Description of Emperor Tewodros II after He was Crowned

Emperor Tewodros II

When Emperor Tewodros II was crowned King, the British Consul Walter Plowden who knew well the political events of Ethiopia during the 1850s and had foretold the rising star of Kassa, the Emperor’s birth name, the freelance warrior from Qwara, described him as such:

The King Theodorus is young in years, vigorous in all manly exercises, of a striking countenance, peculiarly polite and engaging when pleased, and mostly displaying great tact and delicacy. He is persuaded that he is destined to restore the glories of the Ethiopian Empire and to achieve great conquests: of untiring energy, both mental and bodily, his personal and moral daring is boundless… When aroused his wrath is terrible, and all tremble; but at all moments he possesses a perfect self-control. Indefatigable in business, he takes little repose night or day: his ideas and language are clear and precise; hesitation is not known to him; and has no counsellors or go-between. He is fond of splendour, and received in state even on a campaign. He is unsparing in punishment — necessary in a wilderness as Abyssinia (at that time). He salutes his meanest (poor) subjects with courtesy, is sincerely though often mistakenly religious, and will acknowledge a fault committed to his poorest follower in a moment of compassion with sincerity and grace. He is generous to excess, and free from all cupidity, regarding nothing with pleasure or desire but munitions of war for his soldiers. He has exercised the utmost clemency towards the vanquished, treating them more like friends than enemies. His faith is signal: without Christ I am nothing.”

UK rejects Calls to Return Ethiopian Prince’s Remains

Prince Alemayehu, son of Emperor Tewodros II, as photographed in 1868 by Julia Cameron

This is a heartbreaking news. Last week, Buckingham Palace, and the UK government refused to return the remains of Prince Alemayehu, son of Emperor Tewodros II, to Ethiopia. Prince Alemayehu’s remains are still in Great Britain 150 years after his death. How preposterous is this! Few years ago, when the Ethiopian government asked, the British said that they could not identify his bones (Ethiopians urge Britain to return bones of ‘stolen’ prince after 150 years). Today, Ethiopians thought that now that there is a new occupant in Buckingham Palace, King Charles III, Prince Alemayehu’s remains will finally return home. However, Buckingham Palace said that returning his remains will not be possible, as it will disturb the resting place of several others in the vicinity. From not being able to identify his bones a few years ago (when in this day and age the remains of King Richard III of England have been identified 500 years after his death), to disturbing others buried there, it makes us wonder if they ever even took the time to look. These are the same people who only returned the hair of Emperor Tewodros II only in 2019. It is so painful to hear… it feels like part of Emperor Tewodros II is still stuck in England. As one looks at pictures of the young orphaned prince who arrived in the UK at the age of 7, and who died at the age of 18, there is so much pain in his face.

Below are snippets of the article; for the full version, go to the BBC.

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Emperor Tewodros II

Buckingham Palace has declined a request to return the remains of an Ethiopian prince who came to be buried at Windsor Castle in the 19th Century.

Prince Alemayehu was taken to the UK aged just seven and arrived an orphan after his mother died on the journey. Queen Victoria then took an interest in him and arranged for his education – and ultimately his burial when he died aged just 18.

But his family wants his remains to be sent back to Ethiopia. We want his remains back as a family and as Ethiopians because that is not the country he was born in,” one of the royal descendants Fasil Minas told the BBC. It was not right” for him to be buried in the UK, he added.

… in a statement sent to the BBC, a Buckingham Palace spokesperson said removing his remains could affect others buried in the catacombs of St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. It is very unlikely that it would be possible to exhume the remains without disturbing the resting place of a substantial number of others in the vicinity,” the palace said. The statement added that the authorities at the chapel were sensitive to the need to honour Prince Alemayehu’s memory, but that they also had “the responsibility to preserve the dignity of the departed“.

