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The return of the stolen colonial treasures5 min read

May 6, 2021 4 min read


The return of the stolen colonial treasures5 min read

Reading Time: 4 minutes

When western nations such as Britain and Germany colonised countries in Asia and Africa, a lot was destroyed. Slavery was established, and millions lost their lives. Now, almost all historians agree that colonisation was pretty bad for the folks that were colonised.

But aside from all that, there was something else going on. The western nations looted the countries that they had colonised. Yup, millions of treasures scattered across our nations were slowly gathered and taken back to Europe. Temples, palaces and sometimes even entire historical towns were emptied out!

The Fate of the Looted Treasures

In the present day, a lot of these treasures sit in Museums in Europe and America. People, including Indians, Africans, and other once colonised communities, head to these Museums to view their ancient treasures. That’s right, people pay just to get a glance at the items that were once stolen from them– the world can be a strange place sometimes!

Previously colonised countries have often asked these nations and their museums to return these valuable artefacts. However, they have often been met with rejection.

Koh-i-noor | Diamond & Facts | Britannica
The Queen’s Crown with the Kohinoor diamond at the centre. Image: Britannica

Owliver’s Obscure Observation: India has often asked Britain to return the Kohinoor Diamond, one of the world’s largest diamonds. The Indian Government claims that it was looted from India’s King Ranjit when the British occupied the country and hasn’t been returned since. The massive gem sill sits in the Tower of London, where tourists can go and view it as it has been added to the Crown that belongs to the Queen of England.

Germany’s Pledge

The good news is that finally, the looted items are being promised back to the countries they were taken from. One of the most exciting commitments was just made by Germany’s Ministry of Culture. They just declared that they are going to make “substantive returns” to Nigeria. And by that they mean some of the world’s most valued cultural artefacts: The Benin Bronzes.

So, what on Earth are these Benin Bronzes anyway?

The Benin Bronzes are a series of artefacts that belonged to the Kingdom of Benin from West America. The Kingdom of Benin was looted and overthrown by the British in the 1900s. However, before that, it was one of the most advanced civilisations in the world!

The 16th-century “Queen Mother Pendant Mask” from Benin City, on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The “Queen Mother Pendant Mask” from Benin City, on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Image: The New York Times

The Benin Bronzes are a series of artworks that are made of… bronze? Nope, as odd as it may sound, the Benin Bronzes are thousands of sculptures made of not just bronze but also brass and ivory. These famous ancient treasures were stolen from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897. They were looted by British Soldiers when they burnt the whole kingdom to the ground to avenge the killing of some of their soldiers.

Map showing ancient Benin kingdom
Image: BBC

These beautiful ancient treasures have now come to symbolise the thousands of valuable, historically and culturally rich pieces of history that were stolen by the British and other European colonisers.

Owliver’s Obscure Observation: Historians believe that the Kingdom of Benin was surrounded by a mud wall that was even longer than the Great Wall of China. It was also the first place in the world to have street lights!

A homecoming series

The Germans aren’t the first people to return the Benin Bronzes. The University of Aberdeen, in Scotland, said last month that it would return a Benin bronze that it had acquired in an auction. They went on to call buying it from the British “extremely immoral”. France too has approved the return of its collection of pillaged Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. Museums in Britain and America, however, still hold hundreds of Benin Bronzes that they are yet to return.

Benin Bronzes on display at the British Museum in London.
Benin Bronzes on display in the British Museum. Image: The New York Times


Think with Owliver:

Why is it important for communities to own their historical artefacts?
Why don’t western museums want to return what was stolen hundreds of years ago?
What is the value of art?
Should the British return the Kohinoor Diamond to India?

Why did the University of Aberdeen think it was immoral to buy a Benin Bronze in an Auction?


With Excerpts From: BBC, The Indian Express, BBC, CNN, The New York Times, The Print, ArtNews, and Wikipedia.

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