July 5, 2021

Cultural artefacts to rightful owners: A fair case for repatriation


By Alohan Omoregie

BY accident, the author had stumbled on a published video clip on YouTube entitled: “Send them back: The Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Athens”. A profound debate moderated by the famous Sudanese-British radio and television journalist “Zainab Badawi”.

This was published by “The Intelligence Squared” (a nonpartisan, non-profit organisation in the US aimed at restoring civility, reasoned analysis and constructive public discourse).

The video presents a profound debate reinforcing the need to bring back or reunite looted treasures or artefacts to their source of origin or the creative owners from where they were removed. Arguably, they are loot, the spoils of war, often perceived these days as pillage with dishonest intent. Though this video was specifically about The Parthenon Marble carted from Athens in Greece, there were similar insinuations and remarks in the video (the particular clip of interest) about the Benin Bronzes that were carted away in 1897.

This was discussed by Oba Erediauwa of Benin (1923-2016) in an interview with Art Historian Gus Casely-Hayford in February 2013, exploring “The history of the Lost Kingdoms of West Africa, with particular attention to the 16th-century bronzes from the kingdom of Benin”.

He maintains that these Benin Bronzes and artefacts were records, plaques and symbols of the Benin people, commissioned by the reigning Oba (King) of Benin, to depict or record significant events for posterity.

This view was further elucidated by another high-ranking royal (Prince Edun Akenzua) who claims that these looted artefacts were significant records, and thus represent “several chapters of history”.

This is the history of the Benin people, apparently forcibly removed by the British in the aftermath of the “Benin Massacre” imbroglio. Historical records are indispensable in understanding the present, the future and the workings of any society. History, therefore, presents an inherent part of societal evolution; and in human evolution, societies, communities and peoples’ development are mutually intertwined.

Therefore, mutual respect of the culture and beliefs of others, listening and respecting other people’s opinion is globally considered a civilized norm. It is considered a fundamental in British values.

READ ALSO: Looted Artefacts: Pressure mounts on Europe to make restitution

This was clearly exemplified in 1815 by Arthur Wellesley (the first Duke of Wellington) after the Battle of Waterloo when he repatriated the artwork plundered by Napoleon to Italy.

These artworks would have been the spoils of war following the resounding defeat of the French armies; and were particularly susceptible to that fate considering the huge cost of the war. However, in the spirit of good conscience, the Duke refrained from plundering France and repatriated France’s prior seizures from Spain, Netherlands, Italy and Prussia.

According to Wellesley, the moral decision to “restore” the art to its proper context, that is the country of origin, or its heirs, was overwhelming. This magnanimity of Arthur Wellesley has conscientiously constituted an ethical precedent.

It’s my view that such precedent, consistent with the right argument and dialogue, could advance the pace of art, artefact and cultural heritage restitution and repatriation globally. Precedents are a significant facet of the Common Law legal system practised in the UK. Precedents provide stability and moderation for the rule of law, to say nothing of the fact that the rule of law is also a significant British and European value system.

With the law of precedent, natural justice and good conscience, the case for the repatriation of the Benin Bronzes and other artefacts is overwhelming. The mode of repatriation may be subject to dialogue and deliberations in mutual respect and understanding.

The outcome of such dialogue would undeniably amount to victory; victory for contemporary diplomacy over the application of the brute “rule of the jungle” which seems to have characterized the 19th century Anglo-African relations. It would amount to a victory for all parties!

Another contemporary precedent worthy of note is the offer by the Victoria and Albert Museum to return Ethiopia’s looted Maqdala treasures on a long-term loan, which strengthens the argument for the return of the Benin Bronzes carted in similar circumstances.

A similar model for the repatriation of looted artefacts is being contemplated for the Benin Bronzes, bearing in mind the assurances provided by the current Oba of Benin (Oba Ewaure II) and the Edo State Government for the provision of a world-class social tourism infrastructure to house and secure these artefacts. It is important to add that Oba Ovoramen of Benin was found not guilty of the Benin Massacre in 1897 by the British Government.

Yet his palace was burnt, ravaged and plundered and he was subsequently forced into exile to Calabar. This clearly suggests that it wasn’t the Benin Massacre of 1897 that led to the punitive British expedition. Whatever it was, it wasn’t disclosed to the British public and taxpayers at the time. Apparently, the British taxpayers (at the time) were deceived into believing that the Benin Massacre was the obscenity that led to the British invasion of Benin in 1897.

History now has it that the Benin Massacre imbroglio and the consequent military invasion were prearranged and driven by the economic interest of the time. Furthermore, the ordeal of Oba Ovoramen was a complete travesty of all norms of natural justice and precedents.

In the light of the unfair treatment to which Oba Ovoramen of Benin was subjected (i.e. the flagrant disregard to the law of natural justice and precedents), and the entire deception underpinning the massacre in 1897, the British Government should reconsider the provision of some form of ‘voluntary restitution’ through the provision of logistical support to the state government for the realisation of the intended tourism infrastructure for Edo State.

All attempts – constructive dialogue and efforts – to repatriate Benin Bronzes from around the world (that is the United Kingdom, Netherlands, France, Germany and the United States) to the Oba of Benin’s Palace, from where they were stolen, will boost tourism and tourism infrastructure in Edo State and Nigeria; and will be very well received by the Benin people and all well-wishers with good conscience.