Back to Africa Update

Church Of England Wishes to Return Two Benin Artefacts to Nigeria. Is That Enough?

By Kwame Opoku

"The central issue can be ascribed to the fact that most of these Europeans intended, consciously or unconsciously, to destroy what was given in the African cultural world so as to implant that which is considered, in their view, human, civilised, worthy, and valuable. The same African culture which was belittled by the Europeans had produced many objects and artefacts which both the colonialists and missionaries plundered and shipped to Europe. To date, these treasures remain in museums and mission houses throughout Europe".

Chibueze Udeani, Inculturation as Dialogue: Igbo Culture and the Message of Christ. (2007)

When I read that the Church of England was willing to return two Benin artefacts to Nigeria, I exclaimed Hallelujah! Hallelujah! If the Church of England, a backbone of British imperialism and colonialism, is willing to return Benin artefacts to Nigeria after all these decades, who else can continue to hold on to any of the treasures looted in the British invasion of Benin in 1897? (1)

But when I looked at the two sculptures, I felt there was something unusual here. The two artefacts did not resemble the usual Benin artefacts we are used to seeing in the context of restitution debates. They seemed to be of later fabrication. Further reading revealed that the Church is aware that the two sculptures were not among the 1897 lot and that they had indeed been given to Archbishop Runcie as a gift during his visit to Nigeria in 1982. The Church was aware that the two objects were not among the looted objects Nigeria asks holders to return. I became even more perplexed.

Why would anyone return an object given as a gift when former owners ask for restitution of looted artefacts? Could it be that someone has misunderstood the call for the return of stolen artefacts? Those who have called for restitution, like the Benin Royal Family, have clearly explained that what they want to be returned are the artefacts looted by the British invasion army in 1897 and not all Benin objects that they acquired earlier or later to the notorious aggression. Generally, one has to assume that a classical Benin object in Europe would have come through the invasion.

Since the two objects the Church of England wants to return do not by any definition fall into the wanted category, the question arises, why does the Church wish to return them now to Nigeria? The explanation given in the Church Newspaper is that Digital Benin contacted Lambeth Palace asking whether they had any Benin bronzes they could include in their project. Lambeth Palace had indicated they would agree on the inclusion of their two Benin artefacts in the project and were willing to return them to Nigeria. (2)

Whatever may be the true reason for the Church to be willing to return artefacts that have been given as gifts and not part of the 1897 loot, one may wonder whether there might not be another reason. Might this voluntary offer to return objects not requested be a pre-emptive action to forestall later demands that may affect artefacts falling within the loot category? Could this be a way of preventing further questions about African artefacts in Lambeth Palace or other Anglican parishes and other places under the control or influence of the Anglican Church? Could it also avert questions about the Royal Collection, which has objects from the 1897 loot? Could this be part of a broader attempt to prevent the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum from being scrutinised?

Could the voluntary return of non-looted artefacts be a way of weakening the moral force of the restitution movement or distorting the campaign's primary message? So far, our demands have been the restitution of looted African artefacts, taken mainly by violence or dubious methods. It is the violence typical of colonial relations and its accompanying questionable practices that we reject. It is difficult for our opponents to answer the moral question, and often, they try to present this demand as a request for all African artefacts to be returned to Africa. Youthful supporters may, in their anger, make such demands which recent converts to restitution echo. The majority of Africans realise we cannot avoid relationships with Europe. However, we want Western museums to return a considerable number of the looted artefacts. Why can the British Museum hold 900 stolen Benin artefacts and not be willing to return 600 0r more to Benin? What is the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, doing with 530 Benin artefacts? Do World Museum, Vienna (200) and the Museum at Rothenbaum, Hamburg (200) need so many looted Benin artefacts?

There seems to be an attempt to put pressure on those institutions holding few Benin artefacts to restitute them so that those having large numbers would not be required to do so. The idea here seems to be that when small institutions and individuals have returned hundreds of Benin artefacts to Benin/Nigeria and the new museum at Benin City completed, nobody would ask an institution such as British Museum to restitute. We must remember that the British Museum is one of the European institutions involved in the planning, building, and financing of the new museum at Benin City, where the museum is also involved in archaeological excavations. Under these circumstances, it would be challenging to imagine Benin/Nigeria requesting restitution when the new museum has many artefacts that it cannot display. Imperialists have long demonstrated that they are masters at long-term planning. What about Africans?

