(AFP) – Two statues from among thousands of works of art looted by British soldiers in the 19th century have been returned to Nigeria, prompting calls for other “stolen” treasures to be repatriated.
For more than a century, the artefacts from the “Benin Bronzes” collection had been in the family of retired medical consultant Mark Walker, whose grandfather was involved in a 1897 British raid in which they were taken.
But on Friday, the statues — depicting a fabled ibis bird and the traditional monarch’s bell — were given back to the Oba (King) of Benin, Uku Akpolokpolo Erediauwa I, at a ceremony attended by royal officials and local dignitaries.
Walker said he decided to return the statues to Nigeria in September last year after learning of their history, in part from his grandfather’s diary from the time, which described the treasures as “loot”.
“That gave me the idea that perhaps they should go to the place where they will be appreciated for ever,” he told AFP in Benin City, 240 kilometres (150 miles) east of Lagos.
“I’m very proud to be part of this because it is clearly seen as an historic occasion.
“I had no idea it would be regarded with such importance and it is very gratifying to me to have been able to play some small part in the history of the restoration of the bronzes because I think more will come back.”
The tale of the precious artefacts is one of intrique and tragedy. It began when nine British officers were killed while on a trade mission to Erediauwa’s grandfather, ruler of the then independent kingdom of Benin.
The British reaction was fierce. Walker’s grandfather was part of a British military deployment to the kingdom to avenge the deaths of the officers. The overwhelming show of strength left several thousand local people dead and the city set ablaze, while the oba was forced into exile.
The royal palace was looted, resulting in the removal of hundreds of artworks, including the Benin Bronzes, which showed highly decorative images of the oba and his courtiers from centuries earlier.
Most of the ornate bronzes — in fact melted down and refashioned brass from bracelets and other objects offered by Portuguese traders in the 15th century — have been at the British Museum in London ever since.
They include a 19th century depiction of the head of the oba, who has divine status for the Edo people, and 16th century plaques taken from the walls of the royal palace, showing court life.
– ‘Symbolic gesture’ –
Nigeria has previously requested the return of the Benin Bronzes but without success.
The Oba’s brother, the Enogie of Obazuwa, Prince Edun Akenzua, described Walker’s actions as a “friendly gesture” that would “contribute positively to healing the bruise etched on the psyche of Benin people since 1897”.
He also called for the return of the other items in the British Museum and galleries around the world.
“We appeal to other descendants of soldiers who fought in Benin and who still keep these objects in their homes to emulate Dr Walker’s friendly gesture and return the objects in their possession,” he added.
Steve Dunstone, of the Richard Lander Society, agreed that Walker’s gesture was important and hoped it would prompt a rethink over repatriating other “stolen” treasures from Britain’s colonial past.
Most famously, Britain has come under sustained pressure to return the Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon Marbles, to Greece, as well as the 105-carat Koh-i-Noor diamond to India, but has repeatedly resisted.
“Very few people know about the story (of the Benin Bronzes)… It was an injustice that happened that needs to be corrected,” said Dunstone, whose Lander group is named after the explorer who travelled to the source of the Niger river and promotes educational and cultural links between Nigeria and Britain.
“I’m sure Mark Walker, with this symbolic gesture, will just start opening the door for other people to release the story and I hope to persuade them to return their bronzes,” he added.