If it were possible for Europe and the West to loot and relocate the pyramids of Giza, in Egypt, to their museums, they would. As a matter of fact, reports say 80-90% of Africa’s looted treasures are currently held abroad – mostly in these European nations. Sadly, the real owners, that is Africans, have been denied the beauty and stories of these African cultural treasures presently in Western museums and private collections.

For example, in 1976, the Nigerian government requested a temporary loan of the Queen Idia of Benin Mask from the British Museum, for use as the emblem of the 2nd World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in 1977. The request was denied and the mask remains in the British Museum. The Queen Idia mask was one of the 4,000 artefacts looted by British soldiers following the 1897 invasion of Benin.

1897 invasion of Benin
British soldiers pose with looted treasures following the 1897 invasion of Benin.

In this article, we shall take a look at the Top 5 Looted Treasures from Africa. You can watch the video here.

Tabots of Ethiopia

In 1868, British soldiers looted many treasures in Ethiopia after they defeated Emperor Tewodros II in the Battle of Magdala. Tabot is a Ge’ez word referring to a replica of the Tablets of Law, onto which the Biblical Ten Commandments were inscribed, used in the practices of Orthodox Tewahedo Christians in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Eritrean Orthodox Church.

These tabots are so sacred that they can only be viewed by Ethiopian Orthodox priests. As a result, 11 of these looted treasures lie hidden in a storeroom in the British Museum and have never been displayed for nearly 150 years.

Emperor Tewodros II in the Battle of Magdala
The Battle of Magdala, 1868.

Ethiopia has been asking for the return of these looted treasures – which are of limited use to the British since no one is literally allowed to view them. However, the British Museum refused emphatically and said its best offer was that it would consider the possibility of lending Ethiopia its own treasures in the long term.

Benin Bronzes of Nigeria

The Benin Bronzes are a group of thousands of objects that were taken from the kingdom of Benin, modern-day Nigeria, in 1897. An estimated 4,000 of these objects – including figurines, tusks, sculptures of Benin’s rulers, and an ivory mask – were looted by British troops, and have since been dispersed around the world, with the bulk of the works now residing in Western and European museums.

Because they made their way beyond West Africa as a result of colonial conquest, the Benin Bronzes have faced calls for their return, both within Nigeria and outside it.

The Benin Bronzes, actually made of brass, made their way as looted treasures beyond West Africa as a result of colonial conquest.

The Benin Bronzes, which are actually made of brass, are expected to be sent back to Nigeria in the years to come, as a museum, the Edo Museum of West African Art, is being built in Benin City to house them. Set to open in 2025, it is expected to host the most comprehensive collection of these looted treasures.

The Tsavo Man-Eaters of Kenya

The Tsavo Man-Eaters were a pair of man-eating male lions in the Tsavo region of East Africa, which were responsible for the deaths of dozens of construction workers on the Kenya-Uganda Railway between March and December 1898. They are notable for their unusual behavior of killing men and the manner of their attacks.

The labourers were building the railway line between Mombasa and Lake Victoria over nine months in 1898 when the beasts would stalk their campsite at night, seize them, and then devour them. As the attacks mounted, hundreds of workers fled from Tsavo, halting construction on the bridge. At this point, colonial officials had to intervene.

Lieutenant-Colonel John Patterson used the lions’ skin (now regarded as looted treasures) as floor rugs until 1924 when he sold them to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, United States.

Eventually, the two lions were shot dead by the British engineer in charge of the railway project, Lieutenant-Colonel John Patterson who used their skin as floor rugs until 1924 when he sold them to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, United States.

Patterson, at first, reported that the lions killed 135 railway workers and black Africans, but the Field Museum reduced the estimate to 35 after a research its scientists conducted.

Interestingly, Kenya has been demanding the lions’ return to its National Museum.

Soapstone Birds of Zimbabwe

Eight of the soapstone birds of Zimbabwe were looted from the ruins of the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe. These looted treasures stood on the walls and monoliths of the ancient city built between the 12th and 15th Centuries by the ancestors of the Shona people.

They have human lips and feet, and each one sports a different pattern. The birds also do not resemble native species, causing many archeologists to assume they were purely religious pieces. Furthermore, to make matters more confusing, it has been suggested that the birds could be phallic symbols considering their shape.

A copy of the stone bird of Zimbabwe, 1998/Wikimedia Commons.

Whatever they were meant to represent, there is no doubt they have had a lasting influence; the modern flag of Zimbabwe now dons the image of the soapstone bird.

However, the 19th Century British imperialist, Cecil Rhodes is believed to be in possession of one of the soapstone birds, as it remains in his old bedroom, now a museum, in Cape Town, South Africa.

Rhodes had taken a number of birds from Great Zimbabwe to South Africa in 1906. However, the South African government returned four of these looted treasures in 1981, a year after Zimbabwe gained its independence.

The Bangwa Queen of Cameroon

At 81 centimetres tall, the Bangwa Queen is a wooden carving representing the power and health of the Bangwa people of Cameroon. It is one of the world’s most famous pieces of African art and has huge sacred significance for Cameroonians.

Sculptures were made of titled royal wives or princesses and would be referred to as Bangwa Queens in the Bangwa land of present-day Lebialem district of South-West Cameroon.

The Bangwa Queen came into the hands of the German colonial agent, Gustav Conrau around 1899 before the territory was colonised. It then ended up in a German Museum in Berlin and was then bought by an art collector in 1926.

Bangwa Queen-looted-treasures
At 81 centimetres tall, the Bangwa Queen, one of Africa’s looted treasures, is a wooden carving representing the power and health of the Bangwa people of Cameroon.

The Dapper Foundation in Paris, France, now owns the Bangwa Queen sculpture – and it was on display until 2017 when the museum that focused on African art closed because of low attendance and high maintenance costs. Traditional leaders of the Bangwa people have been corresponding with the foundation, requesting the return of its looted treasures to Cameroon.

Are there other looted treasures from Africa we didn’t share? Kindly let us know in the comments.

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Chemist. Novelist. Writer. Author, A Carnage Before Dawn, 2020.