Many of the bronzes looted from Benin following military raids in 1897 ended up in the British Museum. Nigeria has so far been unsuccessful in securing their return.
The British and the Benin Bronzes
Written by Darshana Soni
Sunday, 06 May 2007
The British and the Benin Bronzes
The Kingdom of Benin had a long history of peaceful relations with European nations. Many early Portuguese, Dutch and British Visitors had expressed admiration for this great African Civilisation. However, just under 100 years ago in 1897, the British, fueled by a desire to control trade in the area, launched a “Punitive Expedition” to attack Benin City. They deposed of the Oba (King) of Benin, burnt down his palace and looted the collection of unique art works in Bronze and ivory that adorned the palace.
The premier collection of the priceless Benin art treasures is today held at the Museum of Mankind in London.
The Events of 1897
Justification for the violent overthrow of this independent kingdom was to avenge the deaths of seven Britons who had been ambushed who had been ambushed on a path to Benin a few weeks earlier. They were represented as peaceful ambassadors sent to discuss the operation of a trade treaty with the Oba, who were then murdered in cold blood – however, the evidence tells a different story.
Before they set out, James Philips, the colonial officer who headed the mission, sent a report to his superiors in Whitehall complaining about the unprofitability of trade in the area. He recommended;
“…I am certain that there is only one remedy, that is to depose of the king of Benin…I am concerned that pacific measures are now quite useless, and that the time has now come to remove the obstruction … I would add that I have reason to hope that sufficient ivory may be found in the King’s house to pay the expenses incurred.”
Philips sent a message to the Oba informing him of his intention to visit Benin and received a reply asking him to delay. his visit for a while due to the customary rites that were being performed at the time, during which foriegniers were not permitted to enter the city. Philips ignored several such messages.
It is not surprising that the generals whose task it was to defend Benin saw this expedition, that had refused to heed repeated request to turn back and wait for an official invitation, as a threat. In the recent past the British had used force several times to depose other African leaders whom they had found too powerful to dominate. They responded to this threat by ambushing the party, leaving seven of the nine Britons dead. The British government and press responded with self righteous outrage.
The Benis saw the 1987 event as an evil intrusion to their sovereignly end the annexation of their region by a foreign power as unjustified. The then King, Oba Ovonramwen, was subsequently deposed and sent into exile. Benin City, whose civilisation dates further back than the 13th
Century, was almost completely destroyed. Sacred treasures discovered by the colonial army were stripped from their rightful owners and looted mainly to Britain, and later to other countries in the West.
The Benin Bronzes Today
When the looted art treasures were brought back to England many of the military officers kept private collections of them, whilst the foreign office sold considerable quantities, much of which found it’s way to museums of Europe and America. The remarkable quality of the work was rapidly reflected in high auction room prices. The Foreign Office gave the British museum a huge quantity of Bronze wall plaques which depict the history of the Benin Empire in the 1 5th and 1 6th century. Many are displayed in the ethnographic section of the museum. The premier collection of these priceless Benin art treasures are today held at the Museum of Mankind ( there are also many, many more, held in private collections which we do not know about. )
These Museums also retained selling rights of duplicates to the originals, which of course means that enormous profits have been made. In 1984, Sothebys auctioned a Benin plaque featuring a musician in the catalogue accompanying the auction, the asking price was set at between £25,000 – £35,000. Many famous European artists, such as Picasso, have emulated the fine and abstract dimensional images found in Benin art – however, not a penny from this profit has ever gone back to Benin, from where the art was stolen. African scholars must by necessity travel to London to see these works displayed without adequate commentary or proper context. The British Museum and London continues to gain income from visitors from Africa and elsewhere – this should of course be transferred to Africa. Africa is the appropriate place to study and understand African Art and Artefacts and it would also generate much needed income from tourism and scholarship if these items were returned.
The Nigerian government has made several unsuccessful requests for the restitution of these artefacts, since 1960 when they gained independence. On several occasions, they paid exorbitant prices amounting to thousands of pounds to retain possession of some of these artefacts. Great offence was caused when the British Museum and the British Government refused even the loan of a single ivory mask for a vast pan-African Arts festival in 1977.
The looting of artworks in the course of military conflict has been outlawed since the Napoleonic wars and the restitution of looted works within Europe enforced. Increasingly, the morality and legality of holding art collections seized by force is being questioned. In the true sense of justice and selfdetermination, the Benin artefacts belong to the culture from where they were deprived from – they symbolise a historical and social significance which the aesthetic and monetary value they hold in exile would never compensate.