Restitution stool

The earliest interactions between Europeans and the Yoruba peoples occurred in the 16th century, and there was a long history of trade and co-operation along the coast. Lagos eventually became the site of the British Consul in 1842 and was declared a colony in 1862. However, the interior was much less explored and was unknown to Europeans until the expeditions of Clapperton, Park and Lander. European knowledge of Nigeria and its inhabitants, beyond the confines of the Lagos protectorate, was largely the result of these British expeditions. The fragments of the stool collected by Richard Lander are amongst the earliest artworks to arrive in the United Kingdom from the Nigerian interior.

Born in Cornwall in 1809, Lander accompanied the explorer Hugh Clapperton in the exploration of Nigeria. Clapperton died in 1837 at Sokoto and Lander, the sole surviving European, eventually arrived back in Britain, via Kano and travels through the Yoruba interior, in 1828. Lander was commissioned by the British government to trace the extent of the river Niger, accompanied by his brother John. During this expedition the sculptural piece was collected. It was presented to Lander at the Borgu village of Kaiama. The stool is undoubtedly of Yoruba craftsmanship and is in all likelihood a piece made in the town of Old Oyo. Commenting on the art of the Yoruba, Lander wrote, “the natives of that part of Africa appear to have a genius for the art of sculpture, which is in great repute with them; and some of their productions rival, in delicacy, any of a similar kind that I have seen in Europe.” 

The work is not carved in one piece. Various components were carved separately and fitted or nailed together. Similarly constructed carved stools are still to be seen in the Meko district of western Yoruba. The stool must have been sent back to England independently and was housed in the British Museum until recently. 

What is left out of Lander’s story? The other side – the story of history in Africa. So: why was the stool in Kaiama? What was the Oyo empire doing at this time? Were they looking for influence? Lander’s story is told as though he was the centre of the world, but in fact he was a single white explorer blundering around in a highly political situation that he could not know about.

The John Randle Centre has revived the story and asked for the stool back. This is a story of gift and restitution.

©Wellcome Collection
©Wellcome Collection
©The Trustees of the British Museum
©Wellcome Collection