How Prince Alemayehu ended up in the UK at such a young age was the result of imperial action and the failure of diplomacy. In 1862, in an effort to strengthen his empire, the prince’s father Emperor Tewodros II sought an alliance with the UK, but his letters making his case did not get a response from Queen Victoria. Angered by the silence and taking matters into his own hands, the emperor held some Europeans, among them the British consul, hostage. This precipitated a huge military expedition, involving some 13,000 British and Indian troops, to rescue them [no diplomacy, always force and violence].  

British Camp at Zoola, Abyssinia expedition 1868-9 (Source: Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

The force also included an official from the British Museum. In April 1868 they laid siege to Tewodros’ mountain fortress at Maqdala in northern Ethiopia, and in a matter of hours overwhelmed the defences. The emperor decided he would rather take his own life than be a prisoner of the British, an action that turned him into a heroic figure among his people. 

Departure of the British expeditionary forces from Maqdala with the loot – Illustrated London News 1868

After the battle, the British plundered thousands of cultural and religious artefacts. These included gold crowns, manuscripts, necklaces and dresses. Historians say dozens of elephants and hundreds of mules were needed to cart away the treasures, which are today scattered across European museums and libraries, as well as in private collections. [In the case of Maqdala in 1868, it is said that 15 elephants and 200 mules were needed to cart away all the loot from Maqdala. British forces looted the place with no restrain].

The British also took away Prince Alemayehu and his mother, Empress Tiruwork Wube. [The loot was not enough… the young prince and the Empress too].

The Ibis, the Sacred Bird of Ancient Egypt

Ibises near a marsh

It is no secret that the ibis was highly regarded in Ancient Egypt. It was seen as a sacred bird, and the embodiment of Djehuty or Thoth, the god of wisdom, the scribe of the gods and inventor of writing and Egyptian hieroglyphs; he was depicted with the head of an ibis. The bird has been painted on murals, and often been found mummified in tombs. However, the Sacred Ibis has been extinct in Egypt for over a hundred years and can now be found throughout the Ethiopian region, in marshes, swamps, pasture lands, and more (Experts crack mystery of ancient Egypt’s sacred bird mummies). Apart from Thoth being a scribe to the gods in Egyptian mythology, he was also represented as a baboon, Aani, the god of equilibrium, in

Djehuty or Thoth in his form as an ibis-headed man

the underworldDuat, who reported when the scales weighing the deceased’s heart against the feather, representing the principle of Maat, was exactly even. As Thoth, he is credited with making the calculations for the establishment of the heavens, stars, Earth, and everything in them. For ancient Egyptians, he is attributed as the author of all works of science, religion, philosophy, and magic; while ancient Greeks further credited him as the author of every work of every branch of knowledge, human and divine. The Sacred Ibis, from its scientific name Threskiornis aethiopica has white plumage and dark feathers on its lower back; at 30 inches long, it is a striking bird found near marshes, swamps, pasture land, and flood plains in the Ethiopian region.

Ibises and a crocodile

The Hadada Ibis, also known by its scientific name as Bostrychia hagedash is common in East Africa where it can be found in marshes, swamps, edges of lakes, and pasture land. They are often seen in villages and towns, and the bird is quite tamed. Often heard at daybreak and sunset, its entire plumage is olive-brown, with pale underparts, while the head and neck often have a metallic green sheen. It is a sociable bird, but unlike other ibises, it is a solitary nester.

There are many more species of ibises around the world, but today the focus is on the African species, and particularly the Sacred Ibis. Just to think of how much that bird was venerated in Ancient Egypt makes us wonder about its magnificence. It would not be a surprise if the hotel brand Ibis was inspired by this magnificent bird and all it encompassed in the Ancient world of Egyptians.

Saï Island: Influences from Pharaonic Egypt, Christianity, and Islam in Nubia

Church pillars on Sai Island (Source: Atlas Obscura)

Our hearts go out to our brothers and sisters in Sudan whose country is going through unrest again. This unrest is part of the New Scramble for Africa, and to a greater extent the great global war between the West and the East which as always plays on other continents.

