Africa and its Loss to Colonialism: Past and Present


An important debate over the last ten years has been the return from European museums of exhibits that were looted by Europe's empires, which covered most of the world from the 16th to the 20th centuries. Many of the artefacts had their origin in Africa. The most striking of these was, of course from Egypt. But recently, there has been a great deal of attention paid to West African sacred objects, most strikingly, the Benin bronzes, as they were called. These were looted from the city of Benin by a British Expeditionary force in 1897 when Benin City was razed to the ground. Most of the bronzes are images of ancestors of the rulers of Benin. These were taken to the British Museum in London and some of them were subsequently deposited in the United States and in Germany and France. These objects are regarded differently by the people who made them and which were part of their sacred heritage and the people who were in charge of the institutions where they have ended up. For the people who made them and saw them as sacred, they were of course of deep spiritual and cultural significance. The others saw them partly as evidence of imperial power. The more objects that one could get from a larger number of countries, the greater the evidence of one’s imperial power. And so, it is difficult not to look at, say, the holdings of the British Museum and not see in them evidence of the power that Britain exercised over huge areas of the globe. These collections that were brought from Africa but also from Asia, particularly from India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries. 

The people who crafted these objects and saw in them a sacred significance, often felt that a part of their identity had been removed when the objects were taken. The people who had looted the objects saw in them at worst evidence of imperial power. At best they were seen as art objects; things that were regarded as objects of great beauty but of no more spiritual significance than is contained in beauty itself. What has happened since the former empires broke up, especially in the 1960s, is that more and more voices have been raised from the countries where these things were part of a cultural heritage and expressions of a cultural energy. As these countries became independent, they started to demand that these objects should be returned to where they originated and where they possessed a meaning that could only be obtained in the context in which a sacred object would be understood as sacred and its spiritual significance would be recognised. An Igbo mask in an Igbo context, for example, would be seen quite differently in a religious procession than in a display cabinet in a museum. In the latter location it could be seen as an object of great beauty; an object of great skill, but it no longer possessed its original significance.  

One of the reasons that people ask or demand that these objects should be returned is to enable them to exist in their original context. There has been a certain amount of resistance to the return of these objects. An objection that is often raised is that these objects are professionally curated, by the institutions that hold them. And they are preserved from the decay of the years. Many of them ancient, and if they are returned to the countries from which they were taken, these countries do not have the expertise to prevent further deterioration. The response to this is of course one of indignation; if an object has been taken, it can be regarded as a stolen object and it is not for the person who stole these objects to declare how these objects should be maintained; it is not for the thief to tell the owner that he does not know how to look after the objects. Since the objects were taken from a particular culture, it is up to the culture to say how these things will be maintained, and retained, how they should be regarded, and how they will be curated. Even the word curation means that these things have lost their living cultural life; they are merely spectacles to take their place in a museum context.   

The whole world has of course had cultural objects taken from its many parts and lodged in Europe as art. Because Europe contained the largest imperial powers it is Europe that decided how these objects should be regarded: curiosities first and foremost: objects of beauty, certainly, but curiosities nevertheless. The objects could be seen as evidence of the primitive in exotic cultures or misunderstood as expressions of superstitious beliefs. When it is expressed as I have expressed it, it is fairly obvious that these various objects should be returned to their country of origin where they will regain their original cultural status.

There are further questions that are raised that should be answered. One is how to establish the origin of a particular object. The Benin bronzes are an exception. They come from Benin city and it is not difficult to find the descendants of the family that ruled in Benin city when these bronzes were looted. But this is not so easy in other countries where origins are less clear. Perhaps you have a mask, an evil mask from somewhere else from what is now the Central African Republic. If you are going to return them, who do you return them to? They could come from anywhere in a very large area of Africa. How would you know who is the correct recipient? Would it be the current CAR government? Do these various objects actually belong to the new nation which was of course not in existence as a nation-state when the objects were made and when they had their original significance? These are questions that do need to be addressed and need to be answered. You could, for example, find an ancient mask that you propose to return to a Muslim ruler in an African country a Muslim ruler who would find any idols or depictions of people or reproductions of living creatures deeply repellent. And do we then allow an Islamic government to take possession of these objects? One could see there will be a clash of cultural values there. And yet the object certainly may have come from the area which is currently ruled by a Muslim. We have to find a way of answering these questions. One answer of course would be that it is not up to the people who seized these objects to pontificate on whom they should be returned to. It is up to the Africans themselves to say how they wanted them restored. But which authority speaks for Africans? Should the return be made even if that means that the current rulers would destroy these objects, as the Taliban destroyed the great Buddhist statues in Afghanistan? Is that something that could be reasonably proposed?  

