INTERVIEW: Bernie Babatunde Grant MP
Let?s start with your work on the reparations. Can you bring us up to date on the issue?
The most recent development is that the British government has for the first time made its position known on the issue of reparations. The government has hinted that it is willing to pay reparations provided the descendants of the enslaved Black people can prove that they are still damaged either psychologically, economically, or any other way by enslavement. To me, this is a positive development. Also, I engaged in some correspondence with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office [FCO] over the same issue and they are very keen to sit and discuss the matter further with us. So, what we have agreed to do [in the meantime] is to get a group of academics and other experts together in order to draw up a case for reparations: because we don?t want to sit down and negotiate over nothing, we want to present a case that can withstand the test of time.
From what you?re saying, it seems the British government would want Black people to prove that a wrong was done to us through enslavement. Many would say that?s clear enough for everyone to see, what else there is to prove?
It?s clear to you and it?s clear to me. But it?s not clear to other people. A lot of people are saying it?s not clear. So what we?ve got to do is to get the evidence of psychological and economic damage caused by slavery. I think the government?s position is fair enough. I believe it will make us to concentrate our minds on the solution and tighten up our case. And, with the new government just settling in office, I think we now have the opportunity to bring the matter up again.
We understand you also wrote to former Overseas Development Minister, Baroness Chalker, about the return of the African artefacts. Did she reply your letter before she left office last May?
She did. But her argument was that the case for the return of the African artefacts and other stolen treasures still has to be made out. They are saying that Black peoples? demand was different from those of the Jewish. Nonetheless, her officials expressed their willingness to have a meeting with me to discuss the issue. What we have decided to do in the meantime, is to go ahead on different fronts: we?ve embarked on a campaign to get the Museums Act 1757 [which prevents the return of the artefacts] altered to remove the legal cover under which British museums currently hide. We?ve also said that we may consider paying some token amount [of ?1] to buy off the pieces, if museums authorities want to go this route. At the moment, our lawyers are looking at these initiatives to see how best we can proceed with the campaign.
The issues of the Benin bronzes seems to have occupied your work in the recent months, are you hopeful that some of the pieces would be returned?
I?m very hopeful, especially on the pieces kept in the Scottish museums. As you know the City of Glasgow museums hold a sizeable chunk of Benin bronzes and ivories, and they come under different legislation from museums in England. The Scottish museums are owned by local authorities and it?s they [the councils] who can take a decision to release the artefacts. That is what we are pursuing now.
Are you optimistic that the local governments in Scotland would take a favourable look at your request and order the return of these artefacts?
I?m quite hopeful that we would get favourable response from the Scottish, considering they have just had their Stone of Destiny [used during the coronation of Scottish kings] returned to them after 800 years in England. I?m sure if we can make decent arrangement with the Scottish curators, I think it would start the landslide towards the breakthrough we have all been hoping for. And I think other museums would like to follow the Scottish example. Other thing that lifts our hope is the recent decision by the British government to rejoin the UNESCO [United Nations Educational and Cultural Organisation]. We know there is a UNESCO agreement about the return of artefacts and we are studying that agreement and hope that we would be able to get something out of it.
You mentioned earlier on that the change in government meant that the ARM having to bring the matter of reparations all up again. Have you at anytime spoken to any member of the new Labour government on the issue?
I spoke to Jack Cunningham [when he was the Shadow minister for heritage], and he was sympathetic to our request. It?s a shame he moved to the Ministry of Agriculture after the general elections, because we made some progress with him, particularly in relation to apology for enslavement and the need to erect a monument in honour of the dead slaves. Chris Smith is the man with responsibility now, and I?m regularly in touch with him.
Let?s clarify this. Are you saying that Jack Cunningham actually gave a commitment that the British government would apologise for the slavery and erect monuments to honour the slave victims?
He gave the commitment that they would be prepared to look very seriously at an apology and that some of the other matter that we have raised. Clearly these are matter that we would be taking up with the new Labour government. I?m far more confident now than at any other time in the past with the new Labour government. I?m convinced that this time some justice will be done - and very soon too.
Each time you go round the country meeting curators and museum directors, on what premise did they rest their case against the return of the stolen artefacts?
They have no argument. They can?t argue. After about half-an-hour or so, they accept our point that they haven?t got any rational ground to stand on. Yes, they gave all sorts of excuses that the law has forbidden them from returning the artefacts, et cetera, but they really can?t justify the theft in a rational way. The only argument that they used are the ones like: if the artefacts were returned back to Africa, there will be no security and very soon they will be back on the international art markets and [eventually end up] in the hands of private collectors. This is a strong argument, because we have seen that happened in Africa many times in the past. They also argued that the artefacts will not be properly kept and maintained, which to us, is no argument. And they argued that because they have kept the pieces for such a long time [some 100 years or more], they, too, are co-owners. Those are the kinds of arguments that they use but they are unsustainable.
Some commentators have harped on this security problem for the artefacts. How would you assure the curators that once returned the artefacts would not find their way back to Europe?
We take these things as it comes. We?ve got two ways of dealing with it. First, we would try to ensure that the artefacts [if they were returned] will be secured. The first ones that we?re dealing with are the Benin bronzes and ivories. What we?ve said is that we would work closely with the Oba of Benin [Omo N ?Oba Erediuwa] to ensure that the pieces are secured and well kept. Ideally, we would want the pieces to be kept in the Oba?s palace, which I?m told is well protected and guarded. The other thing is that the British said should the pieces be returned, they too, would want access to them. Again, we would try to arrange this with the [Oba?s] palace. We?re thinking along the line that maybe some of the pieces may be sent back to the UK for exhibition once in say every five years, and so on. In a nutshell, we intend to use the Benin pieces as a test case and if we can get an agreement with, say the Museum of Mankind [in London], then we can use that agreement to go to other museums to have the same sort of deal in relation to the other artefacts that belong to the African continent. So it?s very important that we use the Benin pieces to try and get a procedure and polices that the curators, as well as the people of Africa, are happy with.
