Symposium on Confronting Colonial Objects: Repatriation of the Regalia of the Danxomé Kingdom to the Republic of Benin – From the Demand of Restitution to the Celebration of the Return and Beyond

Symposium on Confronting Colonial Objects: Repatriation of the Regalia of the Danxomé Kingdom to the Republic of Benin – From the Demand of Restitution to the Celebration of the Return and Beyond

[Dr Emery Patrick Effiboley is Museologist and Art Historian, and Head of the Department of History and Archaeology at the University of Abomey-Calavi (Republic of Benin). He was Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for the Creative Arts of Africa at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa.]

Confronting Colonial Objects argues that ‘distancing, discursive silencing and erasure are common features in both the histories of takings and approaches towards restitution and return’ (p. 45). The cultural takings from the kingdom of Dahomey (also called Danxomé) are a striking example. Their story is  briefly treated in the book (pp. 156-158). The taking of the treasures counts among ‘the most notorious episodes of French looting’ in the second half of the 19th century. In contemporary discourse, they are often portrayed as a ‘tipping point for the restitution movement (p. 156). One of the critiques of emerging return practices, including the recent Dahomey returns, is that they ‘continue to foreground the centrality of the perspectives of former colonizing powers’ (p. 482) or may cause new forms of cultural appropriation in the process of restitution itself. 

In this post, I wish to examine this tension, based on the dynamics surrounding the repatriation of the regalia. I will first analyse the steps from the demand for repatriation of the treasures to changes in France’s legal framework. I will show that the movement towards repatriation is not the result of the famous speech by French President Emmanuel Macron in Ouagadougou on 30 November 2017, but linked to a previous demand by the government of the Republic of Benin on 26 August 2016. I will discuss the way in which the regalia were welcomed back in Benin and turned  into national treasures.  I will then take a look at the measures adopted after repatriation, including  the  building of infrastructure, urban memory and the fate of the repatriated treasures. Although the repatriation was widely perceived as redressing the wrongs of history, it ultimately shows manifest continuities with the past.

1. From the Demand of Repatriation to the Changes in France’s Legal Framework

An important starting point for contemporary inquiry is the demand for repatriation of the Danxome treasures by the Republic of Benin. After coming to power,  President Patrice Talon and his government inaugurated a new chapter in the post-independence cultural policy of the Republic of Benin. It defined cultural heritage as a core concern for the governance of the country in its first five-year term. The political decision was implemented by a letter of 26 August 2016, in which the government requested the repatriation of the royal treasures, looted by the French army, following the colonial war and the conquest of the former kingdom of Danxomé.The letter was issued by Foreign Minister Aurélin Agbénonci. It stated that: 

[W]when the troops of the Danxomè kingdom were defeated, the French colonial armies, arriving in Abomey, destroyed King Behanzin’s palace and took away many extremely precious objects which are today in the public and private collections of the French Republic, notably at the Musée du Quai Branly… these objects have considerable heritage and historical value for all Beninese men and women. But even more, they have considerable spiritual value insofar as they refer to the souls of our illustrious departed… these cultural assets are inextricably linked to the cultural traditions and history of our country through our ancestors, and constitute one of the visible signs by which our people can identify with a culture and better understand both its past and its present.

eng. trsl., Letter from Mr. Aurelien Agbénonci, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Benin to his French counterpart concerning the restitution of Benin’s cultural property, dated August 26, 2016 with reference No. 887/MAEC/DC/CT-CI/Ass-DC

In response to the letter from Benin, Jean Marc Ayrault, the then French Minister of Foreign Affairs replied on 12 December 2016 as follows: 

The assets you have mentioned have long been part of the French State’s public movable domain, in some cases for over a century. In accordance with current legislation, they are subject to the principles of inalienability, imprescriptibility and unseizability. Consequently, their restitution is not possible.

eng. trsl., Letter from Mr. Jean Marc Ayrault, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development to his Beninese counterpart, dated December 12, 2016 with reference No. 007276 CM

The French government relied on these reasons to oppose the restitution of the treasures in the first instance. Another possible contributing factor, explaining the initial reluctance, are the terrorist attacks faced by France in those years. In this context, it was difficult to address such sensitive issues which  go beyond Franco-Beninese relations.

