France Returns to Senegal a 19th-Century Saber That It Looted During the Colonial Period

It is the latest effort in France to rectify historical wrongs.

Senegal's President, Macky Sall, receives the sword of Omar Tall from French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe at the Palace of the Republic in Dakar, Senegal, on Novamber 17, 2019. Photo by Seyllou/AFP /AFP via Getty Images.

The French prime minister Edouard Philippe handed over an important historical artifact that was confiscated during the colonial period to the Senegalese president Macky Sall yesterday.

The iron, brass, leather, and wood saber and scabbard belonged to Omar Saïdou Tall, an 19th-century military leader and founder of the short-lived Toucouleur empire, which encompassed parts of Guinea, Senegal, and Mali. The sword was seized from Tall’s son Ahmadou by the French in 1893 after they defeated him in battle in Mali. It had been part of the collection of Paris’s Army Museum but has been on loan to Dakar’s Museum of Black Civilizations for the past few months as part of France’s effort to right colonial wrongs.

One year ago, French president Emmanuel Macron made a historic speech in Ouagadougou, during which he declared that the conditions for either the temporary or permanent restitution of African cultural heritage held in French museums would be set within five years. Since then, however, the momentum of the restitution debate has slowed while French politicians hash out the legal framework that would allow for full restitution—the objects in French national collections are protected by “inalienable and imprescriptible” rights.

While the handover in Senegal is not a full restitution, the French prime minister said this was the “first step” during the ceremony at the Senegalese presidential residence in the presence of descendants of the saber’s former owner, according to AFP. An agreement was signed promising the saber to the Museum of Black Civilizations for five years once restitution laws are in place. “Its home is indeed here, in the heart of the former Toucouleur empire,” Philippe said.

Around 90,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa are held in French public collections. More than two thirds of them are at the Quai Branly museum, many of which were taken by force during the colonial period. The director of the Museum of Black Civilizations, Hamady Bocoum, praised the symbolic move, adding that he is waiting for more. “We are ready to take it all,” he said.

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