On the 20th of May 2018, I was invited by the Bristol Museum to give a museum talk about the Benin bronzes on display there. I was specifically asked to bring my expertise and personal experience to the conversation of why the destruction and looting of the king’s palace in Benin in 1897 is still such a problematic subject. I appreciate everyone who came to listen, there was real engagement with the issues and lovely conversations after the talk. The text of the talk titled ‘Benin Bronzes – a controversial past and present,’ is reproduced below:
According to legend the first rulers of Benin descended from the sky. These godlike beings were the sons of Osanobua – the Almighty, and were asked to bring forth a great land out of sand in a cowrie shell. The story goes that when they came down to earth and poured the sand onto the waters that covered the earth, dry land emerged, beautiful red and fertile soil, tall lush green palm trees, warm air soft as warm blankets… so soft that you could forever sink into it as it wrapped you in its humid embrace. This beautiful land became Edo. And the youngest son of Osanbua founded the Ogiso dynasty that reigned there till the 1300s.
But then the dynasty faltered. Oranmiyan, who was the Ooni – ruler – of Ile Ife, and also a descendant of Osanobua, was sent to rule at Benin city. His rule was resisted ferociously by the Edo chiefs. So, Oranmiyan left Edo land in anger, calling the place Ile Ibinu – land of anger. And so Bini got its name when the people of Edo corrupted Ibinu into Bini. When Oranmiyan departed Bini, he left his son, a child at the time, to rule in his place. His son was called Owomika (I can handle this) by the Yoruba. Owomika became Oba Eweka I of the Edos. And thereafter, the rulers of Benin lived at the palace at Benin city and were called Obas. The Obas of Benin have many titles, e.g. Omo N’Oba N’Edo – “A child who shines for the Edo people.” A constant reminder and reference to Oba Eweka I who was a child and a symbol of redemption of the dying Ogiso dynasty. They are also called Uku Akpolokpolo – “The mighty one who rules.” The Oba of Benin was and still is revered as a divine leader. He is a god. And so the people of Bini hail their king. OBA GHA TO KPE RE!! and the people’s response is ISE!! O king may you live forever. And they reply: it is so.
The Benin Empire became one of the oldest and most highly developed states in the world. The walls of Benin City and its surrounding kingdom were the world’s largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era. Benin City’s walls were at one point “four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Khufu” Beyond the city walls, numerous further walls were erected that separated the surroundings of the capital into around 500 distinct villages. The walls of Benin are said to be the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet. Benin City was also one of the first cities in the world to have a semblance of street lighting; Benin city had street lamps fuelled by palm oil.
The Benin Empire traded and had diplomatic relations with many African states, but was not really known to Europeans. The Portuguese were said to be the first Europeans who “discovered” the city in 1485, though, of course, the people of Benin had not declared it missing. The Portuguese were amazed at the beauty, order and prosperity of the Empire. In 1691, a Portuguese ship captain, Lourenco Pinto observed:
“Great Benin, where the king resides, is larger than Lisbon; all the streets run straight and as far as the eye can see. The houses are large, especially that of the king, which is richly decorated and has fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such security that they have no doors to their houses.” [Koutonin: 2016]
Benin was famous for its craft workers. Specialists in a craft formed groups called guilds whose members lived and worked together. There were more than 40 guilds in Benin City and each guild had to perform a special duty for the Oba. These guilds and their crafts played specific roles in the cultural life of the Benin. People believed that brass had the power to drive away evil. It was so special that it could only be used in the royal court. Though these brass pieces are often called ‘Benin Bronzes’, most are actually made of brass rather than bronze. Other materials also had special significance. Ivory was seen as a symbol of purity and strength. Carved ivory tusks stood by the Oba’s throne and ivory bracelets and pendants were worn by the Oba and important chiefs. Coral was also thought to have magical powers. It was seen as a gift from Olokun, god of the sea. Chiefs were allowed to wear coral necklaces, bracelets and anklets, but only the Oba could dress completely in coral. His people believed that when he wore his coral robes all his curses would come true!