Today, we will continue our exploration of Saï Island, an island in Sudan which contains ruins spanning thousands of years and several empires. It is the largest island on the Nile river, about 12 km long and 5.5 km wide. Although Sudan is today an Islamic country, Saï was once occupied by Egyptians during the New Kingdom, and later was the site of the ancient medieval Christian Nubian Empire known as Makuria which flourished in Sudan between the 7th and 14th centuries. Later, during the 16th century, the Ottomans founded a fortress on the island. Saï Island has always been Nubian, and over the centuries has seen different cultures, religions, and much more.

Ruins on Sai Island (Source: Lendi Travel)

Many Empires have prevailed on the island. The presence of the Egyptian town and temple which dates back to 1500 BC is a good example of the strong imprint of the Pharaonic Egypt, with among many other things a spolia bearing the  cartouche of Amenhotep IV, amongst other 18th Dynasty rulers: the fort was founded by Pharaoh Ahmose and then overbuilt by Amenhotep I and his successors. Saï Island was also an important royal site during the Meroitic period as testified by the discovery of pillars/columns with the names of the Queen Amanitore and King Natakamani of Nubia. It is clear today that Saï Island was the seat of a Nubian Bishop as indicated by the remains of a Medieval Christian cruciform church, identified as a cathedral, the largest in Nubia; while the Ottoman presence is noted by the remains of a fort built in the 2nd half of the 16th century AD. The place is full of pottery dating several centuries, if not millenia. However, part of the island, the northern part, was flooded when Lake Nasser was created in 1971 (most monuments that were destroyed were on the Nubian/Sudan side of the dam, while a lot on the Egyptian side were recovered and moved to higher ground – don’t get me wrong, Abu Simbel is amazing and worthy to have been saved, but wasn’t the fortress at Buhen just as important?).

Chert pebble with ochre residue from Sai Island, Sudan. (Source: Illustration by Van Peer, et al.
(2004))

Saï Island is an exceptional testimony to early human occupation in this part of Africa, notably the Homo-erectus and the Homo-Sapiens. It provided early attested evidence for the use of color in the world with rare finds of ochre and ways to manipulate it (Saï Island in Sudan – Earliest Site with Evidence of Ochre Use by Modern humans). It is one of the key sites in Sudan (which was not flooded) which shows the prime influence of Egyptian culture in Nubia during the 2nd millennium BC, and the evolution and fusion of both cultures with mutual influences from Nubia and Pharaonic Egypt across centuries. All these attributes qualify Saï Island as unique with an outstanding Universal Value.

To learn more about the findings of this cathedral and more on Saï Island, check out these articles on the Smithsonian Magazine, UNESCO World Heritage, the Art Newspaper, Sudan National Museum‘s website, Tomb26 on Saï Island, and much more.

Saï Island in Sudan – Earliest Site with Evidence of Ochre Use by Modern humans

Chert pebble with ochre residue from Sai Island, Sudan. (Source: Illustration by Van Peer, et al.
(2004))

Saï Island, in Sudan, is located in the Nubian region of the Nile River, and is the very earliest site with evidence of ochre use by modern humans. It is the largest island on the Nile River, and was occupied intermittently by people throughout the Paleolithic. The island is rich in history, and today we will focus on the color impact of Saï island in the history of the world.

Found on the island, there are several archaeological layers dating from about 180,000 to 200,000 years ago. Excavation there has yielded large quantities of red and yellow ochre. While red is almost always the dominant color at early human sites, the inhabitants of Saï Island seem to have preferred yellow pigment. The significant use of yellow ochre there indicates strong cultural choices and the use of new manipulation techniques to change colors, call it chemistry, which could have been heating or something else. Thus, Saï Island is known for being the site of the earliest ochre-processing kit in the world; on the site were found sandstone mortars, a rectangular sandstone slab with a depression carefully hollowed out in its center. The slab appears to have been a grinding stone, with evidence of ochre powder within the depression. Two small pieces of chert stone with fragments of ochre still attached were found nearby. The pieces of chert were used to crush the ochre into a fine powder on the slab, like an early mortar and pestle. These were dated to about ca 180,000 years ago. This makes Saï island an important site to understand the initial emergence of modern human behavior in the world, and thus the start of colors, and new techniques of manipulations of ochre.

