The British are the biggest culprits of the shameful plunder of Africa’s cultural treasures, with the country’s museums having become a trove of stolen works of art. To the looters, our artifacts hold nothing more than aesthetic and monetary value, but to Africa, the pieces carry our history, cultures, and our very sense of being and identity. These works of art timelessly document the history of families, clans, and villages that made up ancient African societies. With most of that indigenous knowledge having been erased and stolen from us, we are left with little evidence of Africa’s pre-colonial history.
Here are some of the continent’s treasures that were shipped off African shores through dubious means.
Benin Bronzes, Nigeria
Two of the famous Benin Bronzes, the Ahianwen-Oro artwork, were returned to their homeland in 2014 by British citizen, Dr. Mark Walker, leading to calls for repatriation of more artefacts. Walker had inherited the artwork from his great-grandfather, who took part in the pillaging of Benin.
Many of the known Benin Bronzes remain at the British Museum, where they are still on display. Nigeria has repeatedly requested for the return of its cultural heritage, but the British Museum won’t budge.
Nefertiti Bust and Rosetta Stone, Egypt
Egypt has been consistently campaigning for Germany to return the statue of Queen Nefertiti. The Germans took the 3,400-year-old bust of the great queen in 1913 using fraudulent documents. The country reportedly considered returning the statue in 1935, but Hitler decided against it.
While Egyptians struggle to get what is rightfully theirs, Germany continues to profit from Nefertiti. The figure draws more than a million visitors every year to the Neues Museum in Berlin, which explains why the European country keeps monopolizing the artwork.
Egypt has also been pushing to get back the Rosetta Stone, the 2,200-year-old slab of black basalt with a hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek inscription that was the linguistic key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. The stone was shipped out of the North African country in 1799 during French colonial rule and is now in possession of the British Museum. It’s unclear how it ended in the hands of the British, but what is certain is that there was no consent from the Egyptians.
In 1868, the British captured Magdala, Emperor Tewodros II’s mountain capital in Northwest Ethiopia,and left destruction in their wake. Among other crimes, the British Army looted Ethiopian churches of a range of valuable cultural objects and treasures, including crowns, gold and silver crosses, and numerous manuscripts documenting Ethiopia’s history from the era of Solomon and Sheba to the early 19th century. Various illustrated Ge’ez manuscripts were also stolen.
According to historian, Richard Pankhurst, who campaigned tirelessly for the return of Ethiopian cultural artefacts, more than ten elephants were needed to carry the plunder across the Bashilo River to the nearby Dalanta Plain. Some of the artefacts were auctioned off while others are still held at the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Queen’s Library at Windsor Castle.
Many other treasures were stolen from Ethiopia. In 2005, Italy returned an ancient granite obelisk almost seven decades after it was plundered by Italian troops.
The Zimbabwe Bird
When Europeans “discovered” the Great Zimbabwe Kingdom in the 16th century, they refused to believe that Native Africans built such a civilisation. The Great Zimbabwe Monument was constructed between the 11th and 14th centuries by the indigenous Shona People, and it serves as a testament to ancient African civilisation that existed before colonisation.
Found in the monument were a series of cultural artefacts, including soapstone bird carvings known as the Zimbabwe Bird. Needless to say, these artworks were pillaged and sent to museums across Europe and America.
Coloniser, Cecil John Rhodes, took some of the stone-carved birds to South Africa, four of which were returned in 1981, a year after Zimbabwe gained independence. A part of one of the birds ended up in the hands of a German missionary, who sold it to the Ethnological Museum in Berlin in 1907. The museum finally handed back the piece to Zimbabwe in 2003.
The iconic Zimbabwe Bird is an emblem of the country, appearing on the national flag and coat of arms.
Bangwa Queen, Cameroon
Once known as the world’s most expensive piece of African art, the Bangwa Queen has exchanged hands of many art collectors since she was stolen from her royal shrine in Cameroon. The wooden sculpture, which is believed to be more than a thousand years old, was taken away by German colonial explorer, Gustav Conrau, in the 1890s.
Conrau entered the Bangwa Village under the guise of seeking trade relations and supplies, only to snatch the memorial statue right under the owner’s nose. In 1990, the artwork sold at a New York auction for a record-breaking $3.4 million, making it the world’s most expensively priced African artwork at the time.