In demand: the African art pillaged by Britain

By Cahal Milmo
Saturday 26 January 2002 01:00

When Captain James Philips was chosen to head a British trade expedition to the ancient city of Benin in 1897, he assured his superiors that treasure looted from its king would "pay the expenses incurred".

Unhappily for Capt Philips and six of his Army comrades, warriors from the west African fiefdom killed them before they arrived at the royal palace adorned with bronze figures in search of colonial booty.

The Colonial Office in London reacted by dispatching an Army raiding party to exact "punitive damages" by deposing Benin's ruler and removing the artworks to their new home at the British Museum.

The atrocity was probably not the worst committed by the British Empire, but proof that it remains one of the most infamous was provided yesterday amid a growing clamour for the return of disputed artefacts held in galleries and museums across Britain.

A straw poll by The Independent found at least eight museum collections – from the Elgin Marbles to treasures from the Ethiopian city of Maqdala – are being actively sought for repatriation.

This week Nigerian MPs demanded the wholesale return of the Benin Bronzes, originally coveted by Capt Philips, on the basis that they were illegally taken from the city state, now part of modern Nigeria.

The lower house of the Nigerian parliament unanimously passed a motion calling for about 200 brass plaques held at the British Museum to be repatriated as part of the country's "cultural heritage".

If approved by senior legislators and the Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo, the motion will lead to a formal approach to the British Government and another diplomatic headache for museum managers.

Peter Obgonnaya, a spokesman for the Nigerian high commission in London, said: "It has long been our view that the bronzes form part of our national identity and should be returned. They were forcibly taken in an era when might was right. It is now right that they be displayed in a Nigerian museum because they are important works of art from our past. This is something that will not go away."

The entire Benin Bronze collection consists of about 990 objects held in a number of museums from Exeter to Glasgow. Only those at the British Museum are believed to be the subject of a claim from Nigeria at present.

The British Museum yesterday denied any imminent prospect of the statues, which date from the 16th century, being repatriated, pointing out that an Act of Parliament bans it from "permanently disposing of any object".

But the dispute will add to a growing trend of one-time imperial subjects demanding the restitution of artworks and relics that they claim were pillaged, swindled or illegally smuggled from their ownership.

Experts estimate anything from 2 per cent to 10 per cent of the ethnographic collections held in Britain – numbering thousands of items – could eventually be the subject of legitimate requests for their return.

Mark Taylor, the director of the Museums' Association, said: "There is a very strong argument which says that items of spiritual and religious significance should be returned.

"To date, there have been only a few requests but it is a growing issue. Many museums argue, however, that they are in a better position to display and preserve these items for future generations."

Among the disputed collections are the 19th-century Ashanti royal regalia from Ghana held at the Victoria & Albert in London; Maori weapons seized in New Zealand in the 1840s and held in a number of regimental museums; and scores of objects taken from the Cook Islands in the Pacific and held in museums from Edinburgh to London.

One of the biggest claims is on behalf of the ancient Ethiopian city of Maqdala, which was besieged and looted by the British Army in 1868. The resulting haul was so large that it took 15 elephants to transport it to ships for return to Britain.

Campaigners allege relics and documents from Maqdala are held in British institutions including the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Cambridge University Library, the Royal Library at Windsor, and the Museum of Mankind in London.

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