At the present moment, the debate has been about objects that have been placed in museums that deny their spiritual and cultural significance. There is however another issue that is worth considering, and that is the flow of talent, the flow of culture from Africa to the former colonial powers, particularly to Britain and France Many Nigerian health professionals who will not stay in Nigeria but prefer to find jobs in England and work in the National Health. It is well known that a large proportion of graduates in Nigeria prefer to work outside. And this means that Nigeria is denied the talent of its own medical graduates and Europe is benefiting from their training. Is this a result of colonialism? The medical schools had resources poured into them to enable them to produce world-quality graduates and people are able to get jobs without difficulty when they graduate from Nigerian medical schools. But one could, on the other hand, argue that the fault is with the Nigerian health ministries: they do not provide conditions where highly qualified professionals can work and get job satisfaction and where they can develop as professionals. In that sense, then, surely is the fault of an African country, not the European country that employs such people.  

Not only the health professionals that are in demand from European countries and this is because they are specialists and can get jobs easily in overseas countries, but by emigrating they will deny their own country their talents. This can be seen in other fields. One which has nothing to do with Africa is the computer specialists in India and Pakistan who have no difficulty if they have reached a particular level of expertise, finding work in the United States. Silicon Valley is the centre of the ICT industry in America and is full of Indians Silicon Valley and is full of Southeast Asian restaurants.  

Another area is finance, where specialist accountants from Africa will probably find a more rewarding job in Europe, particularly in Britain, than they would do by staying in Nigeria. So, emigration, what is called the brain drain, has become an important issue, a political issue. Has it to do with a modern manifestation of colonialism? Is the brain drain an equivalent of the stolen cultural artefacts? In either case, creativity and its talents and products are being taken from Africa and enriching the previously exploiting countries. Is this perhaps another dimension of exploitation rather than something that can be simply called direct colonization? Is exploitation taking talent that the beneficiary did not train, and taking talent that was trained by a former colony? 

There are many ways in which our theme can be developed and its relevance to contemporary Africa cannot be overemphasised. In the past, there was a loss of Africa’s cultural objects during colonialism and the future should include the restitution and return of artefacts and an apology for the spoils of colonialism. Our theme invites reflections on Africa’s loss to colonialism: be it identity, sacred and cultural objects, smelted and stolen minerals, brain drain and migration, intellectual property rights, and the future that Africa hopes for. 

These issues invite energetic debates and the Editorial Board of Chiedza, Journal of Arrupe Jesuit University, for the December 2022 Issue, invites articles reflecting on these or related issues. The theme is “Africa and its Loss to Colonialism: Past and Present”. Prospective articles, which may be philosophical, theological, literary, psychological, legal or historical, should be 4,000 words or less. We also welcome articles and book and movie reviews on related themes or poems which do not necessarily reflect our theme. All articles are to be sent to: either on or before the 31st of December 2022. Please refer to the addenda below for formatting/referencing style and to Chiedza Website for submission preparation and author’s guidelines.


Chiedza is a Journal of Arrupe Jesuit University, Jesuit School of Philosophy and Humanities, Harare, Zimbabwe. It is published twice a year, in May and in December. The aim of Chiedza is to publish articles on issues pertaining to philosophy, theology, and the humanities. The editorial board is a team of students, professors, and leading experts in philosophy, literature, Artificial Intelligence, theology, and relevant disciplines across the world.


Ikpodon Michael, S.J.,

On behalf of the Editorial Board