France on Tuesday handed back 26 treasures that were looted from Benin during colonial times, fulfilling a promise made by President Emmanuel Macron to restore a lost part of Africa’s heritage.
Benin President Patrice Talon and Culture Minister Jean-Michel Abimbola travelled to Paris to bring home the artefacts that were snatched by French forces 130 years ago.
Talon said he felt “overwhelming emotion” at recovering the objects taken during the ransacking of the kingdom of Dahomey in the south of present-day Benin, including a royal throne.
Speaking to reporters at the presidential palace in Paris, where France signed over the artefacts to Benin, Talon said the treasures were much more than cultural goods. “This is our soul, Mr President,” he said, flanked by Macron.
The French leader hailed “a symbolic, moving and historic moment” which had been long-awaited by Africans.
The return of the pieces taken from Abomey palace, which also include three totemic statues, comes as calls mount in Africa for European countries to return the colonial spoils lining their museum shelves.
In France, most are held by the Quai Branly museum, which has begun a major review of its collection to identify works believed to have been 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 in West Africa.
Talon made clear that he saw Tuesday’s handover as just the first step in a large-scale restitution process, asking “how do you expect my enthusiasm to be complete” when France still held other key artefacts.
But he added he was “confident” that further restitutions would follow. “Beyond this handover, we will continue the work,” Macron promised.
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