In December, 1896 a trading expedition led by British Vice Consul General James R. Phillips set off for Benin City, the capital of the Edo empire which lies in modern day Nigeria. A messenger sent ahead of the group reached the King of Benin (the Edo capital) heralding the arrival of the Europeans. King Ovanramwen, unsure of the party’s intentions, informed them to wait on the outskirts of his territory while his chiefs investigated the purpose of the expedition.

The party ignored the King’s request, and pressed onwards into Benin. On January 4th 1897 the Europeans were intercepted by a defensive force led by Benin General Ologbosere and most of the party were killed. The names of the seven white men killed are all recorded, but their more than 200 (mostly-African) porters and servants are not known.
Britain saw the killing of their expedition as a precedent for war against a ruler that had continued to frustrate their plans in the region. Benin under the rule of Ovanramwen had remained independent from Europeans and had held valuable monopolies on the land’s resources. Before setting off on his 1896 expedition Phillips had written to Foreign Secretary Lord Salisbury requesting permission to invade Benin and other throw Ovanramwen.

“I have reason to hope that sufficient ivory would be found in the King’s house to pay the expenses incurred in removing the King from his stool”.

In February 1897 Britain launched the Benin Punitive Expedition. 1,200 men under command of British Admiral Sir Harry Rawson captured Benin City and began to systematically loot and destroy the city. Statues, ivory and visual art were stolen from the King’s palace and his court officials. The once great buildings were picked clean and burnt to the ground. By the third day an uncontrollable blaze erupted and much of the city was destroyed.

In the invasion over 2,500 objects are recorded to have been looted. The majority of these were sold off to European traders or divided among soldiers as payment. The largest single collection, over 40% of the total plunder, was sent to the British Museum.

British officials pose with some of the looted plaques. Some objects pictured here are currently on display at the British Museum.

Within these objects were the Benin Bronzes, a collection of bronze and brass plaques that had decorated the walls of Benin’s palaces. Each plaque told a different story, a different aspect of the Edo heritage. Conquests, marriages, deaths and births were all marked with individual pieces – together covering an expansive history of the people and their nation.

With no written records or other forms of archive these artworks were the total history of the Benin Kingdom and the Edo people. Their plundering marks one of the greatest acts of cultural destruction enacted by the British regime in Africa. In a month the once-living history of a culture was cut short – torn from its homeland and divided out like prizes among the conquering invaders.

The Portuguese Connection

The influx of Benin art had a significant impact on European culture at the time. The sudden arrival of these works in major cities spurred a new interest in Benin and the Edo culture. The desire for African artworks grew to new heights and collectors and museums swiftly snapped up works from any culture that became available. Today the Benin Bronzes are divided across major European and North American cities, which the largest single collection still existing in the British Museum.

Europeans were fascinated by the Benin Bronze’s exotic themes and technique. Very few believed that Africans could create such intricate and delicate pieces of metalwork on their own – and many posited that bronze casting techniques must have been brought to Benin through European traders.

A plaque on display at the British Museum shows some of the intricate metalwork seen in the Benin Bronzes. 

The Benin Bronzes challenged the notion of Africans as incapable of ‘higher’ arts and culture – so much that some even denied their authenticity. Many theories arouse around the works, with most claiming that Europeans had, in some way, helped inspire or create these historic works.

In fact, the Edo people had been creating metal works like these for hundreds of years. When an Oba (King) died in Benin his successor commissioned a sculpture of the late leader’s head. Over 170 of these heads exist today, with the earliest recorded one dating back to the 12th century. Plaques also existed from around this time, and possibly earlier. The ‘golden age’ of Benin art however began in the 1400s, under the rule of Oba Ewuare.

Ewuare fostered new art styles and traditions in Benin – including court fashion, funerary traditions and sculpture. With the arrival of Portuguese traders in 1472 he oversaw a renaissance of metalwork and a shift towards bronze as the preferred medium for Benin metalworkers. His Kingdom swiftly became a centre for African art, and developed even further from their already extensive cultural heritage.

Portuguese traders brought many things, including bronze manilas. These large bracelet-like objects were traded throughout Africa and became a form of proto-currency between European and African states. Manilas were traded across Africa for resources and slaves – but in Benin the new abundance of bronze helped expand their metalwork production. Plaques, statues and artworks were created on an increased level, and some artworks were even traded with Europeans – arriving in private collections many years before the looting of Benin City.

The arrival of European traders, soldiers and missionaries even influenced Benin art’s themes and narratives. Contact with Europeans can be seen in several of the Benin Bronzes, as the history of a new era was recorded through plaques that still exist today. Europeans, with their trademark facial hair and unusual clothes, were often depicted amongst symbols such as guns, slaves and bronze manilas.

A Portugeuse trader or sailor, recognisable through his clothes and helmet.

Safe European Home

In 2016 a bronze cockerel at the University of Cambridge’s Jesus College was removed after students protested for its repatriation. Across the world similar efforts to return the Benin Bronzes to their cultural home exist – but very little effort has been made by museums to repatriate any of the hundreds of objects looted by the British in 1897.

Today many Nigerians, particularly those descended from Edo groups, are keen for a return of the artworks. Although several pieces have been repatriated to Nigeria the vast majority remain in European and North American collections, devoid of original context and removed from the culture from which they emerged. The British Museum holds the largest single collection of objects, with hundreds of off-display objects held in archives for study and research.

Curators and scholars often employ the argument that objects like these are best utilised in a large Western institute like The British Museum. Museums and collections claim that their facilities are best-equipped to provide the research and accessibility needed for historic artefacts such as these. And while it is true that The British Museum and similar institutes are hugely well-funded when compared to global standards the counter argument extends to more than just money.

A small number of the looted plaques remain on display in The British Museum

While historic and cultural objects like the Benin Bronzes remain in Western institutes their study will always continue to be done through a Western lens. The way in which we observe, study and contextualise these objects is done through institutes like The British Museum that benefitted greatly from imperialism and the colonisation of groups like the Edo.

When our ideas of objects like the Benin Bronzes continue to be shaped by institutes that benefitted from colonialism the way in which we view their cultural context and history will always benefit Western notions and narratives. While these objects could be hugely important for Nigerians and the Edo people to shape and contextualise their own cultural heritage and ideas they exist only to further imperialist histories and notions.

It is not enough to expect the British Museum to become self-critical overnight. It will take a monumental change for positive and critical narratives to emerge. The solution for these objects, as well as for many objects obtained in similar ways, is to return them to their native cultures.

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