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Benin bronzes

Give Africa its history back

Thomas Niedermueller/Getty

Take a stroll through the British Museum, and you’ll find over 900 of the “marvellous plaques and sculptures” known as the “Benin bronzes”, says Tomiwa Owolade in The New Statesman. Many other institutions that hold Benin bronzes have started returning them to Nigeria, where in 1897 British colonists stole more than 10,000 artefacts during a raid on the Kingdom of Benin. But the British Museum is mandated by a 1963 act of parliament to keep hold of its stash – and a Tory government obsessed with culture wars isn’t likely to change that law any time soon.

Many say the bronzes should be returned “for the sake of decolonisation”, but I think there’s a more profound, conservative case for their repatriation. Civilisation cannot be divorced from geographical context without losing some of its “fundamental value”. And the bronzes have been ripped from the very place which gives them their value: “Not the abstract value of artistic excellence, but the value of one father teaching his son how to cast a bronze, of a people recognising their ancestors in objects of vivid beauty.” In 1962, the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper claimed that Africa had no history and was a “darkness” until Europeans arrived. The Benin bronzes, “a powerful symbol of a civilisation that lasted for over 700 years”, show this to be a “pernicious myth”. Africa must be allowed to take ownership of its history.