Since the start of their production in the 13th Century in the Kingdom of Benin, modern-day Benin City, Nigeria, the Benin Bronzes have been shrouded in religion, ritual, and violence. With current conversations of decolonization and restitution, the future of Benin bronzes have been scrutinised over what to do with the thousands of works of art in museums and institutions scattered across the world. This article will examine these objects’ histories and discuss the current conversations surrounding them.
The Benin Bronzes’ Origin: The Kingdom of Benin
The Benin Bronzes come from Benin City in present day Nigeria, previously the historic capital of the Kingdom of Benin. The kingdom was established during the medieval period and ruled by an unbroken chain of Obas, or kings, passing the title from father to son.
Benin steadily expanded into a powerful city state through military campaigns, and trading with the Portuguese and other European nations, establishing themselves as a wealthy nation. The Oba was the central figure in all trade, controlling various commodities such as enslaved people, ivory, and pepper. At its height, the nation developed a unique artistic culture.
Why Were the Benin Bronzes Made?
Made of cast brass, wood, coral, and carved ivory, Benin works of art serve as important historical records of the Kingdom of Benin, perpetuating the memory of the city’s history, their dynastic history, and insights into its relationship with neighboring societies. Many pieces were commissioned specifically for the ancestral altars of past Obas and Queen Mothers, recording interactions with their Gods and commemorating their status. They were also used in other rituals to honor the ancestors and to validate the accession of a new Oba.
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The artworks were created by specialist guilds controlled by the Royal Court of Benin, using clay and an ancient method of wax casting to create the finer details for the mold before the final step of pouring in the molten metal. One guild today still produces works for the Oba, passing on the craft from father to son.
The Massacre and Invasion of Benin
Benin’s wealth was fuelled by its lively trade with direct access to prized natural resources like pepper, the slave trade, and ivory. Initially, countries like Germany, Belgium, France, Portugal, Spain, and the UK established relationships and trade agreements for Benin’s natural and artisan resources.
In order to avoid conflict with one another in Africa over territories, European nations met for the Berlin Conference of 1884 to establish the regulation of European colonization and trade in Africa. The Berlin Conference can be viewed as one of the starting points of the “Scramble for Africa,” the invasion and colonization of African countries by European powers. This marked the beginning of the Age of Imperialism, of which we are still dealing with the repercussions today.
These countries imposed their self-styled authority by establishing dominance economically, spiritually, militarily, and politically over African countries. Naturally, there was resistance from these countries, but all were met with violence and significant loss of human life.
Benin struggled to resist foreign interference in its trading network, particularly with the British, who wanted control over West African trade and territory. Benin had already become a weakened state as royal family members grasped for power, and again as civil wars broke out, dealing a significant blow to both Benin’s administration as well as its economy.
Britain, unsatisfied with its trade agreements with Benin and desire for sole control of trade authority, made plans to depose the Oba. In came James Phillips, a deputy to the British Southern Nigeria Protectorate Commissioner and the catalyst for the “justified” invasion. In 1897, Phillips and several soldiers made their way to the city on an unsanctioned mission seeking an audience with the Oba, with the underlying motive to depose him. In a letter to the Foreign Secretary, Phillips wrote:
The timing of the arrival was intentional, coinciding with the Igue Festival, which was a sacred time in Benin, during which outsiders were forbidden to enter the city. Because of a ritual tradition of self-isolation during this festival, the Oba could not grant an audience for Philips. Government officials from Benin City previously warned that any white man who attempted to come into the city during this time would be met with death, which is exactly what happened. The death of these British soldiers was the final blow the British government needed to justify an attack.
A month later, “punishment” came in the form of a British army that led a campaign of violence and devastation to cities and villages on the path to Benin City. The campaign ended when they reached Benin City. The events that followed resulted in the end of the Kingdom of Benin, their ruler being forced into exile and subjecting the remaining people to British rule, and an inestimable loss of life and cultural objects of Benin. Under the Hague Convention of 1899, ratified three years later, this invasion would have been viewed as a war crime, forbidding the looting of places and attacking undefended towns or inhabitants. This vast cultural loss was an act of violent erasure of the Kingdom of Benin’s history and traditions.
The Aftermath Today
Fast forward nearly 130 years, the Benin Bronzes are now scattered all over the world. Professor Dan Hicks of the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum estimates over 10,000 objects are in known collections today. Given the unknown number of Benin bronzes in private collections and institutions, a truly accurate estimate is impossible.
Nigeria has been demanding its stolen cultural heritage back since the early 1900s, even before the country gained its independence in 1960. The first claim for restitution came in 1935 by the son of the exiled Oba, Akenzua II. Two coral bead crowns and a coral bead tunic were returned to the Oba privately from G.M. Miller, son of a member of the Benin expedition.
The demand for restitution by African states transcends the need for possession of priceless material artifacts but is also a way for former colonies to change the dominating imperial narrative. This narrative interferes with Benin’s attempts to take control of their cultural narrative, establish and contextualize their cultural sites, and move forward from their colonial past.
The Restitution Process
In the last few decades, the restitution of cultural property has come to the forefront thanks to renewed conversations of decolonization and anti-colonial practices in museums and collections. What prompted a renewal of the conversation most likely started with the 2017 Sarr-Savoy Report, organized by the French government to assess the history and present state of publicly owned French collections of African heritage and artworks, and discuss potential steps and recommendations for the return of artifacts taken during imperialist rule. The decolonizing push plays out in the public forum, placing increased pressure on universities and other institutions to return looted objects.
