Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

What Europe Stole From Africa

Imperial powers didn’t just steal art and artifacts. They stole Africa’s future.

Howard French
Howard French
Howard W. French
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
A bronze sculpture of a woman's head sits on a pedestal behind glass in a museum.
A bronze sculpture of a woman's head sits on a pedestal behind glass in a museum.
A sculpture with the title “uhunmwun elao—memorial head of a queen mother” is on display next to other Benin Bronzes at the Berlin Palace's Humboldt Forum in Berlin on Sept. 15, 2022. JENS SCHLUETER/AFP via Getty Images

After decades of refusal and denial, the last year has seen a cascade of announcements by Western countries and their richly funded museums of their willingness to begin restoring art masterpieces seized or secreted out of Africa over the course of roughly the last century and a half.

This has been a season of reckoning for one institution after another, from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, along with numerous others in Britain and Europe, with their directors publicly coming to terms with the problems inherent to continuing to possess the priceless cultural patrimony of a formerly colonized continent.

In some senses, this recent movement seemed to come to a head with not just a statement from a European capital or a visit by a museum delegation but the arrival of an official German government delegation in Nigeria bearing 20 so-called Benin Bronzes, with one official saying of a mask of a queen mother figure taken from the former West African kingdom of Benin, “She comes back to where she belongs.”

After decades of refusal and denial, the last year has seen a cascade of announcements by Western countries and their richly funded museums of their willingness to begin restoring art masterpieces seized or secreted out of Africa over the course of roughly the last century and a half.

This has been a season of reckoning for one institution after another, from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, along with numerous others in Britain and Europe, with their directors publicly coming to terms with the problems inherent to continuing to possess the priceless cultural patrimony of a formerly colonized continent.

In some senses, this recent movement seemed to come to a head with not just a statement from a European capital or a visit by a museum delegation but the arrival of an official German government delegation in Nigeria bearing 20 so-called Benin Bronzes, with one official saying of a mask of a queen mother figure taken from the former West African kingdom of Benin, “She comes back to where she belongs.”

“Twenty years ago, even 10 years ago, nobody could have anticipated these bronzes returning to Nigeria, because the obstacles to achieving repatriation were seemingly insurmountable,” Nigeria’s minister of culture, Lai Mohammed, was quoted as saying graciously, making an implicitly contrite act all the more painless.

But as someone who works on African history, I am left feeling that actions like these aimed at restorative justice and coming to terms with an atrocious past have really only just begun. In fact, the matter of returning invaluable art objects—however necessary and still incomplete—is merely the easy part.

What has never been undertaken, nor even ever really started, is a reexamination of the circumstances under which so much of Africa’s cultural heritage was looted and what they have to do with the continent’s current instability, poverty, and weakness. This question lies at the heart of my most recent book, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. In this book, the treatment of that question is mostly limited to the subject of demographics, meaning the impact on Africa of the draining away of huge numbers of human beings for the purpose of providing wealth-generating labor under slavery for the West.

Arriving at a definitive accounting of this is frustratingly difficult and may never be possible. What is already known, though, makes clear enough that Africa was being knocked for a loop demographically in precisely the period when the world was being fully stitched together for the first time in world history.

What we know is that roughly 12.5 million Africans were shipped in chains across the Atlantic to the Americas, almost all of whom were destined to work on plantations. These people were chosen precisely because they were in the very prime of their physical and reproductive lives. Their labor and that of their potential offspring was irrevocably lost to Africa, imposing a still unrecognized form of collective impoverishment.

To this one must add—with greater uncertainty about the numbers but no doubt about orders of magnitude—the numbers of people killed in the chaos deliberately drummed up by Europeans in Africa to keep feeding a robust traffic in human beings, as well as the horrendous rates of mortality on the floating tombs that were the slave ships. According to one estimate that I cited in my book, only 42 percent of the Africans ensnared in this transcontinental human trafficking survived long enough to undergo sale in the New World.