But what happens if the museums authorities are still not happy with the arrangement and refuse to release the artefacts, what other option(s) would you consider?
Then we will go for the second line of attack. And it is based on the premise that if all that fails and we can?t get the pieces returned back to Africa, what we have said is that we want to set up a Black museum here in Britain. It will be like a staging post where the artefacts would be kept here in Britain, run and maintained by Africans and people of African descends. We can have exhibitions and even turn the project into a viable cultural industry for the benefit of Black people world wide. So that is our fall back option, if you like, should everything else fails.
It appears that other people can demand for their right and get it, but the moment that Black people ask for theirs, it becomes so much of a big issue. What can you attribute to this?
Racism, pure and simple. That is why the concept of reparations is very important, and we must keep its flame burning. We - the present generation of Blacks world wide - have this historical burden that is on our shoulders. One reason why we fight for reparations is that we fight to ensure that the blame for what has happened to Black people, to African people, is right on the Europeans? shoulders. They are responsible for enslavement and that is what they have to accept. So that if we get an apology and we get them to say that ?yes we were wrong, you were treated badly, et cetera, then we begin to move away from this scenario that as soon as [Black people] try to do anything every body jumps on our throats and say ?look at them again they always asking, they are always begging?, and all that nonsense.
How much support are you getting from the African governments in the campaign to get your artefacts returned. Some are said to speak highly of your efforts?
Not much support worth mentioning, to be honest. You see African governments can talk and talk is cheap, but they are not doing anything to help. If governments in Africa were to come forward and give us the resources, the researchers, and other professionals, our campaign could have moved forward significantly and would have made much impact than we currently seen; the situation will change drastically, and it would change in relation to what the Europeans have done. We can prove that the reason why Africa is underdeveloped is because [a conservative estimate of] 100 million people were taken from Africa to Europe and the so-called New World. How can you take 100 million people of the best, the strongest, the brightest, the resourceful, out of a continent and not expect a problem? If you take 100 million best-brained out of Europe, obviously you?re going to have a problem. So it is in the interest of African governments to assist people like us. Yes, we?ve got a lot of verbal support from them, but besides that, there has been no other support. So that is why I said they can talk and talk is cheap. In fact, everything we have been doing have been entirely on our own. For instance, I sent out letters to all the Cultural Attach?s of African Embassies and High Commissions here [in the UK], asking them to give us the list of all the artefacts they want back so that we can begin to pursue them. Almost a year on, I haven?t received a single reply from any of them. So my work in terms of the artefacts and reparations has been extremely, heavily burdened by the fact that these countries are just paying lip services to the struggle. But I?m not waiting for the leadership in Africa. I just carry on with what I?m doing. Because the issue at stake is more important than that. It?s to do with the people of African descent and not necessarily the people from Africa.
You were in South Africa recently, was your visit in connection with the reparations issue?
Not really. I was in South Africa to open a computer project named after me; it was set up to raise the computer literacy skills among Black South African youths. Obviously the people have heard about my work and they received me very well. In fact, they even gave me a new name, they told me to drop my slave name!
Would you like to tell us the name?
?Babatunde,? which they said means the arrival of an important man!
- James Ogunleye
THE IMPORTANCE OF RESTITUTION
The significance of African peoples reclaiming their long stolen artefacts cannot be overstated. Unlike in Europe, many of these artefacts were much more important than for their aesthetics. Many of them were significant religious, cultural and political symbols. Some of the Benin bronzes, for instance, signified the spiritual and temporal authority of the Oba. As a result, the plundering of these artefacts symbolised the European subjugation and emasculation of African peoples.
Despite the revelations of the evils of colonialism and slavery, former colonial masters are yet to offer an apology for their part in this sad period (this year, President Clinton offered a vague verbal apology for the parts caucasians played in the enslavement of African-Americans although the recent trends in the country?s race-relations suggest that his views on this is probably a minority one). Without their admission of guilt, the healing of past wounds will never take place. Moreso, as long as these important artefacts remain with the European museums and private collectors, they will continue to serve as a reminder of the humiliation suffered by African peoples at the hands of the Europeans.
A TIME TO AGITATE:
Black Perspective wrote to all African High Commissions voicing Bernie Grant?s disquiet over the fact that they were not supporting his campaign to retrieve these artefacts. To date only the Nigerian embassy has replied. They say that they have a Benin artefacts committee which has been in touch with Mr Grant on the Issue of the Benin bronzes. The Attitude of the other African embassies rankles, particularly when one views the efforts, In recent years, made by other victims of the British plunder to retrieve symbolic items. These efforts have in the last few months yielded positive results for those who have bothered. For instance, the Aboriginees have only recently retrieved the head of their great warrior Yagan - one of the scalps of the all-conquering British. A few years ago, they retirieved aboriginee heads taken by the British to Scotland as part of their ?experiments to prove that Aboriginees were mentally inferior to Europeans. Also successful are the native Americans who have recently retrieved the body of their warrior leader Long Wolf ? another scalp of the English captured during their drive to deprive African Americans of their lands. A few year ago they also recovered the Sioux Ghost Shirt which ad been siezed in 1890. For now, though, the museums and other beneficiaries of the artefact thefts can rest secure in the knowledge that as in many other aspects of life, the African governments will be the last to stand up for the rights of their peoples.
- Victor Amokeodo