By the 12th century, the kings and nobles of Benin City started patronising craftsmen and lavishing them with gifts and wealth, in return for their depiction of the kings’ and dignitaries’ great exploits in intricate bronze sculptures. These sculptures were their way of recording history. Not with books. Not with marble statues, but these sculptures and plaques which were a lasting record of the lives lived by the people of Bini. They are reminders, and in them the memories of the Benin people are stored. From the beginning of their time. From the time when, according to legend the first rulers of Benin descended from the sky.
At the centre of the city stood the Oba’s palace, from which extended 30 very straight, broad streets, each about 120-ft wide. The Oba was the spiritual, economic, administrative and political focus of the empire. Oba Uku Akpolokpolo is everything. OBA GHA TO KPE RE!! and the people will respond ISE!! O king may you live forever, it is so. Hundreds of men and women lived at the royal court, and devoted their lives to looking after the Oba and his family. Some people at court had very special jobs, working as acrobats, sorcerers or leopard hunters. At night, especially under the light of the full moon, when the air is cool, and the birds have gone to sleep, the smell of palm oil heavy in the air, sounds of crickets punctuating the night, the drummers would play softly on the agogo, stories would be told in the deepening dark. And sometimes the people would dance and sing by firelight. The sounds of their songs, rolling off on the wings of the air, carried through the branches of the 40 foot palm trees, flowing off, lost into the forest. You can almost hear them now…
Around 1440, Ewuare became the new Oba of Benin. He was known as Ewuare Ogidigan – loosely translated to mean Ewuare the Great. Oba Ewuare was the first of five great warrior kings. His son Oba Ozolua was believed to have won 200 battles. He was succeeded by Oba Esigie who expanded his kingdom eastwards to form a massive empire and won land from the Kingdom of Ile-Ife. Ozolua and Esigie both encouraged trade with the Portuguese. The Obas used their wealth from trade to build up a vast army. The fourth warrior king was Oba Orhogbua. During his reign, the empire reached its largest size. It stretched beyond the River Niger in the east and extended west as far as present-day Ghana.
From the 15th to the 17th centuries merchants from England, Portugal, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Spain all traded with Benin. They returned home with amazing stories about the great Empire. Many of the Obas were fluent in Portuguese. The Portuguese had an Embassy at Benin city. The Obas had a good relationship with merchants from Europe until the 1800s… and then everything changed.
Benin kingdom fell into decline in the 1800s. Revenues from trade rapidly decreasing. This was against a backdrop of increasing European political influence over Africa. Remember that in 1865, the states of Europe met in Berlin to carve Africa up between each other, with not a single African voice taking part. By 1860, the British wanted to gain control of Benin so they could control the trade in palm oil and rubber. Especially for the British tyre market. The Oba at the time Oba Adolo, tried to stop all contact with Britain, but the British insisted on their right to trade.
In 1892, the Galway treaty was allegedly signed by Oba Ovonramwen. The treaty put the Kingdom of Benin under the authority of the British as a protectorate. There is a strong suggestion that the Oba never even met with Galway, and if he had done so, Ovonramwen would have had no logical reason to sign a one-sided treaty, which ceded all his power to the British and gave absolutely nothing in return. Nevertheless, the British attempted to enforce the terms of this treaty.
In 1894, the British removed Nana Olomu, the leader of the Itshekiri people and sent him into exile to the Gold Coast (Ghana). The Itshekiris were a republican state and neighbours of the Benins. Nana of Itshekiri’s fate, brought fear to the heart of the Oba of Benin.