If one posits, then, the loss by Africa of 25 million people to these processes, which is still possibly a serious underestimate, that number can only be reckoned with estimates of the continent’s total population around the peak of the slave trading era. Here, estimates hover around 100 million people in the 18th century.

As devastating as this unacknowledged blow to Africa was, there were other, possibly even more consequential ways in which the West sidetracked Africa’s development, and these persisted well beyond the long centuries of the slave business. Europe’s engagement with Africa took a dramatic turn in Berlin not long before the end of the 19th century in ways that bring us directly back to stolen art.

At a famous conference in that city in 1884-85, the major imperial powers of the day carved up the African continent for the purposes not of slavery, per se, which would soon be on its way out, but for political control and to obtain resources and create captive markets for themselves of the goods pouring forth from their freshly industrialized economies.

As the historian Brenda Plummer has written:

The great powers at Berlin gave themselves carte blanche for military conquest. France soon after defeated Dahomey (1893), and Britain Benin (1897), and the Ashanti kingdom (1895-1900). These wars featured the theft of indigenous treasures and the first widespread use of machine guns. Mandingo warrior-king Samori Touré lost to France in 1898. German punitive expeditions against the Maji-Maji uprising in Tanganyika from 1905 to 1907 cost 120,000 African lives. In seeming dress rehearsal for the destruction of the European Jews a generation later, German troops in Southwest Africa [today’s independent Namibia] nearly exterminated the Herero and Hottentot tribes. In King Leopold’s private Congo Free State, Africans refusing forced labor in the rubber groves had their arms cut off.

How many people in the West know anything about the Hottentot, other than the name forms part of a funny lyric in The Wizard of Oz? How many have heard that Leopold’s atrocities, which did so much to help make Belgium a wealthy country, are estimated to have killed 10 million Africans?

Somewhat ironically, a focus on accounting for this kind of loss of life, however necessary and overdue, may obscure a bigger point that connects to so much of the lost art of Africa. Europe’s broad imperial offensive against Africa, begun in the wake of the Berlin Conference, set out to deliberately wipe out African kingdoms at a crucial time of what should be thought of as modern state formation.

As they carried out their plans, Europeans by way of self-justification worked hard to project images of African backwardness and barbarity. Think of Tarzan, a direct outgrowth of this era. In fact, African states such as Benin, Ashanti, Kongo, and numerous others were laying down traditions of order and governance, often quite sophisticated. At the same time, many of these indigenous states were engaging in expansionist warfare, much as European states had been doing in recent centuries, aimed at political agglomeration and consolidation.

As I wrote in my first book, A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa, had this continued uninterrupted by European imperialism, one can imagine a very different African continent today: not one of 54 externally designed, cookie-cutter countries, many of which are tiny or landlocked. One can also imagine a continent with far less political dysfunction, because the peoples of Africa would have been given the space to fashion or deepen their own approaches to the institutional arrangements of governance.

One of the most interesting examples of what might have been comes from Ghana, where a broad confederacy was created by the Fante ethnic group in 1868, leading to the writing of an indigenous constitution whose definitive form was reached in 1871. These self-driven arrangements created a king-president, a council of kings and elders, and a national assembly. The British, Dutch, and Danish, all of whom had important economic interests in the region, saw such indigenous political solutions as a threat to their profits and worked hard to undermine anything that smacked of local institution building.

Under these pressures, the Fante Confederacy came undone, but the dreams of sovereignty that it had unleashed persisted long after. As late as the early decades of the 20th century, a brilliant Gold Coast thinker named Joseph Ephraim Casely Hayford persevered with efforts at trying to stitch West Africa’s English-speaking colonies together through rule under native institutions, seeing the Fante Confederacy as a model. He was even willing for his homeland to remain part of the British Empire, and only insisted on self-rule with one’s own ideas and forms. Britain, of course, refused.

As tempting as they can be, we can never know how historical counterfactuals might have worked out. What the long-overdue restoration of African art should help make clear, though, is that the plunder of Africa was about much more than artifacts, and the moral debt to the continent is about far more than their return.

Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Twitter: @hofrench

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.