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How Britain looted the continent’s art

By , People Daily Digital
Wednesday, October 13th, 2021 06:00 | 2 mins read
An Ibo mask at the Royal Museum of Central Africa. During war and colonisation, Western nations participated in the theft of thousands of pieces of African art. Photo/COURTESY

London, Tuesday

Nowadays, the sleepy town of Chibok in northern Nigeria is notorious for the kidnapping of 276 children by Boko Haram.

But go back 115 years and this tiny farming community perched atop a hill fought one of the greatest resistances to British colonisation.

In November 1906, around 170 British soldiers launched what that country’s parliament called a “punitive expedition” against the town for carrying out annual raids along British trade routes in Borno state.

In defence, during an 11-day siege, Chibok townsmen shot poisoned arrows at the soldiers from hideouts in the hills.

The fiercely independent “small Chibbuk tribe of savages”, as they were described in a report presented to Britain’s parliament in December 1907, had been “the most determined lot of fighters” ever encountered in what is now modern-day Nigeria.

It took British forces another three months to annex Chibok, and only after they discovered their natural water source and “starved them out”, the report said.

The arrows and spears the Chibok townsmen had used against the British were then collected and sent to London where they are held in storage today.

But curator labels available online about the background of the items at the British Museum – which holds around 73,000 African objects – make no mention of how the spears got there, nor of the town’s resistance against “punitive” colonisation.

Shrouded in a storeroom, those arrows point to a wider conflict unfolding about artefacts looted from Africa during wars and colonisation and held in Western museums.

While many Western curators defend their collections as “universal”, representing the art of the world regardless of how they were acquired, critics suggest they have not done enough to accurately present the complex histories of the objects that were taken.

Historian Max Siollun recounts Chibok’s capture in his book, What Britain did to Nigeria, which examines the legacy of Nigeria’s violent colonisation in its rapidly expanding modern crisis.

He believes historical narratives – largely written by Europeans – were deeply flawed, neglecting “a much more interesting and deeper history”.

“It is very dangerous to rely on the victor’s account as the sole account of history,” he says.

“There is a proverb about this … the tale of the hunt will always be the hunter’s tale until the lion learns how to tell its story.”

Critics also accuse Western museums of participating in a gross abuse of power.

“Museums were definitely devices that helped to shape colonialism and stories of conquests and the legitimising of the conquests,” says Ayisha Osori, director of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, headquartered in Senegal.

She is co-leading a four-year, $15 million initiative by the Open Society to help nations get back their cultural treasures held abroad.

“If we use the Benin kingdom in Nigeria, the Dahomey kingdom in Benin [Republic] and the Ashanti kingdom in Ghana – a lot of violence was how these things were taken,” she says. - Agencies