To learn more, check out Van Peer et al. J. of Human Evolution 45, 187 (2003) and Fulcher et al., J. of Archaeological Sci. Rep. 33, 102550 (2020).

Kwanyama Poem in Honor of King Mandume

King Mandume ya Ndemufayo, portrait extracted from a photograph of the King with British representatives in South Africa

I found this Kwanyama poem written in honor of King Mandume. It is simple, and rich in culture. It emphasizes the Kwanyama culture: how can one cowardly abandon his king? the only son of his mother? A mother’s only son is everything, so he needs to be protected by those around. It also shows the respect given to the king, as to him were extended leather carpets. From this poem, it is clear that Mandume was a very good rider, a fearless knight, and a fine gunman. The term soba, is the term for king in Kwanyama (Cuanhama in Angola) culture. The reference to the “ragged brother” is based upon the fact that from Kwanyama accounts, Mandume used to “disguise himself in poor clothing and walk about the country to listen to what the people were saying, to see if they were satisfied by his laws” (Loeb, 1962:35), given that he had made significant positive changes to laws; while the Portuguese account on the other hand, state that Mandume used to dress in rags to trick those who would not recognize him as the king, “picking quarrels and exacting cruel vengeance to those who responded to his provocations with crude insults” (Estermann, 1960: 221). When living in the desert, water is crucial to survival; thus, water finds its way into this poem: why would anyone share the little they have with an enemy who has been trying to crush them and force them off their land? Enjoy the poem, translated to English by Dr. Y., Afrolegends.com. To learn more, read “Lyrical Nationalism in Post-Apartheid Namibia” by W. A. Haugh, Lexington Books (2014).

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Ovakwanyama ’malai!

Tamuefele Naingo

Adalwa ko ina ewifa,

Semuweda okakambe

N’ outa wosalupenda!

Mandume himupe ombedi,

Himupe nande kanini.

Adalwo ko ina ewifa,

Semuweda okalambe

N’outa wosalupenda.

Ohamba yokayalambadwa

Yokapekwa ya Melulu

Na Ndilokelwa sime.

Oindele hiipe omeva,

Hiipe nande m’omindo,

Yetudipaela ofimu,

Yetudipaela ohamba,

Ohamba yokalambadwa

Yokapekwa ya Melulo

You, Kwanyamas, you are stupid!

You cowardly abandoned the king

Him, his mother’s only son,

The incomparable knight,

With his beautiful gun Mauser !

To Mandume I will not reproach anything,

No matter how little.

To him, his mother’s only son,

The incomparable knight,

With his beautiful gun Mauser !

The soba to whom leather rugs were extended

Melulo’s ragged brother

And Princess Ndilokelwa.

I will not give whites water,

I will not give them any from my little gourd.

They killed our king,

They slaughtered the sovereign!

The soba to whom leather rugs were extended,

Melulo’s ragged brother.

So long Proud Warrior: Jean Paul Yitamben and the Microcosm of Africa’s Fragmentation

A great light

A great light has joined the stars. His Majesty, Jean Paul Yitamben, Chief of Batcheu Village, in Cameroon, has changed dimensions, and now graduated to be an ancestor to guide our paths. A great Economist, Teacher, Historian, Father, Brother, Husband, Friend, has moved on. Like Behanzin, before and many other kings, he devoted his life to the service of his community and his people. The fight has changed! Local kings are no longer deported, but kingdoms and cultures are still fragmented, crushed under the load of ‘fake’ modernism assisted by “administrations” (excrescence of colonialism) which are at the service of foreign forces to continue the work of the annihilation and/or spoliation of the African identity.  

Descendant of great kings before him, Jean Paul Yitamben was an avid historian and a perfectionist who tirelessly sought perfection in everything he did. Meticulous to a letter, he did not tolerate half-done work. With his wife, world-renowned social entrepreneur, Gisele Yitamben, he worked tirelessly to empower women in micro-finance, less-privileged youth to find jobs in our tough local economies, and more importantly he affected the lives of countless others outside of his own village, community, city, and beyond. The aborted Kugwe village Palm oil and indigenous development project in the North West Region of Cameroon is a clear example.

