In February 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, a British expeditionary force sacked the ancient city of Benin. They exiled the oba, or ruler, Ovonramwen, and carted away more than four thousand pieces of sculpture, known collectively as the Benin bronzes. The attack was prompted by the killing of several men belonging to a British expedition who had tried to enter Benin the previous year. The aim of their mission, headed by a British deputy commissioner, was ostensibly to remind the oba of his obligations under a new treaty allowing the Royal Niger Company a monopoly on trade throughout his extensive kingdom, notably in palm oil. By then, a number of punitive expeditions had already been undertaken in the ‘protectorate’ that was shortly to become southern Nigeria. Ovonramwen knew there was little point in resisting: three years earlier, the town of Ebrohimi – roughly a hundred kilometres from the city – had been razed and looted by the British because its chief, Nana Olomu, objected to the price they had offered for his palm oil. Nana was forced into exile, just as King Jaja of Opobo had been in the 1880s. Jaja, a former slave, had developed a network of palm oil trading houses along the River Niger but in a fit of overconfidence he had attempted to bypass the Royal Niger Company and sell directly to merchants in Liverpool.
The oba, a deity in the eyes of his people, ruled an area the size of Scotland, and the splendour of his court was a challenge to the colonising power. The earliest description comes from a Dutchman, Dierick Ruiters, who visited the city at the beginning of the 17th century. He was impressed by ‘a great broad street, not paved, which seemeth to be seven or eight times broader than the Warmoes street in Amsterdam’. The oba’s palace was ‘of vast Extent … so large, that you can feel no End; for when you have walked till you are tired (throughout) you see another Gate, opening into a larger Square’. Ruiters found the people ‘sincere’ and ‘inoffensive’ and had no fears for his safety; anyone who harmed a foreigner was ‘executed, their body cut into four parts and left to the wild beasts’. The oba himself only appeared twice a year, on which occasions he displayed ‘all his Grandeur, appearing attended with above six hundred Wives, though not all are legitimate’. Another Dutchman, Olfert Dapper, who never visited the city but published a description in 1668 based on secondhand sources, claimed that Benin had ‘thirty very straight broad streets, each about 120 feet wide’, with large, handsome, single-storey houses. The royal quarters were ‘easily as big as the town of Haarlem and enclosed by a remarkable wall … [with] beautiful long galleries about as big as the Exchange at Amsterdam’. One of these galleries, resting on wooden pillars, was ‘decorated from top to bottom with cast copper’, depicting ‘deeds of war and battle scenes’.
That the inheritor of all this should be told what to do by Captain Henry Gallwey, a minor British diplomat waving a piece of paper – who, by his own admission, ‘regarded the whole thing as a very interesting picnic’ – was infuriating. The oba is reported to have said that ‘while the Great White Queen was ruler of the seas, he was ruler of the land.’ A year before the invasion, one of the Royal Niger Company’s officials urged the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce to prevail on the government to have him ‘deposed or transported elsewhere’. Such arguments for the use of force were usually framed in terms of ending barbaric practices, particularly the ‘intolerable evil’ of slave trading, from which the British had profited until not long before (indeed they had enslaved many of the people they now proposed to civilise). The case for removing Ovonramwen was framed in the same way.
The party of British colonialists who had been killed the previous year shouldn’t have been in the royal city in the first place. Their official request to visit had been rejected. Instead, the oba had sent messengers saying they would be received in a few weeks, after he had finished marking an annual religious festival that demanded a period of isolation and self-denial. For Dan Hicks, curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, the violence that ensued was part of ‘a much bigger event’ which he calls World War Zero, dating from the partition of Africa in 1884 to the outbreak of the First World War. In this violent thirty-year interval, ‘the British atrocities and body count’ should be considered just as heinous as contemporary German and Belgian atrocities. (Germany recently paid Namibia $1.3 billion in reparations for the 1904-1908 Herero-Nama genocide.) For Benin itself, ‘an immense force’ of 1400 soldiers and more than a hundred marines and officers were brought in from Malta, South Africa and Britain with firepower to match, including the newly invented Maxim gun:
There were a dozen seven-pounder RML mountain guns, each carried with more than three hundred charges and projectiles. Six rocket-tubes and ‘a ready supply of war rockets’ were carried by each division, along with many hundredweights of gun cotton (nitrocellulose) with specialist demolition parties, which were used to destroy defensive stockades, palace walls and even sacred trees. There were fourteen Maxim guns adapted to be carried across land, each with 126 belts and boxes of 334 rounds – plus 24 Maxims on the warships … This fire power was doubled by 1200 … bolt-action rifles for which each man carried a hundred rounds of ammunition, with more than twice that number held by the carrier columns.