This episode was followed by Emmanuel Macron’s speech and the internationalisation of the issue. After coming into power in 2017, one of President Macron’s  first actions in the field of relations between France and African countries was the delivery of his speech at the University of Ouagadougou on 30 November 2017. Such an address on francophone relations is common in the practice of French presidents, while African countries do not have a clearly spelt and affirmed vision of their relations toward France or foreign countries in general. In this speech,  President Macron, expressed his willingness to enable African youth to have access to their heritage. By doing so, and not referring to the demand from Benin, he denied agency to the Benin government which had previously asked for the repatriation of its cultural objects. In this way, Macron positioned himself as a benefactor protecting the interests of young African  people. In reaction to his speech, several curators, museum directors, scholars started to complain in newspaper’s tribunes that such a turn to repatriation would empty their museums. I have always argued against such a position, given that most colonial museums hold hundreds of thousands of African objects in their collections and depots. If an institution would, as a matter of policy, dare to present all the artefacts it holds, it might easily take more than twenty years to display all the holdings. Very often, museums hold ten times the same or similar objects. As a result, giving away one or two spoons, tools or other types of cultural objects for the purposes of of sharing, does not  change anything in the status of the museum.

To implement his own vision, Macron committed a group of two scholars, Benedict Savoy and Felwine Sarr to produce a report on the state of African collections in French cultural institutions. After a year of work, they came up with a report (Sarr and Savoy report) which highlighted the need for a new relational ethics between France, and at some point European nations, with Africa. It specifically recommended the return of 22 objects. However, the legal obstacle were still there. At this point, the French National Assembly adopted ad hoc legislation, enabling the repatriation of the Danxomé  treasures and  the sword of El Hadj Omar Tall, one of the resistance leaders against the colonial conquest of Senegal. The sword was returned to Senegal on the basis of a permanent loan – a practice which raises  ethical questions that cannot be addressed in full here (but see Effiboley 2020). The initiative bore some resemblance with colonial strategies, since  it started   restitution with  a focus  on the former capital-city of the French West Africa (AOF – to name its acronym). After these first two repatriations, several former colonies started to ask for the return of their cultural objects looted during the colonial era.

2. From the Legal Restitution to the Celebration of the Return of the Treasures of the Republic of Benin

The restitution of the Danxomé treasures was prepared by a mini colloquium. On 12 September 2018, the Republic of Benin created a committee (Comité de coopération muséale et patrimoniale entre la France et le Bénin, CCMP-FB) by decree No. 2018-418, in order to prepare the repatriation of the treasures. One of the tasks, which was not mentioned in the official document,was to organise an international conference. The members of the committee saw this suggestion as a unique opportunity to gather the best scholars and experts in the field of the history of African arts to discuss the issue from our own lens, on the African continent at our initiative. Unfortunately, this did not happen. In contrast as to how Germany handled the issue in several conferences (see Effiboley, Imo Irikisi, vol. 5, n° 1, December 2022, pp. 55-68), only a mini-colloquium took place at the Musée du Quai Branly on 30-31 October in Paris, in the presence of a few handpicked participants. The committee (CCMP-FB) was not allowed to participate, with the  exception of its president, Prof. Noureini Tidjani-Serpos. He  was not introduced as such in the programme of the mini-colloquium, but only appeared as the promotor of the foundation, FONPADEC, and a privately owned art museum. Some analysts viewed this as a strategy to compromise the work of the committee and as a signal that the repatriated cultural objects should be placed in privately owned museums.

Later on, the two authors of the French report, Benedicte Savoy et Felwine Sarr gave a joint conference with two or three colleagues from Benin. Overall, one may gain the impression that the process was shaped by a sense of control over what was to be said, in order to prevent polemical/controversial discourse. 

The process of restitution was subject to rhetorical games and identity politics.  Although  the claimed treasures are originally from the kingdom of Danxomé, the repatriation was governed by a rhetoric that was geared to let the whole national community feel concerned by the event. While the official documents at the time of the demand mentioned royal treasures, the giant billboards designed to welcome the treasures designated them as national treasures of the Republic of Benin. This discourse is well illustrated by this advertising board, showing three of the repatriated treasures. 

Advertising board showing three of the repatriated treasures, Photo: The author.

