February 11, 2010

Will Benin’s artefacts ever be exhibited in Benin?

Posted at 10:04 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

An exhibition of artefacts from Benin has taken place at the Ethnography Museum in Stockholm. Despite many calls for the repatriation of Benin artefacts though, it seems as though most are only displayed in museums outside the region.

Nigerian Compass

Repartration of looted artefacts in Europe: Benin’s case can’t be different
Tuesday, 02 February 2010 00:00

Recently, the ethnography museum of Stockholm, Sweden hosted an exhibition and seminar on Benin court art and culture. Prince Edun Akenzua who headed the delegation from His Majesty, Omo n’ Oba n’ Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Eriduawua II of Benin to the international event discusses it and other salient issues relating to the Edo kingdom’s stolen artifacts in European museums with EMMANUEL AGOZINO. Excerpts:

What was the exhibition at the Ethnography Museum of Stockholm, Sweden, all about?

Thank you. What happen at Stockholm was not originated by us. But it was a good outing. This was how it actually started. The Nigerian Ambassador to Sweden, Dr. Igali, knew that that country was about going to mount an International exhibition on Benin works. He then immediately wrote a letter to the Governor of Edo State, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, informing him of what is being planned and advising him that it will be wise if the State can send somebody who is knowledgeable in Benin Arts and history to beat the exhibition. The Governor then referred the letter to the Oba of Benin with a request that the Oba sends somebody. That was how the Oba recommended that I should go for the event. At the exhibition, I delivered a paper.

But for me, the even was not a surprise because about a year ago, I was also in Viena, Austria, where a similar exhibition was held. The one at Viena was put together by about several countries, comprising Austria, Germany, France, United States of America and one other country that I cannot remember now. I was there and it was such a great shock to me that when they brought out the works from all these countries, majority of them turned out to be Benin bronzes artefacts and other works stolen during the massacre. So it is from that Austria exhibition that they keep moving the works from one European nation to another. Apart from myself, other Nigerians that were there included, the then Director General of National Commission for Musem and Monument (NCMM), Dr. Joseph Eboriemen and former Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Prof. Babalola Borishade. However, I made it clear to them in my speech that our presence at the event and that of the Federal Government was only tactical as it did not show that Benin will stop the struggle for the reparation of its stolen works, particularly, those plundered from here in 1897. We cannot stop until justice is done. I told then that that was the situation.

We saw all those works that they looted. About 4000 works. And now let me add that we have traced the descendants of those who committed those atrocities to Benin, their fourth generations. We have their photographs and that of the British who did that. And indeed, they are now aware that there is nothing that they can do but to return those items back. In other words, why we were there was to let the crime continue to be in the world’s conscience. What the British did to Benin in 1897 and other occasions. That is what the trip was all about.

So, seeing the images exhibited, especially that of your great grand father, Oba Ovonramwen, as he was being deported by the British, what was your feeling?
I must tell you the truth. As I stood there viewing the works, many of them I was seeing for the first time, an emotion of nostalgia stirred inside me. I should say that some of the works which were forcefully removed or stolen were not made for galleries. Most of them were made to record events in the lives of the people. In other words, they were records of our people’s life. The others were made for religious purposes. I did not feel too good about it.

Do you think the keepers of those works in western galleries are remorseful what they did to Benin or abut still keeping the works?

Well, I cannot imagine what goes on in their conscience. But I can tell you what some of them said. And from that, I can say that I am convinced that they do have guilty conscience no. But some of them equally will like to pretend that the arguement does not exist. You know that it is the same guilty conscience that is making a lot of these European nations to return the works now. I personally invited the Director of the British museum here during the centenary. But he did not come. He told me why he could not was that they are building a new museum. Although some people are now trying to use diplomatic language by saying that the works were forcefully removed but we know that the items were deliberately looted. The British had an eye on it. They were so many. For instance, the Mr. Philip who provoked the war had before then written intelligence report to the British government. This was in 1896. In the report he told them that Oba Ovonramwen had to be deposed. And that they must wage a war against Benin. He even gave them intelligence report that 1500 troops will be able to do it. The troops were led by an Admiral at that time. And they fought Benin with canons and rockets. Can you imagine? Canons and rockets in 1897? When the best we have here are bows and arrows. He now wrote in wrote in his intelligence report which I have with me here, that “he believed that the value of bronze and other works in the Oba’s palace will be enough to offset deposing the Oba and fighting the war.”