The invading force, which operated over an area of five thousand square kilometres, was divided into three. The main column would march on the city, according to the instructions issued, while two ‘flying’ columns were deployed to the west and east in order to ‘harass and destroy towns and villages’ in their path and ‘increase the punishment inflicted on the nation’. The city itself was taken on 18 February after stiff resistance from Bini soldiers armed with Dane guns (flintlock muskets), pistols, machetes, spears, and bows and arrows. No official death toll was recorded, though one English officer described ‘quantities of dead natives killed during the fight’. The British force discharged about four million rounds. The following month, a ‘remarkable’ report in the Portsmouth Evening News, based on interviews with returning marines, stated that the ‘slaughter was enormous’, but that ‘it was impossible to count the number of men killed owing to the thickness of the bush.’ Houssa soldiers who penetrated the bush said they had seen ‘hundreds of dead bodies, some of which were simply cut in two by the Maxim fire’.
The oba fled the city. Search parties burned down villages suspected of harbouring him, but his subjects were unwilling to betray him; they believed in any case that he could disguise himself as an animal to evade capture. It was six months before he gave himself up, presumably to put an end to the terror, and was immediately exiled; six of his chiefs were publicly hanged (they ‘died without flinching’, according to an eyewitness) in order to give the people ‘much to think about’. Gallwey gave this swaggering account to his superiors: ‘Their King removed, their fetish Chiefs executed, their Ju-ju broken, and their fetish places destroyed … and all around evident signs of the white man’s rule – equity, justice, peace and security.’
The city was torched in the immediate wake of the attack but there is some doubt as to whether the palace was destroyed by accident or by design. There is no disputing, however, the wholesale looting carried out by the British. ‘A large quantity of brass castings & carved tusks have been found,’ Captain Herbert Walker noted in his diary. ‘The Admiral & his staff have been very busy “safeguarding” the remainder, so I doubt if there will be much left for smaller fry … The whole camp is strewn with loot.’ Olfert Dapper had referred to the bronzes – or, more properly, to the Benin court art, since works in brass, ivory and wood are also included – in his 1668 account. Richard Burton, who travelled to the city in 1863, had written of them too, and a few had been presented as gifts, notably two carved ivory tusks given to a visiting trader in 1889 (he also took photographs), and a bronze figure of a horseman given to another trader on the occasion of the 1892 treaty signing that ceded Benin’s trade autonomy to the Royal Niger Company. But nobody suspected the sheer quantity and brilliance of the objects: well over four thousand and perhaps as many as ten thousand. It remains unclear how many are now in private hands.
The most famous artefacts from the British haul are the thousand or so rectangular brass relief plaques that adorned the pillars of the palace ‘with figures ranging from obas with their attendants to Portuguese traders with sticks, swords and pikes, bearing brass manilas, messengers with pendant crosses and “cat whisker” scarification on each brass cheek, warriors in battle, court officials with rattles and fly switches’. These date mostly from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and were a record of ‘coronation processes, archiving of laws and ways of life’, according to the Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor. In the Edo language, sa-e-y-ama means both to make a bronze cast of a motif and to remember. There are also the brass commemorative heads of the obas, each commissioned after death by the succeeding son, going back in an unbroken line to Oba Ewuare in the 15th century, and ‘scores’ of carved ivory tusks made from the early 18th century onwards, some of which were meant to be placed in the hollow tops of the heads.
The celebrity objects stolen by the British – along with rattle staffs, bells, mirrors, necklaces, bracelets, rings, masks, wooden stools, boxes – caused a sensation when they arrived in London six months later, but the response was contradictory. On the one hand, the artefacts were recognised by admirers such as Felix von Luschan, assistant director of the African section at the Museum für Völkerkunde (Museum of Ethnology) in Berlin as ‘equal to the very finest examples of European casting technique’. But on the other, they were regarded as the products of a barbarous tribe in a ‘picturesque but irrelevant’ corner of the globe, as Hugh Trevor-Roper referred to Africa. Nonetheless, their market value was high and continues to appreciate: in 2016, a bronze head in a private collection sold for £10 million, more than double its price nine years earlier. The British Museum acquired the largest hoard of Benin artefacts, about nine hundred, of which a hundred or so are on permanent display. The Museum für Völkerkunde amassed the next biggest collection, thanks to van Luschan, but significant numbers exist in more than 160 public and private museums the world over, mostly in the US and Europe, but also in Japan, Senegal and the United Arab Emirates.