Of course, because no international policy or law is forcing the return of these objects, it is entirely up to the individual institution to decide whether or not to give them back. The overall response has been positive, as numerous institutions announce unconditional returns of Benin Bronzes to Benin City:
- The University of Aberdeen became one of the first institutions to pledge full repatriation of their bronze sculpture depicting an Oba of Benin.
- The Humboldt Forum, Germany’s newest museum, announced an agreement with the Nigerian government to return a substantial number of Benin works of art in 2022.
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City announced in June 2021 their plans to return two sculptures to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments.
- The National Museum of Ireland pledged in April 2021 to return their share of 21 Benin works of art.
- The French government unanimously voted October 2020 to return 27 pieces from French museums to both Benin and Senegal. This was stipulated under the condition that the objects be returned once Benin established a museum to house the objects. The Museé du Quai Branly, in particular, is returning 26 objects of Benin works of art. The question of restitution has become a major talking point in France, especially thanks to the recent actions of several activists, including Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza.
- Several UK institutions have announced their plans to repatriate Benin bronzes, including the Horniman Museum, University of Cambridge’s Jesus College, Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum, and the National Museum of Scotland.
There have also been cases in which individuals have voluntarily restored objects back to Benin. In 2014, the descendant of a soldier who took part in the city’s attack personally returned an object to the Royal Court of Benin, with two more objects still in the return process today.
Until a museum is built to house these returns, several projects are underway to facilitate restitution in other ways. One of the projects is the Digital Benin Project, a platform that digitally unites the globally dispersed works of art from the former Kingdom of Benin. This database will provide global public access to the artworks, their history, and related documentation and material. This will promote further research for the geographically disadvantaged who can’t visit the material in person, as well as provide a more comprehensive picture of the historical significance of these cultural treasures.
Digital Benin will bring together photographs, oral histories, and rich documentation material from collections worldwide to provide a long-requested overview of the royal artworks looted in the 19th century.
The Edo Museum of West Africa
When the Benin Bronze objects return, they will have a home in the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), which will open in 2025. The museum is being constructed as part of the “Rediscovering the History of Benin” initiative, a collaborative project led by the Legacy Restoration Trust, the British Museum, and Adjaye Associates, the Benin Dialogue Group, and the Edo State Government.
Efforts to establish this museum are thanks in part to the Edo State government and to the Benin Dialogue Group, a multi-lateral collaborative group with representatives from various institutions that have pledged to share information and concerns regarding Benin works of art and facilitate a permanent display for those objects.
Most of the museums in the return process mentioned above are part of the Benin Dialogue Group and are taking part in the plan to facilitate an ongoing display of rotating objects on loan to the museum. Adjaye Associates, led by Sir David Adjaye, have been appointed to undertake the new museum’s initial concept and urban planning work. Sir David and his firm, whose largest project to date is the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, mean to use archaeology as a means of connecting the new museum into the surrounding landscape.
The first phase of the museum’s making will be a monumental archaeological project, regarded as the most extensive archaeological excavation ever undertaken in Benin City. The focus of the excavation will be to unearth historic building remains below the proposed site and incorporate the ruins into the surrounding museum landscape. These fragments allow the objects themselves to be arranged in their pre-colonial context and offer visitors the opportunity to better understand the true significance of these artifacts within the traditions, political economy, and rituals enshrined within the culture of Benin City.
The Benin Bronzes: A Question of Ownership
With promises of returns and an archaeological excavation underway, this should be the end of the discussion regarding the Benin Bronzes.
As of July 2021, controversy has arisen over who will retain ownership of the objects once they are deaccessioned and back in Nigeria. Will they belong to the Oba, from whose palace they were taken? From the Edo State Government, who are the facilitators and legal representatives for bringing the objects back?
The current Oba, Ewuare II, organized a meeting in July 2021 demanding the return of the Benin Bronzes be diverted from the current project between the Edo State Government and the Legacy Restoration Trust (LRT), calling the LRT an “artificial group.”
As the great-grandson of the Oba who was overthrown in 1897, the Oba insists the “right and only legitimate destination” for the Bronzes would be a “Benin Royal Museum,” he said, sited within his palace grounds. He insisted that the Bronzes had to come back to where they were taken from, and that he was “the custodian of all the cultural heritage of the Benin Kingdom.” The Oba also warned against any future dealings with the LRT would be doing so at the risk of being against the Benin people. It is additionally awkward as the Oba’s son, Crown Prince Ezelekhae Ewuare, is on the LRT’s Board of Trustees.
There is also the possibility that the Oba’s intervention has come too late. Contracts worth millions have already been signed to support the LRT project from various institutions and governments, like the British Museum and the Edo State Government. The conversation regarding the restitution of the objects is still underway. Until an agreement or compromise can be made between the Oba and the Nigerian government, the Benin Bronzes will continue to be stored in their respective museums and wait to return home.
Recommended Further Reading:
The Brutish Museum by Prof. Dan Hicks
Cultural Property and Contested Ownership, Edited by Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin and Lyndel V. Prott
Treasure in Trusted Hands by Jos van Beurden