The Question of the Benin Bronzes - Should They Stay or Should They Go?

So the other day I learned what we Brits did to the Kingdom of Benin in 1897. 

A Benin Bronze, at the British Museum. Credit: Matt Neale from UK / CC BY-SA

And, like so many things that happened under the name of 'Empire', it wasn't pretty. 

Basically, the ancient African Kingdom of Benin existed from early Medieval times trading, building an army, creating art and being ruled by a king called an Oba, all in what is now modern-day Southern Nigeria. They had built up a great economy by around the thirteenth century. Eventually though, their economy started to flounder. Initially very reluctant to become involved in the slave trade, they eventually gave in and started selling war captives, mostly to Brazil. They also started to trade goods with the Portuguese, French and the English. 

The Oba was the king of the kingdom. It was believed that he had magical powers and is often depicted with leopards standing alongside him or standing confidently with mudfish coming out of his belt. Leopards symbolised loyalty and bravery while mudfish could live on land and water and so suggested the Oba could cover all worlds and perhaps move mysteriously between the earthly and spritual realms. The Benin people were skilled craftsmen and made strikingly beautiful figurines depicting everyday Benin life, that were hung on the Oba's palace walls. 

By the late nineteenth century it was an independent kingdom, fortified by an army and protected by huge walls. 

In 1892, the British decided that they wanted to change all that. 

Henry Gallwey, a British official, approached the Oba and asked him to sign a treaty giving up their independence and moving into the now flourishing (if that's the right word) British Empire, relinquishing trade rights and giving Britain a lucrative deal in customs and taxes from Benin. There's a little bit of debate about whether he signed the treaty - evidence suggests that he refused. After three failed attempts to enforce this treaty during 1895 and 1896 (which the Oba might not even have agreed to in the first place), the British gave the green light to invade and depose the Oba of the Kingdom of Benin in December 1896. It was effectively a punishment for a breach of contract that the Oba might not have even signed.

They were unsuccessful. Benin troops met the British invaders and the result was the Benin Massacre of January, 1897. 

Britain followed up with the Punitive Expedition, to Benin, in the following month. The Brits torched buildings, razed the huge defensive walls to the ground and looted the royal palace, destroying that, too. 

And in the palace they found the Benin Bronzes. 


These bronze figurines (they're actually brass), which once lined the walls of the Oba's palace were taken back to Britain. Just under half of them were installed in the British Museum for curious Victorians to look at and the rest were auctioned off to pay for the expeditions that had led to Benin's fall. 

So what now? 

There have been rumblings about whether or not we should keep these bronzes in London - and wherever else they were auctioned off around the world in the nineteenth century - or if we should hand them back to Nigeria, where they were first created and for whom, originally, they were made. The New York Times estimates that are around 3,000 bronzes distributed around the world. Should they be returned to their ancestral home? 

The debate is mixed. Some say that the British Museum, which houses around 700 of the bronzes, should keep them all as not only a reminder of the Empire but a way for us to learn and study cultures around the world. The preservation and conservation techniques are also well-known here, and there's fear that the bronzes could disintegrate if not looked after properly. The British Museum did agree to loan Nigeria some of the bronzes. Temporarily. 

Other people say that it's their cultural right to be returned to Nigeria. After all, the bronzes were essentially plundered from the Oba's royal palace and sold off by the British for easy money. They depict scenes that have a real resonance to the ancient cultures of Africa, and why should they not be seen by their own people? Many people might never get to see the bronzes, cast by their ancestors in Benin's ancient kingdom, if they're spread out all around the world. 

So. 

Should they stay or should they go? 

I think they should go. Maybe we can do a deal with the Nigerian government to return most of them and keep a couple back so we can still marvel at them, educate ourselves about them and respect the incredible craftsmanship that went into making them. But I think it's unfair to keep them here. It's bit like Italians fencing off Hampton Court Palace and not letting us visit the halls of Henry VIII. Or finding out the the Romans took Boudicca's necklet and jewellery when they invaded and that it's now in a museum in Rome. We'd surely want that back, right? 

What do you think? Should the Benin Bronzes go back to Nigeria? Or should we keep them here? Let me know in the comments below!



 


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