Those putting pressure on small museums and regional or provincial institutions to restitute Benin bronzes seem to ignore entirely the very significant symbolism of restitution. They do not seem to recognise the essence of restitution: the admission that the early violent acquisition was wrong. The party is returning the looted artefacts as an act of reconciliation and wishes to establish new relationships based on mutual benefit and respect and not based on violence. Many people have clearly not understood the sub-title of the Sarr-Savoy report: The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics

It was the opinion of the Sarr-Savoy commission that restitution would have to start with major public institutions such as Musée du Quay Branly before turning attention to small institutions and private individuals. Some seem to be suggesting an opposite procedure.

The symbolic aspects involved here, more essential and beyond the objects themselves, cannot be made by individuals or regional museums. Given the historical relations between Benin/Nigeria and Great Britain and the circumstances of the acquisition of the Benin artefacts, restitution of artefacts and reconciliation can only be made by the State of Great Britain or representative institution such as the British Museum. We must face the spiritual and symbolic aspects of the relationship directly. Both Benin/Nigeria and Britain have a lot to gain through an adequately conducted restitution which should not be left to those only capable of thinking in mercantile terms.

We leave aside the major moral objection of putting pressure on holders of few Benin artefacts while leaving holders of vast numbers untouched.

An argument often heard is that the law prohibits the British Museum. This argument is not valid. The museum has in the past sold Benin artefacts. What is true is that the British Museum Act 1963 limits the possibility of the museum deaccessioning artefacts under its control(3)

The British Museum can dispose of articles under its control if:

  1. the object is a duplicate of another such object,
  2. in the opinion of the Trustees the object is unfit to be retained in the collections of the museum,
  3. if satisfied that it has become useless for the museum because of damage, physical deterioration.

Thus, if it wanted, the museum could declare some Benin bronzes as duplicates, or unfit to be retained. The British Museum chooses to put a strict and limiting interpretation on its powers. This is also the opinion of Alexander Hermann, whom the Arts Council of England has entrusted to draw new regulations on handling colonial objects in British Museums. On examination of the British Museum Act in connection with Ethiopian tabots, Alexander Herman, director of the Institute of Art and Law, concluded that:

''The British Museum seems to enjoy telling the world about its statutory restrictions. Whenever would-be claimants approach the museum seeking restitution of an object from the collection, the almost mechanical response from the museum is that its trustees are prevented from doing so, even if they wanted to, because of the onerous restrictions on deaccessioning collection items found within the British Museum Act 1963.

The trustees should honour Parliament's decision and use their powers appropriately. In this case, that should lead to only one result: the permanent restitution of the tabots to the Ethiopian Church.'' (4)

The British Museum has chosen an interpretation of the British Museum 1963 that suits its policy of not restituting any artefacts in its collection. But even assuming that the 1963 Act prohibits the museum from returning an object even though it may want to do so, the question is why has the museum not asked Parliament to amend the 1963 Act? A specific law, Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 has been passed to make it possible for museums to restitute Nazi-looted artefacts. Why can a similar law not be passed for African artefacts looted in colonial times?

Those who go about declaring that the British Museum is forbidden by the British Museum Act 1963 should stop this propaganda which is incompatible with the very words of the statute. Indeed, they make nonsense of the exact terms of section 5 of the Act. 'The Trustees of the British Museum may sell, exchange, give away or otherwise dispose of any object vested in them and comprised in their collections if '—' does not sound like a prohibition. It sounds more like permission subject to certain conditions.

Can we believe that the Church of England, the staunch support of imperialist and colonialist Britain throughout the colonial period, has only these two bronzes and none of the classical Benin bronzes? Would the Church not have a collection of exquisite colonial artefacts such as the British Queen in the Royal Collection?

The Church of England must be seen as above all suspicion of hoarding looted African artefacts. The only way it can do this is by publishing a list of all the African artefacts it holds or controls. But is this all it can do? We believe that in addition to publishing a list of its artefacts, the Church of England could issue a declaration of principle on looted artefacts as it had done in connection with racism and support of Black Lives Matter.