Of course the British were initially, reluctant. But when the man who use to head the council, his name was Car, went on leave, Philip who was acting on his behalf saw an immediate opportunity to carry out what he had always promoted. So, he just said he was coming to pay a visit to the Oba of Benin. Nine of them were coming. And with the nine Europeans were about 3000 Africans whom he called carriers. But indeed this are all soldiers drawn from the cantonment in Sapele, from where they previously attacked King Nana of Itshekiri. Others were from Ghana and Hausa land. He sent a word to Benin and the chiefs sent back word to him that we are at the middle of a festival. At such time the Oba is not supposed to see any visitor. But before you knew it, he and his troops has started moving towards Benin. It was this that led to the altercation. So they drew the gun on each other. At the end, seven of the European were killed, two escaped with some of their African carriers. But it turned out that in their boxes, Philip had asked them to hide their guns. So that was what the British called the Benin masacre. But the world later saw what they were up to when they burnt down the whole of Benin.

So, what led the Benin monarchy to later begin the call for reparation of her works?

The whole idea started long time ago during my father, Oba Akenzua II, who was the grandson of Oba Ovonramwen from whose palace the whole items were looted in 1897. Since then the struggle has been on. I will tell you some of things that even strenghtened the efforts. For instance, in 1936, three years after my father’s coronation, the British came here in Benin, I think it was the Earl of Plymouth, and made presentation to him. But do you know that we are surprised that one of the things he gave my father then was one of the beaded crowns and other regalia removed in 1897 from Benin? If you were my father how will you feel with that kind of gift? Although my father was grateful for it, he indeed knew that he was getting back something that was stolen from his grandfather. Since then there has been pressure from here in the palace and the Oba that those stolen works and other artifacts should be returned to Benin. It was from that the matter got to the Federal Government through Dr. Moses Ekpo, the then curator of National Museum, Lagos. Ekpo started championing the crusade and through his efforts, the Federal Government was able to buy back about three items for the National Museum in Lagos.

Can you imagine Nigeria buying those works again from Britain for Nigeria museum?

Also, another thing that happened was that in 1977, before the FESTAC, the organisers of that event headed by the late Irabor Emokpai, suggested to the Federal Government that what is now called ‘FESTAC Head’ should be used as a symbol of that event. Then the Government asked the British Government to lend Nigeria that mask. But the British Government refused, because they claimed that Nigeria cannot protect the mask. However, the only concension the British made then was that if they are going to lend it to Nigeria for use at the FESTAC, Nigerian government must sign an insurance of about 2000 pounds. So when they couldn’t do it, they came to Benin here and met with my father. He told them that a replica can be made by the same people who made the first one. He now commissioned them. But when they now finished that replica, it was difficult to tell which one was the original. It was this second one that was eventually used for the FESTAC.

So since he mounted the throne, the present Oba, who is my brother has been calling for the repartration of the works. We will not relent until justice is done. For instance, the Oba wrote a letter to the Queen of England on the repartration of the looted artifacts in 1997 – just before we organised the commemoration of the centenary of that event here. I was the Chairman of that event. We visited many European nations with the view of letting them see why they should return those works. We are still on it.

Sometimes, the views we get from many resourceful quarters energises my belief that what we are doing is right. But in some countries like Britain it has not been easy. This is because, I have been informed, there is an act of the parliament against the repartration of the works. But the fact that such repartration has happened all over the world will not make Benin’s own different. Recently, even Britain returned to Scotland some of the items of treasure they removed from that country. The Austrians have also returned to Jews some of the paintings the Nazis stole in that part of the world. So also with the Italians, who recently returned to Ethiopia the great obelisks they removed from that country during Benito Mussolini’s attack of the country. So why should Benin’s own be different?

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