Between the end of the 18th century and the 19th, ethnological museums started springing up in major cities across Europe. Curators, business investors, and archaeologists shared valuable pieces of art they had stolen from other countries, especially those they had colonized. Many were obtained through questionable means, as they were spoils of war forcefully taken by the British around 1897.
These spoils of war include Benin Bronzes taken from southern Nigeria, a trendy colonial master choice. Created in the thirteenth century, they were used to decorate the royal palace of the Benin Kingdom. They were a collection of more than 3,000 figures and other decorative pieces looted by the British in 1897 from Nigeria’s Benin empire. Today, they are housed in at least 161 public and private collections in Britain. Two hundred pieces were taken to the British Museum in London, while the rest found their way to other European museums. The British Museum still holds many other notable collections in Germany and the United States.
The Europeans marvelled at how “supposedly so primitive and savage” people could invent such highly developed objects.
Years later, Nigerians are still fighting to get their stolen artefacts returned. The fight for repatriation is slowly paying off as the bronze cockerel statue called the Okukor is set to be sent home soon. The bronze figure has been with the Jesus college of Cambridge university since it was given to the school by a student’s father in 1905. It was part of looted artefacts taken about 124 years ago during an 1897 expedition by British forces.
For Enotie Ogbebor, a local artist, the return of artefacts is crucial not just because many were sacred but for what their presence would say to young Nigerians. “The mindset of our people has been distorted through colonialism . . . [that] we have no history, that we’re just a bunch of savages,” he told Financial Times that returning. “So with the return of these artefacts, you’re going to see an increased recognition of who we are as a people and what we’re able to achieve.”
More stolen artefacts including two 16th-century Benin Court brass plaques and a 14th-century Ife Head are expected to return soon.