Jonathan Lukangi

Returning Africa’s Looted Treasures - A Pipe Dream?

The fight to return Africa’s lost treasures has been going on at least since the 1960s, and Western museums have doggedly fought back against this.

The Uganda Catholic church is in preparations for the return of relics belonging to two Ugandan martyrs who were killed for their faith in the late 19th century. It is not known how or when the remains ended up in Rome, but an agreement has been reached for the Vatican to ‘loan’ the relics (said to be bones) to the Ugandan Catholic community for an agreed period.

Charles Lwanga and Matiya Mulumba were among a group of 45 young men executed by the Kabaka of Buganda between 1885 and 1886. Twenty-two of them were declared saints by the Catholic Church in 1964, after the then Pope Paul VI visited Uganda.

While the exact date for the return of the relics is still under discussion, it might be in September 2024 to coincide with the 60th anniversary of their canonization.

Last month the United Kingdom returned 32 royal artefacts looted from Ghana's Asante Kingdom in the 19th Century. The objects, taken from the Palace in Kumasi during the Anglo-Asante Wars, were returned by the British Museum (BM) and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).

Many of the items will be seen in Ghana for the first time in 150 years, but they will only be on loan for three years, as legal restrictions in the UK made it impossible to return the artefacts permanently. This brought mixed reactions from many Ghanaians.

“An armed robber comes into your house, mows down your family and grabs your valuables, and comes back later and says: ‘OK, you’re making noises, I’ll give this back as a loan!'" commented Nii Kwate Owoo, a Ghanaian filmmaker.

In 2022 the German government announced the transfer of ownership of some 1,000 ‘Benin Bronzes’ to Nigeria. The looting of the artefacts, thousands of brass castings and ivory carvings, followed the sacking of the palace of the king, or Oba, in Benin City in 1897 by the British. Many of them ended up in dozens of museums across Europe, and are now at the forefront of the debate around looted artefacts.

In December 2022, the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) started talks with the Uganda Museum about repatriating artefacts to the country, including the famous Luzira head, a 1,000-year-old terracotta sculpture dug up around Luzira Prisons in 1929. These artefacts are part of a collection taken by the British missionary John Roscoe operating under the direction of the MAA.

“This was common practice for European empires, who extracted not only raw materials but also art, cultural artefacts, and religious objects from their colonies,” said an official from the University of Michigan, which is participating in the project. “At best it was an uneven transaction; at worst, it was outright theft.”

In 2018, the Ethiopian government requested the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to return artefacts including a gold crown, a royal wedding dress and bones of Prince Alemayehu that were taken from the country during the battle of Maqdala in 1868.The museum offered to return the artefacts on a long-term loan arrangement to the country, which the Ethiopian government vehemently rejected.

So, what is the problem with returning artefacts stolen from Africa? The fight to return Africa’s lost treasures has been going on at least since the 1960s, and Western museums have doggedly fought back against this.

In her book ‘Africa’s Struggle for Its Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat’, French art historian Bénédicte Savoy writes about battles that raged in magazines and on television, at conferences and exhibitions, on the floors of West Germany’s Bundestag and Britain’s House of Lords.

In 1978, the Director-General of UNESCO, Ahmadou-Mahtar M’Bow, issued an appeal for the return of the stolen artefacts.

“Everything which has been taken away, from monuments to handicrafts—were more than decorations, ”he said. “They bore witness to a history, the history of a culture and of a nation whose spirit they perpetuated and renewed.”

But the museums refused, at one time claiming that African countries could not be trusted to look after the artefacts properly. Which conveniently ignored the fact that many of them had existed in said African countries for hundreds of years safely before they were looted.

But the museums were also afraid that they might become ‘empty’ if all looted treasures were returned. In 2002 a group referring to themselves as ‘universal museums’ declared that many stolen works had become “part of the heritage of the nations which house them.”

The British Museum Act of 1963 effectively prohibits it from ‘returning’ any part of its collection, stolen or not. The National Heritage Act of 1983 is also quoted often by UK museums as preventing any artefacts in their possession from being returned to where they were stolen.

In Germany, the fight back against repatriation was led by a former Nazi and head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (S.P.K.), the custodian of the world’s second-largest collection of Benin Bronzes.

S.P.K.’s director Hans-Georg Wormit warned that if Germany began to “give presents” to “emerging nations . . . such a practice could not be restricted to individual cases.” It must be noted that Germany still holds many art pieces ‘stolen’ from their Jewish owners during World War II.

In 1978, a group of German museum directors gathered in Bonn and drafted a confidential memo against the return of artefacts. The document declared that Western countries had no legal or moral duty to repatriate artefacts that were now “owned by humanity as a whole.” The group insisted that history didn’t matter. “The way in which objects arrived in the collections of Europe and North America was of no consequence.”

So, at least for now, African countries will have to settle for borrowing their own artefacts from the descendants of those who stole them.

Ms Oforiatta Ayim, the Ghana culture minister's adviser told the BBC that “… of course people will be angry at the idea of a loan and they hoped to see items eventually returned permanently to Ghana. We know the objects were stolen in violent circumstances, we know the items belong to the Asante people.”

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