During Africa’s pre-colonial and colonial periods, thousands of priceless cultural artefacts were plundered, looted by colonialists, and transported to various European countries. These artefacts were important cultural symbols as they expressed our ancestor’s innate artistic views, held spiritual/divine importance to us, and represented the continent’s rich cultural heritage.
Over 90% of Africa’s artefacts are currently contained in western Museums, institutions, and private collections. This was the finding of a report commissioned to art historians Benedicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr by French president Emmanuel Macron in 2017.
Calls for their return have been amplified in recent years by activists, the African government, traditional rulers, and French president Emmanuel Macron. Some museums and institutions have agreed to return some of the artefacts to the continent.
Here are 7 of the many stolen artefacts, including some that have been returned.
The Benin Bronzes are a collection of metal plaques and sculptures dating back to the thirteenth century. They were carved out of ivory, brass, ceramic, and wood. The bronzes include the famous king and mother queen head portraits, figurines, jewellery, bells, swords, e.t.c. These artefacts held immeasurable spiritual and cultural importance to the Benin kingdom.
The Bronzes were looted after The British empire launched a military expedition against the Benin Kingdom in 1897. Today, many looted bronzes are held by the British Museum with other notable collections in Germany and the United States.
Activists and groups have called in recent years for the return of the bronzes. The Benin Dialogue Group is one of the groups, and they’ve succeeded in securing the restitution of thousands of bronzes.
Recently, The German government reached an agreement with the Nigerian government on the return of 1,130 bronzes. Other museums, institutions, and private collectors have also returned recently. Others, like the British Museum, only agreed to loan some of the artefacts to open the Royal Benin Museum.
Goddess Statue of Ngonnso
The sacred goddess statue of Nonso is believed to be the founder of Nso kingdom in Northwestern Cameroon. The Ngonnso’ has a central role for the Nso, as she is considered a mother deity. The statue is one of the world’s most famous African art pieces and has huge sacred significance for Cameroonians. It was stolen by a german colonial officer, Kurt von Pavel, after storming the Nso capital of Kumbo with armed soldiers and donated to Berlin’s Ethnological Museum in 1903.
The statue is a symbol of peace and hope and has been in Berlin’s museum for up to 120 years.
Recently, the German government agreed to return the statue to Cameroon as a part of its recent diplomacy program of giving back stolen artefacts. Thanks to efforts from the civil society initiative “Bring Back Ngonnso” and restitution activists like Njobati Sylvie.
The Rosetta stone, originally from Egypt, is a stele made out of granodiorite (a coarse-grained rock). Its origins date back to the Hellenistic period. It is a fragment of a larger stele and bears three inscriptions: the top in Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs, the second in the Egyptian Demotic script, and the third in Ancient Greek. Owing to its broken state, none of the three texts is complete.
French soldiers discovered the stone in July 1799 in the city of Rosetta (Modern day Rashid). In 1801, the British took possession of the stone after defeating French forces. The Rosetta stone currently sits in the British Museum as the most visited object.
Renowned Egyptian archaeologist Dr Zahi Hawass has been at the forefront of the stone’s restitution efforts, having recently drawn up a petition to reclaim the 2,200-year-old tablet from the British Museum. He believes The Rosetta Stone is the icon of Egyptian identity and should have its home in Egypt.
The Maqdala treasures consist of an iconic 18th-century gold crown with religious embossed images, an imperial shield, tabots, manuscripts, processional crosses, beakers, royal wedding dress, artworks, and jewellery that were looted by the British army after defeating Emperor Tewodros II in 1868 during the battle of Maqdala.
In 1872, the treasures were shipped to England, with many transferred to the British Museum, while the crown was deposited at the Victoria & Albert museum. For many Ethiopians, the items seized at Maqdala are of vital importance—“A fundamental part of the existential fabric of Ethiopia and its people.”
Restitution calls have been made as back as 2007 by The Ethiopian authorities and activists. In 2021, The Scheherazade Foundation, a British nonprofit, purchased a cache of the Maqdala artefacts through an auction house and turned them over to the Ethiopian government.
Other prominent Ethiopian artefacts are still held by British institutions, such as the remains of Prince Alemayehu and the Tabot Arks of the Covenant.
The Great Zimbabwe birds are birdlike soapstone figurines from the ruined city of Great Zimbabwe, built in the 11th or 12th century. It is thought that the bird used as an inspiration for the carvings is the Bateleur eagle or Fish eagle, who, in traditional Shona belief, was regarded as a messenger from God and the ancestors.
In 1889 a European hunter, Willi Posselt took one of the statues and sold it to Cecil Rhodes, a British mining magnate and imperialist. Subsequently, 5 other sculptures were looted from the ruins of the ancient city and transported to South Africa.
In 1981, a year after Zimbabwe’s independence, The government of South Africa returned 4 of the sculptures. Also, in 2003, Germany returned the pedestal of one of the birds. It had been sold to the Ethnological Museum in Berlin in 1907 by a German missionary.
So far, only seven of the Zimbabwe Birds are currently in Zimbabwe, with the eighth and last one still in South Africa, located in the bedroom of Cecil Rhode’s home turned museum in Cape town.
The Ngadji is a massive sacred drum, taller than any human, and is said to be a symbol of supreme authority for the Pokomo people, a Kenyan ethnic group. It is believed to be the earthly representation of the god that the Pokomo people worshipped. It was also said to make the sound of a roaring lion when struck, forcing anyone within its range to stop and listen.
The Ngadji was under the care of the Kidjo, a secretive Pokomo council of elders similar to African occultic groups, before it was forcibly taken at gunpoint by Jens J. Anderssen and his soldiers in 1902. Six years later, it was donated to the British museum where it currently resides. 114 years later, it is still collecting dust in its storage room.
Talks between the Pokomo and The British museum officials about a possible return have so far been unsuccessful. Recently, The British museum offered to loan back the Ngadji and insisted on not renouncing its ownership.
The Bangwa Queen is a wooden carving of spiritual importance to the Bangwa people indigenous to western Cameroon. The ancestor sculpture was made of a prestigious queen and is believed to be responsible for the continued growth, expansion, and ultimate power of the Bangwa kingdom through childbirth.
The sculpture is thought to be looted or given to German colonial agent Gustav Conrau in 1899 and subsequently given to the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin. It was then sold through different auctions. Currently, the Dapper Foundation in Paris, France, owns the sculpture, and it was briefly displayed at the Musée Dapper until 2017.
Activists and traditional leaders have been in correspondence with the foundation requesting its return to the Kingdom, with talks stalling at various times.