‘An emotional moment’ as Benin welcomes back looted treasures from France

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Benin on Wednesday welcomed back nearly 30 royal treasures looted from the West African state during France’s colonial rule more than 130 years ago.  

Benin’s President Patrice Talon and the country’s culture minister travelled to Paris on Tuesday to bring home the 26 artefacts, part of French President Emmanuel Macron’s bid to restore African heritage.

The plane carrying the royal treasures landed Wednesday afternoon at Cotonou airport, the economic capital of Benin, where hundreds of people gathered to pay homage, dance and celebrate.

“I came to convince myself that these artefacts really returned to the country. I am moved to tears,” said Ousmane Agbegbindin on the road between the airport and the presidency, where the works will be transported by truck.

“We cannot see the objects, but the mere fact of knowing that the thrones of our ancestors, their shoes, racks and other objects are in these trucks has an effect on me that I cannot describe,” he added.

Martine Vignon Agoli-Agbo, a resident of northern Benin, travelled with her two daughters more than 500 kilometres (310 miles) to witness the moment.

“We have been in Cotonou for 24 hours, just to experience the arrival of these treasures. It is so moving,” she told AFP.

“I did not want to be told about this moment. And if my children are with me, it is so that one day they will be able to tell their own children,” she added.

Reporting from Cotonou, FRANCE 24’s Clovis Casali said “hundreds, if not thousands” of people had gathered on the city’s streets to mark the historic restitution.

He described “an emotional moment” when the artefacts, which included the throne of a former Benin king, were carefully unloaded from the trucks. “There was silence. Long minutes of silence.”  

Casali said the restitution marked a “day of victory” for President Talon who had negotiated their return, noting that the leader had described the artwork as “heritage-defining”.

Earlier in the day, Casali and FRANCE 24’s Julien Sauvaget spoke to local residents about the importance of the restitution. “There were young people telling us they had only seen pictures of these artefacts in their schoolbooks before, and that soon they would be able to see these pieces with their own eyes. So they were delighted. And for the older generations they said it was a dream coming true.”

Large-scale restitution

The return of the artefacts taken from Abomey palace, which also include three totemic statues, comes as calls mount in Africa for Western countries to return colonial spoils.

In France, most are held by the Quai Branly museum, which has begun a review of its collection to identify works some say were acquired through violence or coercion.

French lawmakers last year passed a bill allowing Paris to return artefacts to both Benin and Senegal, another former French colony.

Talon had said he saw Tuesday’s handover as just the first step in a large-scale restitution.

In Benin, they will be exhibited at several sites, including a former Portuguese fort in Ouidah, while awaiting the completion of a museum in Abomey.

Experts estimate that 85 to 90 percent of African cultural artefacts were taken from the continent.

Some were seized by colonial administrators, troops or doctors and passed down to descendants who in turn donated them to museums in Europe and the United States.

But others were gifts to missionaries or acquired by African art collectors at the start of the 20th century or discovered by scientific expeditions.

An expert report commissioned by Macron counted some 90,000 African works in French museums, 70,000 of them at the Quai Branly alone.

Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany have also received requests from African countries to return lost treasures.

Nigeria said last month it had agreed with Germany the return of hundreds of so-called Benin Bronzes – metal plaques and sculptures from the 16th to 18th centuries that were stolen from the palace of the ancient Benin Kingdom in present-day Nigeria.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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