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Why is Britain making reparations to the heirs of slave owners?

slave owners
Robert Tombs
Written by Robert Tombs

Several major British institutions have announced their intention of giving valuable artefacts to the descendants of slave owners. What do the trustees of these various institutions think they are doing? What do they think is the nature of the ‘trust’ confided to them?

In the 1860s, war was waged on the rebel Southern states of the USA by the Unionist North.  There was huge loss of life.  Confederate soldiers were mown down.  A swathe of deliberate destruction was cut through the South as houses and farms were looted and burned with the intention of ‘leaving them only their eyes to weep with’.  We know all that, of course, and we know why it was done.

Allow me a thought experiment.  Imagine that a number of American institutions realize that they possess property—including works of art—confiscated from Southern slave owners to help defray the cost of the war.  They proclaim themselves in conscience bound to return them and apologize.  Washington Cathedral commissions a monument to the Confederate President Jefferson Davies.  His descendants and those of other Southern gentry are sought out and ceremoniously presented with valuable works of art taken from their ancestors.  Fulsome regrets are expressed for “invasion” and “looting”.  But never is there any mention of the taboo subject of slavery, and of the fact that these works of art were acquired through the sweat and blood of generations of enslaved Africans.

Preposterous?  Yes.  Unthinkable?  Yes—such a suggestion would cause riots.  And yet in England something comparable is really happening.  St Paul’s Cathedral recently displayed a flattering effigy of the Oba of Benin.  Jesus College Cambridge solemnly presented a bronze statuette to his descendants.  The Times (7 August) has reported that the Horniman Museum—having consulted local schoolchildren among others—is to give back 72 Benin artefacts.  Other museums, including the Pitt Rivers in Oxford and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, are set on doing the same, as are museums in Germany and France.

Nowhere have I seen a mention—certainly there is not a whisper in the Times report—of the fact that Benin was a hyper-violent slave-raiding, slave owning and slave killing society.  Slaves were regularly sacrificed, commonly by being buried alive.  This ended in 1897, after a British expedition captured Benin and found mutilated slaves dying in agony.  The slave trade was stopped and slaves freed.  Yet The Times considers this ‘one of the darkest [episodes] in British colonial history.’

British forces confiscated large numbers of brass (or ‘bronze’) works of art from the royal palace of Benin—the brass had been acquired by selling slaves—and these were subsequently sold by the British government to meet the costs of the expedition.  A primitive form of reparations, one might say.

If the future of the bronzes raises a moral issue, as those advocating their return insist and I agree, then slavery surely requires a mention, as it would be if the descendants of Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee were claiming back property lost in 1864.  But to avoid this embarrassing subject, advocates of restoration try to make out that the 1897 expedition was all about trade.

To be frank, I do not have strong feelings about retaining these bronzes.  One standard history of Africa describes them as representing a ‘brutally inegalitarian and acquisitive’ society.  Some are strikingly beautiful, but all are stained with blood.  Perhaps British museums have more of them than they need, or can display.  They deserve to be seen, not least as a tribute to the nameless craftsmen who made them.  Perhaps some should be distributed more widely round the world, as loans or even gifts, including to West Africa.  But I cannot see any case for surrendering them as a moral obligation to the Royal Court of Benin, the successor to the slave owners.  Or even to the Nigerian government.  I have been told—I think reliably—that the British colonial authorities had created a museum including Benin bronzes before Nigeria’s independence, but that many of the treasures subsequently disappeared.  The Telegraph warned on 7 August that Nigeria was in serious danger of becoming a failed state.  Has the future safety of these unique objects been properly considered?

What, I wonder, do the trustees of these various institutions think they are doing?  What do they think is the nature of the ‘trust’ confided to them?  I would have thought it implied a duty towards their institutions.  A duty to their benefactors.  To the taxpayers and donors who fund them.  To those who visit their museums, and to future generations.  Perhaps most of all, to the works of art themselves, their preservation and display.  But no duty at all to the Oba of Benin.

Yet trustees seem willing to dispose of these treasures as blithely as if they were their private property—except (pardon my cynicism) I doubt they would be so cavalier if the artefacts were truly their own.  For they are certainly valuable.  In 2007, Sotheby’s sold a Benin bronze head for $4.7 million.  Doubtless not all these objects are so precious, and a sudden glut on the market would bring the price down sharply.  Yet we are clearly talking about very substantial gifts.  I have seen no estimate of their value.  Has the Charity Commission, the ultimate authority, seriously considered the justification of these major transfers of public property?

Of course, it may be that this is empty virtue signalling: perhaps a pretence of returning ‘ownership’ of the artefacts, but on condition that they remain on permanent loan.  Many would shrug and agree to such a shabby but convenient compromise.

Yet there truly is, as advocates of repatriation assert, a question of principle.  But I believe it is the opposite of what they claim.  Why would Britain today, through its cultural institutions, feel obliged to apologize for freeing the people of Nigeria from slave-owning despots, and why should we make even symbolic reparation to the heirs of slavers?

The answer seems clear.  Those who demand ‘repatriation’ without strings are proclaiming the pure wickedness of ‘colonialism’.  This is the message put out to the media and naively swallowed.  They close their eyes to the horrors of historic African tyranny.  They will not accept that the overthrow of the Kingdom of Benin was a liberation for its people.  They refuse to acknowledge that the nineteenth-century British Empire was the greatest opponent of slavery in the world.  That would be too unsettling to the dogmas of ‘decolonization’, which many of our present intellectual establishment have adopted as a vehicle for their own political and cultural resentments.

This article first appeared on Spiked (9 August 2022)

About the author

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs is Emeritus Professor of French History, Cambridge, and a Fellow of St John’s College. He holds the Palmes Académiques for services to French culture. Recent works include The English and Their History (2014), Paris, bivouac des révolutions (2014), and This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe (2021).