In 1897, a group of British officials tried to visit Benin to enforce the Galway treaty. They were sent away because Oba Ovonramwen was busy with a religious ceremony, but they decided to visit anyway. As they trespassed onto the borders of Benin, a group of warriors drove them back and several British men were killed. In many history books this is called the Benin Massacre of 1897 and it made the British furious. They sent 1200 soldiers to invade Benin. After 10 days of fighting on the outskirts, they got to Benin city. Homes, religious buildings and palaces were deliberately set on fire. On the third day of fighting at the city, the blaze grew out of control and engulfed most of the city. Monuments and palaces of many high-ranking chiefs were looted. Machine guns and canons were fired on civilians living in Benin city. The British had at the time started using the expanding/dum dum bullet, specifically for colonial warfare, because it could do the utmost damage to the human body and was deemed appropriate for ‘savages.’ The bodies of children, men, women, the old and those less able to flee torn apart by mushrooming wounds. In many history books this is called the Benin expedition of 1897.
Eventually, the city was utterly destroyed by British soldiers – looted, blown up and burnt to the ground. Some people fled through the back paths of the city into the forest, but many were killed in the fighting, men, women, children, old and young. The city burnt to the ground, totally destroyed, reeked of human blood, spent gun and canon fire, smoke and palm oil. The earth mourned the city and those that died in it. A great dirge arose from the surrounding villages, a lamentation of the fate of Benin, an awaiting lament of the future fate of their neighbours. They wept for the dead, they wept because they knew they were next. The sorrowful sounds rolling off on the wings of the air, which was still and silent, except for the distant wails, carried through the trunks of the 40 foot palm trees, flowing over the ruins of a once great city.
2,500 religious artefacts, Benin visual history, mnemonics and artworks were sent to England, auctioned to pay for the costs of the conflict. So Benin Bronzes can be found in museums and collections worldwide. The wealth of Benin sits in glass cases while we talk of African poverty and how to help Africa. In 1990, one single Benin head was sold for US$2.3 million by a London-based auction house.
There is no record of the dead. There is no record of the number of Benin people who died in the invasion of 1897.
Oba Ovonramwen was taken out of the city by his soldiers. He spent 6 months evading capture in the forest, but returned to the ruins of his city to surrender to the Consul General, Ralph Moor. Oba Ovonramwen offered to pay Moor for his freedom. He offered Moor 200 barrels of oil worth, at the time, £1500 [£183, 000.00 today] and he also offered to disclose where his 500 ivory tusks were buried [today’s value: Up to £275,625,500.00] however this offer was dismissed by Moor as Moor has already discovered the treasures. Oba Ovonramwen was then exiled to Calabar. However…the kingly lineage remains. Ovonramwem was succeeded by his son, who ruled as Eweka II, who was succeeded by his son who ruled as Akenzua II, who was succeeded by his son who ruled as Erediauwa, who was succeeded in 2016 by his son who rules as Ewuare II.
This is the story of how these controversial pieces came to be here. There has been much talk of return, But I think the question of return is superseded by the question of ownership. Who do the bronzes belong to? The Benin bronzes without a doubt belong to the Benin people. Legal title does not pass by theft. Title in the stolen bronzes remains that of the Benin people to do as they wish. Their once great city is no more. The riches of the Benin are no more, their history and heritage is scattered across the seven winds, locked in glasses cases.
But what matters most is the people. The people of Benin now call themselves Nigerians. They are bankers, teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, professors. They live in towns and cities across the world. Lagos, Ibadan, Abuja, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Paris, London, New York. They never forget that they were Bini first. And everyday they remember, who they were and who they have been. They remember their great city, they remember the lamps lit with palm oil, they remember the wide open roads, they remember their heritage was burnt to the ground. Looted. They remember that there is no record of the dead, except in the earth that swallowed them. They look on the kingly remnant and they remember… that according to legend the first rulers of Benin descended from the sky.
OBA GHA TO KPE RE!!
Special thanks to my friend Dr Eghosa Ekhator, a lawyer and very proud Bini man, for allowing me to pick his brains relentlessly as I wrote this. Uwese!
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