver-headed canes, Regalia, staffs, gold topped, Royal Stools, beautifully carved and ornamented with gold and silver, seven gold masks, each weighing several ounces (writer's emphasis), silken and cotton cloths, Enormous silken umbrellas . . . Gold decorated muskets. several knives with bits of gold on hafts, sandals, gold plated. (H.M. Stanley, Coomassie and Magdala, 1874, pp. 233-4).” (9)
Ghanaian authorities would have to repeat the request made for the return of Ghana’s looted artefacts, especially the request that was published in 1974 incorporating the demand by the late Asantehene, Nana Opoku Ware II. (10)
Experience has shown that unless some pressure is brought on the British Government and the British museums, nothing would happen in the next hundred years. The British Government and museums are relying on the usual lethargy that has been displayed by many African governments in matters of restitution. General proclamations and declarations on our pride in our African culture remain empty and ineffective if they are not accompanied by specific measures aimed at specific goals. (11)
The late Asantehene, Otumfuo Nana Opoku Ware II. in full regalia.
As we have often written, our efforts for the restitution of looted African artefacts are not primarily concerned with past events; we are not interested in apportioning blame for European massacres and other atrocities in Africa. We are concerned with the present glaring imbalances between African States and Western States regarding the numbers of quality artefacts that their museums can display. Western museums can easily mount magnificent exhibitions of African cultures whereas our own museums would not even dare to think about such displays. The best art objects that Africa has produced have been taken to the West.
We suggest the Wallace Collection and the British Government return the looted Asante artefacts to Manhyia Palace, Kumasi, from where they were looted in 1874.
This will conform with the countless United Nations/UNESCO resolutions that since 1972 have urged holding States to return cultural property to their countries of origin.
This will conform with ICOM’s code of conduct for museums.
This will also conform with the demands of the late Asantehene, Otumfuo Nana Opoku Ware II and comply with the request made by the present Asantehene, Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II.
This will conform to the new trend set by the French President Macron who has requested a team of two scholars, Bénédicte Savoy, France and Felwine Sarr, Senegal, to make proposals for restitution of African artefacts.
“Gold gleams throughout the Ashanti story: one wonders in retrospect whether the punitive expedition would have been quite so dedicated if the major product of Ashanti had been anything else but the potent lure.” Russell Chamberlin. (12)
1. Henry Brackenbury and Harry Cooper, The Ashanti War, V2: A Narrative Prepared From The Official Documents By Permission of Major-General Sir Garnet Wolseley, Blackwood and Sons,1874. Brackenbury was Assistant Military Secretary to Sir Garnet Wolseley during the Ashanti war and was eye-witness to the looting and burning of Kumasi.
Most of the stolen/looted Asante items found their way to the Museum of Mankind in London, then part of the British Museum. Some of the artefacts are in the Wallace Collection. There are also some Asante cultural objects in Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford and in the Glasgow Museum and Art Gallery. Many Asante gold objects are also in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. A considerable number of looted Asante gold weights can also be found in these museums. It is difficult to know the precise number of Asante artefacts in each institution since the museums are averse to providing exact figures on such matters. Many items are not even displayed and are in depots that may be far from the museum. We once asked in the Victoria and Albert Museum to see the Asante treasures and were told we would need permission from the Director. At that point, we gave up. We do not even know what other African artefacts may be in the Wallace Collection. Are there any Benin bronzes there? We did not see any displayed. This raises the question how far the museums are fulfilling any educative purpose they may have since it is argued they need the objects for enlightening the public about other cultures. Is not showing the objects at all another form of education?
4. The Times, “Ghana plea for return of Ashanti Regalia rejected”, December 11, 1974.
6. Tristram Hunt: “As custodians of a number of important Ethiopian objects taken from Magdala by the British military 150 years ago, we have a responsibility to celebrate the beauty of their craftsmanship, reflect on their modern meaning, and shine a light on this collection’s controversial history.’
7. The Wallace Collection, Scala, 2006.
8. Coomassie and Magdala, p.232, entitled List of the Loot.
9. Prof. Adu Boahen of University of Legon, in a letter to The Times, published on February 28,1974.
10. According to Russell Chamberlin, on the centenary of Wolseley’s campaign the Ghanaian government published a pamphlet, The Call for the Return of the Asante Regalia,1974, see Loot! The Heritage of Plunder, 1983, Thames and Hudson, London, p.237.