At the same time, a ceremony was organized to mark the reception of the treasures. Heirs of the ancient kingdoms and other traditional authorities were invited. A guard of honor was put in place from the Cardinal Gantin airport of Cotonou to the La Marina State House, where a big exhibition mixing the treasures with hundred contemporary artworks was later hosted. The cavalry of the Bargwu came from Nikki to lead the delegation, coming home with the treasures. The whole nation was there on 10 November 2021 when the treasures arrived. On that occasion, cultural groups in the country performed the main dances. It was a healing national moment that nobody will forget.

3. Beyond the Celebratory Dimension of the Repatriation

The arrival of the national treasures generated a general enthusiasm among the people. The exhibition that was organized  received a huge amount of visitors. It was initially planned for three months, but the government decided to extend it for another three months. Similar to  what I experienced in Nieuwe Kerk Amsterdam (The Netherlands) or the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris (France), where visitors queue along more three hundred meters and stand for two hours before the opening, the exhibition attracted a huge number of people who have viewed the show. According to Ms Yacine Lassissi, Artistic Director of the up-coming National Gallery, more than 220,000 persons visited the exhibition (Lassissi, 2 January 2023). This number -is higher than the average of 23,000 visitors that the Historic Museum of Abomey, the most visited institution in the country received per year (see Effiboley 2013). But the failure to build a museum in time made the treasures unavailable to the public. The new museum, planned to host the treasures, remained unfinished. The treasures have been removed from the sight of the visitors for more than a year now. In addition, the museum visit culture that the international exhibition should have produced among the youth and lay citizens, is fading away. 

Adjogan dance performance during the ceremony of November 10th, 2021 Photo: The author.

In the period from 2016 to 2021, the government  planned to build five additional museums (e.g., theMusée de l’épopée des Amazones et des rois du Danxomè in Abomey, the Musée Vodoun/orisha at Porto-Novo). However, none of them were completed in time to host the repatriated treasures. Even the historic museum of Ouidah remained unavailable due to its ongoing restoration at the time of repatriation. In light of this,  the new idea emerged to host the exhibition at the presidential palace. It was not a bad idea per se. However,  some have commented that the choice was a strategy to appease the populations after the violence that occurred during the local and presidential elections of 2019 and 2021 respectively. 

To date, none of the museums is completed, more than two years after the return of the treasures. The public is for the time being prevented from viewing them. 

This creates a paradoxical continuity with the colonial past. While the people of Benin are not able to see the treasures, European nations are still enjoying the benefits of what is meant to historic redress by the colonizers. Western agency, once again, remains in the foreground. This paradox is magnified by the fact that Mati Diop won the Golden Bear for the film “Dahomey” at the Berlin Film Festival on 26 February  2024. The day of award is symbolic since it was on that very day but in 1885 that the Congo conference (abusively called ‘Berlin Conference’) was held, where European nations shared the territory of the continent. The award reflects the continuing tension of contemporary restitution policies. As noted earlier, Macron used the repatriation process as means to present French policies in a benevolent light. The film  inscribes the role that France played in returning the treasures to Benin in the collective memory. At the same time, very little is known about what Benin did in preparing the repatriation the country had asked for. Few people know that from the Benin side, a committee of scholars and heritage experts was also put in place in September 2018 and headed by professor Noureini Tidjani Serpos, former Deputy Director general of UNESCO. I myself was member of the committee. The committee also produced a report to provide the perspective of Benin and identify the steps towards the repatriation process. The repatriation also permitted a change in the legal framework of the country. As a matter of proof, Benin ratified the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. A new heritage law is also being designed and voted on. It introduces innovations, such as a raising of the fine regarding heritage looting or the  creation of a heritage police, etc. 

4. Conclusions

Overall, the demand for repatriation formulated by the government of the Republic of Benin Republic, together  with the speech by President Macron, marked a clarion call for decolonisation. The move towards repatriation provided a real opportunity to write  a new episode of history from our own perspective. However, in practice, France gained the most important benefit. It will be perceived by the younger generation as the entity which decolonised historic relations with Benin, and at some point with other former colonies. The award given to Mati Diop for her film Dahomey, on the date of the anniversary of the closing date of the Congo conference, reinforces this constructed perception. For the time being,  thousands of objects from the Republic of Benin remain in French collections, and their fate is rarely questioned. Even the 26 returned regalia are still not visible in a normal museum setting in Benin itself.

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