Le soleil / The sun

Yitamben was very methodical. He had so many great projects! He worked to bring solar power to his village, sent local village women to be trained in India on how to become solar engineers at a time when it was not yet common. He sent others to Australia and Denmark, and was the first in the area to organize the ‘quinzaine’: two weeks of sports competitions to encourage local pride, and distribute prizes to the winners, encouraging children to strive in education; awarding scholarships to youths, and prizes to mothers and grandmothers. He was ahead of his time, in sub-Saharan Africa where millions of people have low access to electricity, firewood and charcoal are the main source of energy for cooking meals, representing three quarters of total energy demand; Yitamben brought in improved households (foyers améliorés) which are more efficient and better for environmental protection. He brought in international collaborators because he sought a great place for his village and his people. Let us build on Yitamben’s strength!

Libya, the Prey of the West
Libya, the Prey of the West

His biggest fight was that of his village. See, colonization did not stop in 1884, or in 1960 with the advent of pseudo-independences, it is well and alive and waxing on even stronger than before. The fight is not open, but like in Libya in 2011 or Mali today, the goal is still to fragment, to divide and conquer; to break into thousand pieces and loot local wealth while crushing the spirits of the indigenous populations. The overall objective is still the destruction of local initiatives to take the land and resources; it has not changed.

The fight at the level of Chief Yitamben’s village is an ample microcosm of what happens at the national or continental level in Africa: when a land is rich, or when the enemy covets the area, he promotes in-fighting among brothers (Ethiopia – Eritrea, Sudan – South Sudan), division over boundaries (Cameroon – Nigeria over Bakassi, Tanzania – Malawi over Lake Nyasa/Malawi), and division over resources (DRC – Rwanda).

Behanzin, king of Dahomey
Behanzin, king of Dahomey

Remember that in the time of Behanzin, after his deportation, the tactic used was to install Agoli-Agbo as a puppet King; one who was not chosen by the traditions of the land, but by Europeans to help in weakening and eradicating traditions, and promoting divisions (Côte d’Ivoire where Alassane Ouattara was installed by French war tanks in 2011).

Flash news…

The fights that occurred over 100 years ago in Dahomey kingdom, or other parts of Africa, are still ongoing, albeit on a smaller scale (and big scale as well). Villages are divided, fragmented, and local institutions weakened. The governments which, in most African countries do not serve the locals but foreign forces, are complicit in the destruction of African traditions and institutions. Yitamben believed that it was possible to change the tides of time, by at least awakening his own people against division. He fought tirelessly for unity, and against division; adamantly refusing the fragmentation orchestrated by some of his people helped by a complicit administration with colonial instincts. He could not understand how his people could let themselves be used to destroy their very own land. He was a force to reckon with. He had a titanic strength; but it is a difficult fight.

Proud warrior, you have placed the bricks on its foundation, and the task will be completed. You tirelessly gave yourself for it. The fight continues. O great warrior! Your legacy lives on!

When we have lost a leader, we need to look forward, and build for future generations. Yitamben had a strong presence, was so confident, and so generous in sharing his time, resources, and knowledge. 

So long brother, father, husband, friend, … May your seeds bear lots of fruits. I will remember your laughter, your big smile, your intelligence, your fight for perfection, and above all your teachings. I feel so privileged to have had you in my life, and received your teachings. You showed us the way. Now we have to carry on your light.

May the Ancestors receive and cherish you.

The Importance of Nioussérê Kalala Omotunde’s Work

Today, education in Africa is Eurocentric, meaning that African history is rarely well-taught in African schools. In Francophone Africa, the school manuals are written by Frenchmen on the continent, or in France, so there is barely any emphasis on Africa. We learn about Europe, China, Japan, Napoleon, all the French dynasties, wars, etc, but very little about OUR history. Thus, most Africans grow up without knowing anything about the Ishango bone, the Blombos Cave, Lucy, the Lebombo bone, or the fact that Pythagoras or Thales theorems were actually written in Egypt by the scribe Ahmose over 1000 years before Pythagoras visited Africa; or even that C-sections were a normal part of African medicine for centuries while in Europe, women were still dying during pregnancies, or even that ancient Egyptians were black! There are countless examples showing that the falsification of African history has been ongoing for centuries, and that there is so much missing in African school manuals.

