The Benin Bronzes

Posted Thursday, 22 July 2021

My first trip to Africa was 20 years ago, when I was still a newlywed. My husband and I stayed with his dad where he lived at the time, in Cotonou, the commercial capital of the Republic of Benin. Midway through our visit, we drove to Benin City in Nigeria to visit the extended family. We stayed there for several days, but I don’t remember learning anything of the history of the place. 

Fast forward to 2018. I was sitting in an auditorium in England listening to a lecture on the ethics of museum displays when a familiar item appeared on screen. It was the ivory pendant mask of the Oba of Benin. I had first encountered the mask at a museum in New York City as a teenager, and I fell in love with it, buying its image on a postcard and hanging it in my dorm room. The lecturer mentioned something about English soldiers obtaining this artwork and many others in a punitive expedition in Benin City, and I was astonished. I had been to Benin City! My traditional wedding ceremony was held there, so why didn’t I know more?

Intrigued, I decided to learn about the history behind the art seizure. What I discovered was that the desire to control trading routes lay at the heart of the conflict with Ovonramwen, the Oba of Benin and the Edo peoples. Benin markets had been closed to outside trade, and British officials were frustrated by their inability to break the monopoly on commodities held by the Oba. The Oba ignored the Treaty of 1892, which recognised Britain’s sovereignty and opened Benin up to trade by members of all nations. 

In an attempt to dispute trading rights, a naïve and inexperienced soldier, Vice Consul James Phillips, led an unarmed party to the palace. Though lacking authorisation from the Foreign Office, the party persisted despite receiving warnings from royal envoys and Itsekiri middlemen to turn back. Believing themselves under attack, on 7 January 1897, Benin soldiers killed all but two of the party. 

When news reached Britain, some 1700 men were swiftly sent in retaliation, and by 18 February 1897, Benin City was taken by British forces. The punitive expedition resulted in the seizure of thousands of pieces of artwork which had also been controlled by the Oba.  The British troops were astonished by the calibre and quantity of bronze sculptures and ivory carvings, which seemed to contradict the negative reports of Benin reported to the British public. Phillips’ march to the palace was a provocation to the Oba, yet the British troops felt morally justified in launching an attack on the Edo peoples, stealing their historic, treasured art and leaving the Oba’s palace a burnt shell.

To me, the British attack seemed an intentional gambit to seize control of trading routes, not justified in the least, yet the term ‘punitive expedition’ is political, with a clear bias that justifies the actions of the imperial power meting out punishment. As a Nigerian citizen resident in Nigeria, why did I learn about this military campaign in England from an English lecturer with all the bias that might entail? 

Nigeria has been agitating for the restitution of the Benin Bronzes since independence in 1960, yet more than 1,000 bronzes are currently held in European museums. From as early as the 1890s, curators at the British Museum have rated their artistic merit at the level of the best of Italian and Greek sculpture, and they have only increased in value. The British Museum has recently agreed to temporarily loan some of the bronzes back to Nigerian museums. They refuse to return the plundered treasures outright.

Chimamanda Adichie warns of the danger of a single story. I am describing this historical episode to readers who may not be familiar with it. Information can be a powerful thing, and who knows? Perhaps one of you will have a chance to further Nigerian efforts to reclaim the Benin Bronzes. If that is overly ambitious, I would settle for deepening your knowledge of our past, so we can tell our own stories.

Mona Zutshi Opubor is an Indian-American and Nigerian short story author and memoirist. She is studying for her MSt in Literature and Arts at the University of Oxford.


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