Nigeria wants them back. This is nothing new: in 1936, Akenzua II, grandson of Oba Ovonramwen, lodged a formal request for the return of two brass thrones, only to be told by the then director of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin that he ‘was not prepared to give back or sell chairs of such high cultural value’. Although his father had been restored to the throne in 1914, the oba was now merely another colonised subject in a faraway British possession. More than half a century later, Nigeria requested the loan of a 16th-century ivory mask depicting Queen Idia, a renowned warrior and mother of the legendary Oba Esigie (1504-50). It was one of five exquisite ivory hip pendants depicting the queen and worn by the oba on ceremonial occasions that were stolen by the British from his bedchamber. The image of Idia had been chosen as the symbol for the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture held in Lagos in 1977. The British Museum refused to lend the pendant on the grounds that ‘it would be subject to different climatic conditions and much greater humidity and the ivory would shift and the surface would crack,’ which struck Nigerians as a reprise of late colonial pseudoscience. In the local press, the museum’s position was denounced as a typical case of Britain’s ‘insolence’, ‘spite’ and ‘contempt’ for its former subjects, and entirely consistent with its ‘history of international brigandry and thieving, in the tradition of Drake and Rhodes’.
Black Lives Matter has given huge impetus to the movement for repatriation of African artefacts, as did a report commissioned by President Macron, issued in 2017, which said that France should return to Africa all ‘objects taken by force or presumed to be acquired through inequitable conditions’ as quickly as possible. Last March, Monika Grütters, the German culture minister, said that her country would start returning a ‘substantial’ part of the 1200 works in its museums – including Cologne, Hamburg, Leipzig and Dresden, as well as Berlin – from 2022; Ehikhamenor described it as ‘a huge step’ towards ‘righting what is wrong’. In the UK, the University of Aberdeen, the Horniman Museum, the Museum of Anthropology in Cambridge, the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, the Great North Museum in Newcastle and the Church of England have all committed to returning their collections (or are ‘open to all possibilities’). Jesus College, Cambridge is in the process of returning a bronze cockerel. The British Museum is prevaricating behind a 1963 act that forbids it from ‘disposing of – or de-accessioning – any part of its collection, with a few limited exceptions’. In 2009, the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act gave the British Museum, along with the National Gallery and fifteen other national institutions, the power to return items looted by the Nazis. Similar legislation was enacted in the US in 2016. To African museologists, curators and historians, this double standard is a puzzle, to say the least. Oliver Dowden recently threatened to withdraw funding from museums that fail to sufficiently ‘defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down’ – the Museum of the Home in East London, for instance, which until 2019 was named the Geffrye Museum, after one of many assiduous British slavers who made large fortunes and amassed great collections from the trade of an estimated 3.1 million Africans.
Arguing against the return of the Benin bronzes would seem to be an uphill business. For Hicks, mere ownership of the artefacts at the Pitt Rivers Museum (which is currently exploring how best to return the 105 objects in its possession) makes all ‘brutish’ museums complicit in the ‘indiscriminate attack on human life, in which tens of thousands died; the purposeful and proactive destruction of an ancient cultural, religious and royal site; and the looting of sacred art works’. Barnaby Phillips, a journalist with no museological affiliation, is equally convinced that justice demands their return. He points out that there were reservations about the colonial adventure at the time: an editorial in the Edinburgh Evening News on 15 February 1896 was scathing about the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce’s argument for the inalienable right of the British ‘to go to and fro on the earth seeking whom we may devour, under the guise of apostles of civilisation’. Vernon Haggard, a former head of the submarine service and Fourth Sea Lord of the Admiralty who took part in the destruction of Benin, wrote: ‘What I saw of looting on this expedition has made me set my face strongly against it on subsequent occasions. Nothing is more demoralising. It calls forth some of the worst human qualities and inevitably leads to quarrelling and neglect of duty.’
Nigerian museums already house the third largest collection of Benin artefacts in the world, thanks in part to a buying spree in the 1950s by an Englishman, Kenneth Murray, who oversaw the creation of the National Museum in Lagos. The museum itself holds about ninety pieces, but, as in the British Museum, most are buried in the vaults; the presentation of those on display, as one visitor’s comment politely put it, is ‘a little dishevelled’. Then there are the thefts. Reliable figures are difficult to come by in a country as irresponsibly governed as Nigeria, but in 1996 the National Commission for Museums and Monuments announced that fourteen museums across the country had lost major items in the previous three years alone, causing Walter Ofonagoro, minister for information and culture, to declare that ‘we are losing our cultural heritage at such an alarming rate that unless the trend is arrested soon, we may have no cultural artefacts to bequeath to our progeny.’
