As the French President Emmanuel Macron tours East Africa, he is certain to get a cordial welcome. If everything goes to plan, it will be all smiles and few uncomfortable questions. However, this should not be the case. Macron has called for an international conference on the return of African art and artefacts looted during colonialism. But art and artefacts are not the only things that should be returned.
The colonial archive, the thousands of official records and documents that trace the history of subjugation, oppression and looting of the continent by the European powers is largely resident in Europe. And it is not a history that the Europeans have been eager to reveal, preferring to think of their time as overlords of the continent as something of a benevolent occupation.
Yet, as Howard French noted in the New York Times two decades ago, “In the closing years of this century, though, historians, political scientists and other students of African affairs have begun a searching re-examination of the continent’s recent past. Increasingly, they have concluded that many of its most persistent curses – from the plague of ethnic hatred widely known as tribalism to endemic official corruption – have powerful roots that are at least partly traceable to European subjugation and rule.”
Yet, a more comprehensive re-examination of this history, especially by the Africans who daily endure its worst legacies, is made difficult by the fact that the documents on which it is inscribed are retained by the architects of the oppression. France, for example, has refused to return Algerian colonial records. “The Algerian government wants to take back their archives. For us, they are not Algerian but French, so it’s a big political problem,” says Herve Lemoine, head of the National Archives. The only reason why it would be a political problem would be that the French would be potentially handing over the power to re-frame history. In this regard, it is important to contextualise Macron’s call for the return of artefacts to Africa.
In fact, just three years ago, the French government asked the National Archives to collect private souvenirs from West Africans relating to the colonial period. “In the official archives in France, we have official data and records, produced by the government but we don’t have the vision of the people of those countries. For historians and for citizens, it’s important to understand the relationship between the colonial administration and the people of those countries,” says Lemoine without a hint of irony. One is left to wonder whether the need to understand history is any less felt in West Africa.
In the case of the British Empire, the re-evaluation of the impact of its policies has been made unnecessarily difficult by the UK government’s illegal, widespread and systematic destruction, theft and concealment of colonial-era documents in an effort to cover up its crimes. In the last decade or so, however, some of these hidden archives have come to light, showing the scale of the second attempt at “appropriation and alienation” of African history. A 2015 article in Vice by Katie Engelhart details how in 2011, after repeated denials, the UK government owned up to possessing 20,000 files from 37 colonies in “Migrated Archives” hidden in a secret facility at Hanslope Park in Buckinghamshire. Three years later, an audit discovered yet another 170,000 Colonial Office documents, some of them stamped “Top Secret”. In fact, as late as the 1980s, the British were still destroying records on colonial Kenya.
The effects of such an attempt at hiding away and even erasing history can be seen even at the highest levels of the British political establishment. When a recent documentary aired on Al Jazeera highlighted the plight of African World War II veterans abandoned by the British Empire, it inspired a new season of carefully curated imperial guilt. “There must be an urgent inquiry into Britain having paid its African and Asian soldiers according to the colour of their skin,” thundered Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK’s opposition Labour Party in a tweet.
It was an amazing demand. Surely the man who could one day be prime minister would not be so completely ignorant of the nature of the colonial empire his forefathers built, would he? That a racist enterprise which murdered and oppressed millions of Africans and Asians, stole their wealth and land, and profited from their forced labour also paid its troops according to skin colour should not come as any sort of surprise.
While it is important to ensure justice for African veterans or their widows and families, as well as the return of stolen cultural treasures, it must be recognised that for the most part, these are feel-good actions that do not cost the former imperial powers much loss of face. In fact, as the Al Jazeera documentary shows, the British government has sought to spin payments it has made to its former African soldiers as acts of charity, rather than restitution. Similarly, Macron risks little by offering to, temporarily, return the stolen art. The report he commissioned that recommended African art and artefacts held in French cultural institutions be returned, characterised the collections as part of “a system of appropriation and alienation” that takes away from Africans their “spiritual nourishment that is the foundation of their humanity.” Their return can thus be spun as an act of benevolence. In similar fashion, the British Museum has also struck a deal to “loan” back to Nigeria bronze statues stolen by British soldiers from the Kingdom of Benin more than a century ago.
Such actions seek only to preserve the paternalistic relationships between Africa and Europe, where the former have no right to demand justice and must somehow “earn” the privilege of getting back their stolen property by proving they can properly preserve it. The idea that Europe can continue to keep what it looted because Africans lack the capacity to take care of their own things is as racist and colonial an argument as any made a hundred years ago.
However, colonial archives are a completely different kettle of fish. In there lie the uncomfortable truths of colonial occupation that the likes of Macron and Corbyn do not want to face up to. While the latter has stated that the British should, at the very least, be willing to discuss the return of “anything stolen or taken from occupied or colonial possession – including artefacts looted from other countries in the past”, it is far from clear whether that includes the colonial archive.
Fully opening up that archive and returning the documents to the countries they were taken from would be a significant first step in a long-overdue journey of reckoning. Returning colonial archives would make Africans the curators of their own history, allowing them, and others, to begin constructing more accurate narratives of colonial experience. It would lead to a better and more grounded understanding of what it is that Europe owes, not just a few aging soldiers, but all the societies she colonised.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.