French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe recently presented an antique sabre to Senegalese President Macky Sall at the presidential palace in Dakar. But it was not a gift. The sabre was coming home, more than a century after it had been stolen.
The repatriation of an item with deep historical, spiritual and cultural significance might seem like a mere gesture of colonial redress. But this ceremony was different, and it was about much more than a single physical object. In fact, it was a watershed moment in the West's recognition of the cultural damage inflicted by colonialism.
The sabre in question belonged to El Hajj Omar Tall, founder of the Toucouleur Empire, which once extended from present-day Senegal into Mali and Guinea. Tall was a respected religious leader and anti-colonial resistance fighter.
His weapon, along with tens of thousands of other pieces of looted African heritage, had been in French hands since the 1890s. Exhibited in French museums, the sabre ceased to symbolise the military prowess of a once-powerful dynasty, and instead told the tale of an African empire's decimation, thereby legitimising the racism and prejudice that underpinned the colonial period.
Tall's family had been campaigning for the sabre's return since...