Racism and looting of artefacts in the colonial regime are fundamentally linked. Those who are against racism cannot be for the looting of colonial artefacts. It is the fundamental racism underlying colonialism that makes both racism and colonial looting possible. The Church of England could condemn the looting of artefacts and issue a condemnation of looting of artefacts in the colonial period. In specific terms, the Church could also state that the commandment 'Thou shall not steal' also applies in Europe and not only in Africa and all times. The injunction also applies to stealing of artefacts that has been seen as a mark of bravery by some circles in Europe.

The Church of England could finally make its position clear on the shameful robbery of Ethiopian crosses and other valuables from Maqdala in 1868. How can the Church live with the stealing of crosses from a Christian country by another Christina country? What about the tabot of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church that has been inserted and cemented in the Westminster Abbey? (5) The Church of England could use its enormous influence and authority to persuade Parliament, British Museum, and Victoria and Albert Museum to start restituting the Ethiopian crosses and stop advancing arguments that tend to defy the intelligence of humanity. (6) It was a command from the British government and the blessing of the Church of England that British soldiers went to war in Ethiopia in 1868 in the belief that they were fighting for God and country.

The Vatican Museum has its collection of African artefacts that may have been looted. In any case, artefacts sent in 1925 for an exhibition on African art were never returned: "In 1925 Pope Pius XI organised a missionary exhibition extolling missionary work all over the non-western world. About 100,000 items were sent and after the exhibition only about half were returned. The Pope proclaimed the formation of a new museum, the Pontifico Museu Missionario-Etnologico, so that the 'dawn of faith among the infidel of today can be compared to the dawn of faith which… illuminated pagan Rome". Jeanette Greenfield, The Return of Cultural Treasures. (7)

The appeal to the Church of England must be seen as applicable to all religious organisations. We know that the collection of African artefacts under dubious circumstances has been at the foundation of many museums in Europe:

''What the missionary in the field did not give, or sell, to the national or local ethnographic collection back home, they donated to their own society's ethnographic collection. Two of the earliest museums in Britain, which were founded independently of any concern for forming stock for use in exhibitions, belonged to the London Missionary Society and the Wesley Missionary Society." A.E. Coombes, Reinventing Africa. (8)

The current tendency to declare an intention to return looted African artefacts is undoubtedly an opportunity for the churches to rehabilitate themselves and make amends for the contribution they made, intentionally or unwittingly, to the debased image of the African, which is at the basis of colonialism, racism, and colonial looting of artefacts. The three phenomena are fundamentally linked, and we cannot condemn one and accept the other.



  1. See the annex below.

  1. K. Opoku, ‘Looted Ethiopian Tabot Concealed Permanently in Westminster Abbey, London. Is there somewhere a minimum sense of shame?’

  1. K. Opoku, ‘To decolonize is to decontextualize, Tristram Hunt. Should we stop asking for restitution of our looted artefacts?’
  2. The Return of Cultural Treasures, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p.100.
  3. Yale University Press, 1994, p. 168




British Museum Act 1963

''5 Disposal of objects.

(1) The Trustees of the British Museum may sell, exchange, give away or otherwise dispose of any object vested in them and comprised in their collections if—

(a)the object is a duplicate of another such object, or

(b)the object appears to the Trustees to have been made no earlier than the year 1850, and substantially consists of printed matter of which a copy made by photography or a process akin to photography is held by the Trustees, or

(c)in the opinion of the Trustees the object is unfit to be retained in the collections of the museum and can be disposed of without detriment to the interests of students:

Provided that where an object has become vested in the Trustees by virtue of a gift or bequest the powers conferred by this subsection shall not be exercisable as respects that object in a manner inconsistent with any condition attached to the gift or bequest.

(2) The Trustees may destroy or otherwise dispose of any object vested in them and comprised in their collections if satisfied that it has become useless for the purposes of the museum by reason of damage, physical deterioration, or infestation by destructive organisms.

(3) Money accruing to the Trustees by virtue of an exercise of the powers conferred by this section or section 6 of the Museums and Galleries Act 1992] shall be laid out by them in the purchase of objects to be added to the collections of the museum''.



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