The police later confirmed that 88 of these ‘precious artefacts’ had turned up for sale in Spain and the Netherlands. Nigeria’s casual disregard for the safety of these objects has been seized on by museum directors as a reason for not returning their collections, which in turn led to the counterproposal for a museum in Nigeria near the site of the oba’s palace. The Edo Museum of West African Art, the product of the Legacy Restoration Trust, a not-for-profit cultural heritage organisation, is due to open in 2025. Its aim is to ‘showcase the greatest collection of ancient Benin bronzes alongside important West African cultural artefacts and contemporary artworks’. A number of leading European museums have given their blessing to this private initiative and are digging into their own pockets to ensure that it achieves its aim. Enotie Ogbebor, a member of the royal family, says that getting the objects back will enable Nigerians to see ‘what their illustrious forebears were able to achieve’ and make them ‘strive for what is better in the present day’.
I doubt it. The remains of the monumental city walls, a vast series of ramparts consisting of banks and ditches built around the city (and stretching for thousands of kilometres across the hinterland), still exist in the modern city. This impressive edifice could not be stolen by the colonial troops, so much of it was destroyed instead. But as Phillips observes, what was left has hardly been regarded as evidence of a magnificent achievement:
I first visited twenty years ago, to see its famed earth wall, which dates to the 13th century and rings the city with a circumference of some eleven kilometres … It is listed as a Nigerian National Monument. Unfortunately, this offers no protection, as I discovered on that first trip. Rogue constructors dug away at the earthworks with impunity, looking for house-building material in the red, clayey subsoil of the banks, and rubbish accumulated in the moat. Twenty years later, it was in an even more pitiful state. At a junction on the Sokponba Road, beneath a heaving market, the wall was obscured by five billboards celebrating evangelical churches … I ducked under the billboards, away from the shouts of the traders, the music, car horns and revving engines, and climbed gingerly up the earth bank, holding onto bushes for balance. The ground was coated with the slime of human excrement and plastic bags. When I reached the top I saw that the moat on the far side was full of sewage. Everything stank.
The British Museum stakes its claim to the bronzes on the notion of the ‘universal museum’. Because it has artefacts from so many other places the British pillaged and destroyed, and because many more people visit London than Benin City, or even Lagos, it follows that this is the best place for them. I don’t like that argument, but I worry that if people in Benin City are trampling the remains of a heritage site under their feet, heritage in Nigeria doesn’t have the meaning some of its citizens would wish. It is understandable to want back what was stolen, but to do so while neglecting what you still have suggests a sentimental exercise in the service of wounded pride. Meaning may be even harder to repatriate than the objects themselves.
Moyo Okedeji, a Benin-based artist and academic quoted by Phillips, thinks that the heads and brass plaques – ‘caged, displayed on blocks and pedestals, or auctioned from hand to hand like the human cargoes which they followed across the Atlantic Ocean’ – are now of far more interest to ‘scholars and politicians than to the average inhabitants of present-day Benin City … who excruciatingly measure their survival on a daily basis’. He also points out that returning them ‘is to pretend that such a reparation fully atones’ for an act of colonial outrage, one among many in Africa. Ekhaguosa Aisien, a member of the Benin royal family, said that seeing them in the British Museum for the first time made him feel ‘an enormous pride, which still remains with me. The Indians, the Japanese, going to the British Museum and saying: “Oh, these are from Africa.”’
As the debate over the bronzes has gained pace, an initiative known as Digital Benin was launched to create a database bringing together ‘all Benin holdings worldwide, historical photographs, archival materials, eyewitness accounts, publications and oral traditions and create an internationally accessible information catalogue’. Funding has come from a group of European institutions, and the organisers hope to launch the full site next year. This is surely the closest we will get to a ‘universal museum’. For now, I believe the British Museum’s Benin treasures should remain where they are. What I can’t accept is the museum’s continued refusal to properly discuss the circumstances of their original acquisition and its continued possession of them. Nor can it justify turning its nose up in the face of requests for loans, as it did in the 1970s.
As I write, a row appears to be brewing between Godwin Obaseki, the governor of Edo State, and Ewuare II, the current oba, over where to house a consignment of stolen artefacts shortly to be returned from Germany. Two years ago, Obaseki earmarked 500 million naira (around £880,000) ‘to commence the development and construction of [a] Benin Royal Museum … in collaboration with the palace’, only to backtrack in favour of the Legacy Restoration Trust’s project for the Edo Museum. The oba protested: this was not ‘in consonance with the wishes of the people of Benin kingdom’. But the kingdom of Benin no longer exists. Its legacy in situ, as Phillips tells us, is a dismal, sewage-infested ruin in Benin City, over which Obaseki, as state governor, has the last word. The oba has appealed to the federal government of Nigeria to take custody of the artefacts while he makes alternative funding arrangements, despite the fact that no administration during the last sixty years has lifted a finger to protect our cultural heritage.