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Europe’s ‘Discovery’ of African Art: The 125th anniversary of the British Punitive Expedition

Despite Africans agitating for the return of looted artefacts, 90% of Africa’s cultural heritage is ‘housed’ in the West. This week marks the 125th anniversary of the British punitive expedition that destroyed Benin city and started Europe’s ‘discovery’ of African art.



The account of the Benin massacre that happened in 1897 is a horrific part of the country’s past and a clear reminder that Britain’s motive for pushing into Africa was to loot, exploit and murder her people. At the time the Scramble for Africa was on, and the Kingdom of Benin had managed to retain its independence to the Royal Niger Company’s (a mercantile company chartered by Britain) chagrin. It did not help that the Kingdom had a monopoly on trade in the area and was rich in natural resources such as palm oil, rubber, and ivory.

The story ended in blood and fire, with innumerable people dead and Benin City burned to the ground. Once the city was captured the palaces of high-ranking Beninese, sacred sites, and ceremonial buildings were ransacked and looted.

The bulk of what was looted was retained by the expedition while religious artefacts, Benin visual history, mnemonics, and artworks were sent to Britain. Those sent were inclusive of the metal artwork that is now known as the Benin Bronzes. While a large percentage of the artefacts sent to Britain were acquisitioned by the British museum the rest were given away to Britain’s armed forces as spoils of war or sold at auction.

Europe’s ‘discovery’ of African Art


Some of the Benin artefacts that were sold at auction were dispersed to museums around the world. They catalysed the start of Europe’s valuation of West African art which led to its replication and the artistic assimilation that is said to have formed the early modernist movement. In short, what has previously been termed barbaric and uncivilized became a tenet of European art.

Many other similar expeditions across the continent only added to Europe’s collection of African spiritual, symbolic, and religious artefacts. Another glaring example is Ethiopia’s Tabots (replica of the Tablets of Law, onto which the Ten Commandments were inscribed) that have little significance to Britain but to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, represents the manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah, when he came to Jordan for baptism.

Priests showing painting of Saint Mary, during the Timkat ceremony, in front of Medhane Alem church, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Creator: Jean Rebiffe Copyright: © Jean Rebiffé, 2014, CC BY 4.0.


Then there was the violent capture of the city of Ouossebougou in 1890 that marked the end of the Toucouleur empire and the transfer of control to French colonial rule. French officials plundered over a thousand pieces of significant cultural heritage to the people—including the saber of the founder of the empire, El Hadj Omar Tall.

The instances are innumerable and the damage unquantifiable, but the bottom line is- if colonialism has been widely accepted as one of the worst atrocities the world has witnessed, then why aren’t the perpetrators doing more to correct the colonial injustices?

The Restitution Debate


Fast forward to the present day, more than a century after the punitive expedition, where 90% of Africa’s cultural artefacts are still located outside the continent. Despite the call for their return, Europe remains arrogantly righteous in their ‘noble’ stewardship of the looted artefacts. Although they have since accepted their responsibility in the horrors of the past and seemed very apologetic (scoff) about it, they still somehow think that the artefacts are ‘safer’ where they are. Similar to the narrative of the punitive expedition, Africa is just not ‘fit’ or ‘ready’ to house, curate, or protect its own heritage.

Read more: Germany is returning Nigeria’s looted Benin Bronzes: why it’s not nearly enough

This 125th anniversary has reignited the call by Africans. It cannot be easier for Africans to learn more about their heritage from outside the continent. By hoarding our past the West has looted our past and is now robbing our youth.

Culture is a reflection of a community or nation and gives it continuity and context. Our behavioural patterns, belief systems, principles, and ways of living are the derivatives of our culture. The gaps that these artefacts have left on top of the broken history that colonialism wrought have heavily eroded the richness of African culture and this erosion should not continue. Restitution should therefore not be a debate but an immediate certainty.