11.A recent declaration by the Nigerian Commission on Museums and Monuments (NCMM) declared that all looted Nigerian artefacts abroad must be returned unconditionally. The statement was published in the Nigerian press. Nigeria demands unconditional return of looted artefacts: A season of ...
The statement was not directed to any specific government or institution. A suggestion that the same policy should be conveyed in a letter directed to specific Foreign Ministries in countries holding looted Nigerian artefacts was apparently not accepted. Playing tough at home but acting soft abroad? The opportunity of using such occasions to educate our peoples about our cultures and world cultural diplomacy are lost at every level and every instance. Many seem to believe education is only for the Ministry of Education and the schools.
Very few African States can provide a clear authoritative statement about their policies regarding the restitution of looted artefacts and a list of looted items they seek to recover. Consider the reaction or lack of reaction by many African States to the historic declaration by French President Macron at Ouagadougou that France was willing to return African cultural artefacts that had been looted during the colonial period. See K. Opoku, Macron Promises To Return African Artefacts In French Museums: A New Era in African-European Relationship or a Mirage?...
12. Richard Chamberlin, Loot! The Heritage of Plunder, 1983, Thames and Hudson, London, p. 79. This is a book we can wholeheartedly recommend.
The irresistible attraction of Asante gold for Europeans has a long history and drew practically all European nations to the shores of Ghana, then known as Gold Coast, named Costa d’ouro by the Portuguese who first visited the land in 1471 and built a huge castle at Elmina (Castelo São Jorge da Mina) based on the model of the Castelo São Jorge in Lisbon. The Dutch pushed out the Portuguese from Elmina and other places in the Gold Coast and the Dutch were in turn replaced by the British who ruled the country until Independence on 6th March1957. In between the years before the establishment of British rule, many other European peoples, Danes, Germans (Brandenburg), Swedes, secured foothold in the territory, where the Danes fought the Swedes, all for the sake of gold and later for slaves. The presence of Europeans in the Gold Coast is attested, among other evidences, by the huge forts and castles they built. This has been well documented by the late Albert van Dantzig, a Dutch scholar who taught at the University of Legon- Forts and Castles of Ghana. 1980 and by the late J. R. Anquanda, Castles and Forts of Ghana, 1999
EXAMPLES OF ASANTE GOLD IN BRITISH MUSEUMS.
We have not visited the homepages of many other British museums but, practically all of them have some major Asante item, preferably in gold. Our aim here has not been to give an exhaustive list of Akan objects in British museums but, restricting the list to gold items, leaving out wooden or other metal objects, to give the reader an idea about the wealth of Asante objects, mostly looted, that are in British museums. If we add stools, statues, goldweights and other items, we realize that British loot of Ghanaian artefacts cannot be discounted as unimportant. And we have been dealing only with Asante items. If we add items from the Ewe,Fante,Ga and other peoples,we start to appreciate the scale of the loot.
We have left out the American, German, Dutch and other museums that also possess Asante gold and other Asante items.
What we have shown must surely be enough to convince readers that the subject of the loot of precious African treasures would be worth discussing and seeking their return.
Victoria and Albert Museum,London,United Kingdom.
Africa - Victoria and Albert Museum www.vam.ac.uk/page/a/africa
Pectoral disc.Kumasi,Ghana,now in Victoria and Albert Museum,London,United Kingdom
Pectoral disc ,Kumasi,Ghana,now in Victoria and Albert Museum,London,United Kingdom.
Ornament,Kumasi,Ghana,now in Victoria and Albert Museum,London United Kingdom.
Ring, Kumasi,Ghana now in Victoria and Albert Museum,London,United Kingdom.
Ornament,Kumasi,Ghana,now in Victoria and Albert Museum,London,United Kingdom.
The British Museum.London, United Kingdom.
The British Museum hold some 220 pieces of Asante gold works.British Museum - Asante Gold Regalia in the British Museum collection www.britishmuseum.org › ... › Online research catalogues › AG
Soul disc,Asante,Kumasi,Ghana, now in the British Museum,London,United Kingdom
Pendant,Kumasi,Ghana,now in British Museum,London,United Kingdom.
Disc pendant,Kumasi,Ghana,now in British Museum,London United Kingdom.
Bell-bead,Kumasi,Ghana,now in British Museum,London, United Kingdom.
Bracelet,Kumasi,Ghana,now in British Museum,London,United Kingdom.
Head dress-cap,Kumasi,Ghana,now in British Museum,London, United Kingdom.
Finger ring, Kumasi, Ghana, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Asante gold head-dress or ceremonial hat, Kumasi, Ghana, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.