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Should the Benin Bronzes be returned?

Talk about timely. Hot on the heels of a former British princess of African descent making a very public accusation about the British monarchy, an event on which the plot of my forthcoming book Hausa Blue turns, my ears twitched again on Thursday evening. I heard that the University of Aberdeen announced that it will be returning a Benin Bronze head to Benin.

The cover of my book shows one of the 1,000+ objects that make up what are known as the Benin Bronzes. It is an ivory, copper and iron pectoral mask, which was found in a wooden chest of the Oba (king) in 1897. It is widely held to be a contemporary representation of the Queen Mother Idia, who raised an army to secure her son’s throne and led battles to defend Benin’s borders in the early 16th century. I am using the image under licence from the British Museum and can only do so in the context of my book, out in April 2021. I acquired the licence in two stages. First, the price was agreed and then having written my case I received curatorial permission from the Department under which the Benin bronzes fall. As I wrote to the curator,

the actual story describes the consequences springing from the actions of a fictional princess from the Hausa Kingdom in the late 18th Century, where the indigo-blue dye has been grown and manufactured since the 14th Century, hence the title, 'Hausa Blue'. I chose an artifact from 16th century Benin because it represents a female member of royalty and represents the quality of West African art before the comprehensive commodification of human beings, which depopulated and destabilised the region so dramatically. I also think that it is beautiful, of course.

The Benin Bronzes are metal, wood and ivory plaques and sculptures that decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin in what is now Nigeria. These works helped lead to a greater appreciation of African culture and art by Europeans. As late as the last century, Europeans found it difficult to understand that people they believed to be primitive and savage were responsible for such sophisticated objects. Some even asserted that Benin knowledge of metallurgy came from the Portuguese traders who were in contact with Benin from the 15th century, when in fact there is evidence that such processes were being practiced in West Africa from the 11th century onwards.

A British Army Officer's sketch of some of Benin's walls in 1897
Oba Ewuare II welcomes his latest grandchild

The Kingdom of Benin's capital was Edo, now known as Benin City in Edo state in Nigeria. It was formed around the 11th century AD. The walls of Benin City and surrounding areas are described as "the world's largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era" by the Guinness book of Records. They are 16,000 kilometres (9,900 miles) long in total.

The monarchy continues to exist today as one of the traditional states of contemporary Nigeria. Ewuare II, the present Oba (king), is one of the most prominent of the various traditional rulers of Nigeria. His role is now, Like Britain's Elizabeth II, mainly religious and ceremonial.

At the end of the 19th century, the Kingdom of Benin had, unlike many of the surrounding kingdoms, retained its independence from Britain. The Oba exercised a monopoly over trade in palm-oil, ivory and notably rubber, demand for which was increasing rapidly at that time.

In 1896 people in Benin believed that Britain wanted to make Benin a Protectorate of the British Empire. Without approval from the king his generals ordered a pre-emptive attack on a British Army party approaching Benin City. A punitive expedition was launched in 1897. The British force, under the command of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson, razed and burned the city, destroyed much of the country's art, took nearly all that remained and Benin became a Protectorate of the British Empire.

Sixty-four years later, in 1960, Nigeria regained independence. Alhaji Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s current Minister of Information and Culture, said on Thursday that Aberdeen university’s decision to return a bronze was a step in the right direction.

David Adjaye's design for the new museum in Edo, Nigeria

Berlin is negotiating the return of 440 bronzes held at its Ethnological Museum, in a move that will also include the training of Nigerian museum staff, archaeological excavations and assisting with the construction of a new museum in Benin that has been designed by the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye.

On Wednesday, the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said the repatriation issue was “A question of justice.”

Private individuals and British institutions have committed to returning bronzes. Jesus College in Cambridge said it would return a bronze cockerel taken by British colonial forces in 1897 after a student-led campaign that started in 2016. In 2019, Mark Walker, a grandson of a British soldier who was part of the punitive expedition, loaned two wooden ceremonial paddles to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which will ultimately return them to the royal court of Benin.


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