A Conical tower at Great Zimbabwe

Why is Nioussérê Kalala Omotunde’s work important for Africans? NKO’s work is fundamental because he, like some other illustrious Africans, worked tirelessly to restore Africa’s place in the world. However, his work was not just telling us Africans that we were once great, but more importantly focused on shaking the consciences of many: if my ancestor was great, if my ancestors built the great pyramids of Egypt, how can I, African today, believe that I am meant to live in tin shacks? If my ancestors were the great architects and metallurgists of Great Zimbabwe, why should I keep adopting the European materials for building when ours have lasted over centuries? how can I wait for foreign aid, when I have been blessed with fertile lands? How can I be eating wheat from Ukraine, when I could go back to ancient grains such as fonio, sorghum, millet which have always been a part of my diet for centuries (How Africa Copes with The War in Ukraine: Alternatives to Wheat – Ancient Grains?)? How can I import paper, when my ancestors developed the first support medium for writing (paper comes from papyrus)? How can I act like I do not know mathematics, when my ancestors where the amazing Egyptian mathematicians? How can I feel so lost in medicine or just focus on European medicine, when in Bunyoro kingdom, we had master gynecologists who could perform c-sections centuries before Europe? How can I be stuck with the FCFA when my ancestors invented currencies using silver? How can I, an African child, feel so small? How can I, an African child, focus only on misery, as opposed to what nature has given me? I need to raise my head, and see, and take the grain God has given me, and turn it into a tree!

I invite you to read some of his books, which can be found at: Anyjart.

So Long to a Baobab of African Classical Humanities and Mathematics: Nioussérê Kalala Omotunde

Jean-Philippe Nioussere Kalala Omotunde

A great man has left us. Yesterday, the great teacher, researcher, Egyptologist, historian, and brother, Jean-Philippe Nioussérê Kalala Omotunde changed dimension. Kalala Omotunde was a bright light who worked tirelessly to teach us, Africans, about our true heritage. He was conscious that our souls and spirits had been so broken by colonization, slavery, wars, foreign invasions, and so many other ailments, that we had lost sight of who we truly were, descendants of the great pharaohs of Egypt, descendants of Mother Africa, the cradle of humanity and sciences.

Kalala was the founder of the Anyjart institute and satellite institutes in Canada, Guyana, Martinique, Haiti, and many more around the world. Via his institute, he worked tirelessly to empower Africans, and particularly the Black youth in the diaspora and beyond. His great work focused on the African classical humanities, and African mathematics and sciences. He was also Chargé de mission at UNESCO. He specialized in making the Black (wo) man whole again by teaching him about his history, his origin, his ancestors. You see… Africa has been under attack for centuries now, and along the way, her children have lost their conviction, the knowledge of their greatness, traditions, and have erred away from her by adopting other religions and even others’ distorted views of themselves.

Nioussere Kalala Omotunde

I have been a fan of his work for over a decade. I remember one time when we talked, I showed him the blog, and coincidentally the article of the day was, “How do We Continue the Fight when the Head has been Cut Off?” He made some comments and gave me pointers.  In that conversation I learned so much: for instance, the picture of Amilcar Cabral pointed left, and Kalala told me that this was looking to the past, and when we have lost a leader, we need to look forward, and build for future generations. He embodied the article itself, working tirelessly to teach the next generations how to continue the battle through education. He had a strong presence, was so confident, and so generous in sharing his time and knowledge. Such a baobab! Such a dedication to Mother Africa… He was so welcoming, so selfless, always ready to help, addressing many with endearing words such as “mon très cher”, or “ma très chère”. His institute focused on teaching ancient hieroglyphs, the knowledge of African history, African mathematics and sciences, teaching the link between ancient Egypt (and beyond) and Africa today, and above all restoring the dignity of Africa. He focused on scientifically proving historical findings about Africa… he will often have at least 5 documents to prove the veracity of a claim he made; he was methodical. He had so many great projects! The geothermic project in Guadeloupe which he wanted to see extend to Africa, the Wakanda project, and countless others aimed at empowering Africans to be self-sufficient energetically, financially, agriculturally, technologically, and much more. I console myself in knowing that he has written so many books, and that we can all benefit from his teachings, and rise up as he wished. 

Having been influenced by Cheikh Anta Diop, Nioussere Kalala Omotunde worked tirelessly to show the deep wealth of African cultures, and often shared the fact that the history of Black people in the Caribbeans did not start with slavery. So long brother… May your seeds bring lots of fruits. I will remember your contagious laughter, your big smile, your intelligence, and above all your teachings. I feel so privileged to have had a chance to know you, and receive some of your teachings. You always talked about African Renaissance. You showed us the way, now we have to carry on your light. May the Ancestors receive and cherish you.

How many Benin Bronzes are there? The Smithsonian Returns 29 Benin Bronzes

Queen from Benin kingdom
Queen from Benin kingdom, exposed at the MET

On October 11, 2022, the Smithsonian museum returned 29 Benin Bronzes to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria. This was done in a ceremony at the National Museum of African Art, and held in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art. The bronzes, which were part of the Smithsonian museum’s collection, were stolen from Nigeria during the 1897 British raid on Benin City (Benin City: the Majestic City the British burnt to the ground). The return of these Benin Bronzes is the first return under the Smithsonian’s new ethical returns policy, policy which authorizes Smithsonian museums to return collections to the community of origin based on ethical considerations, such as the manner and circumstances in which the items were originally acquired. In my eyes, this Smithsonian ethical returns policy sounds more like the thief finding lexicon and grammar to explain its theft and the reason why it is hard for him to return the loot, or rather the reason why he needs to hold onto the loot. As always, the question remains: why now? Are the Western museums really going to deplete their museums from attractions that generate millions of dollars yearly? And then the even bigger question: how many Benin Bronzes are there, and should we applaud the return of 1 here, 2 there, or 29 here?

Benin City in 1897
Benin City in 1897

As a recap, on February 1897, an expeditionary force of 1,200 British soldiers and African auxiliaries, known as the Punitive expedition of 1897, captured, burned, and looted the city of Benin, bringing an end to the West African Kingdom of Benin.  During the conquering and burning of the city, most of the country’s treasured art, over 3,000 pieces of art work, including the Benin Bronzes, were either destroyed, looted or dispersed; see Benin City: the Majestic City the British burnt to the ground.

Exposed Benin Bronzes at the British Museum

So, according to C. Huera, 2,400 of Benin artworks including Bronzes, ivories, and more, are held in museums around the world, even though over 3000 were carried back to Europe in 1897. Of those, only 50 are in Nigeria. Today, there are over 900 objects from the historic Kingdom of Benin in the British Museum‘s collection alone. Around 1950-1951, the British Museum sold, exchanged, donated 26 to the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria (25) and the government of the Gold Coast (1) to be in their countries’ museums; it was said at the time that these were duplicates of originals still held at the British Museum (which was denied… but who can really confirm? after all, in the 1950s these countries were colonies of the Queen, did it make sense to return originals to mere colonies?). I wonder how many today are part of the Smithsonian Museum, or the Louvre, or the… the list is so long. In view of this, the return of 1 or 2, or even 29 Benin Bronzes, although laudable, can be seen as a token gesture, more than anything else. Plus, after 125 years spent outside of Benin City, who can really tell if the returned Benin Bronzes are the real ones? Also, are the returned Benin Bronzes the major ones, or part of the backup, you know the ones that never get exposed? Lastly, I hope the Benin people, and the people of Nigeria as a whole, have put in place great security systems and a loyal patriotic circle of trust so that the returned Benin Bronzes will never again leave the homeland!