Campaign for return of Benin Bronzes, other significant objects taken in colonial era




Benin bronzes are a collection of more than 3,000 figures and other decorative pieces looted by the British in 1897. Today they are housed in over 160 public and private collections around the world. These objects were created from the 13th century onwards by the Bini people and include portrait busts in brass and bronze. Some were made using the sophisticated lost wax method of casting which was once thought to be an exclusively European invention.

The Benin Bronzes or rather Benin objects, because not all of them are made of metal; some are made from ivory or wood, are objects originating from the Kingdom of Benin.

Ill-gotten Gains

On January 2, 1897, James Philips, a British official set out for the coast of Nigeria to visit the Oba of Benin Kingdom. Historical reports have it that he took a handful of colleagues with him, and it is assumed he went to persuade the Oba to put a stop to the interruptions to British trade.

When Philips was told that the Oba would not see him because a sacred festival was taking place, he went anyway. He never made it back. For the Benin Kingdom, the killing of Philips and most of his party had huge repercussions. Within a month, the British sent 1,200 soldiers to take revenge. On February 18, the British Army took Benin in a violent raid. All the valuables found in the king’s palace and surrounding houses were looted. Within a month, much of the bounty was in England. The artifacts were given to museums or sold at auctions or kept by soldiers for their mantel pieces.

Campaign for the return of our objects

Nigeria has been calling for the return of its artifacts for decades. Some pieces stolen in the raid have found their way back to the country. This happened when the British museum sold several plaques to Nigeria in the 1950s when the Lagos museum was being established. Others, it sold in the open market. But these were not free and it is the full-scale return of our objects that is being called for now.

A key moment came in the 1970s when organizers of the major Festival of Black Arts and Culture; FESTAC ’77, asked the British Museum for one prized item: a 16th century ivory mask of an Oba’s mother {now widely known as the FESTAC head}. The organizers wanted to borrow the work to serve as a centerpiece of the 1977 event, but the British Museum said it was too fragile and therefore would not release it. This incident remains fresh more than 40 years later.

Almost since their looting, demands for the return of our artifacts have been made by Nigeria and other African states. Now with the intense interest in colonial loot, the focus has returned to them. Central to this shift in interest was the announcement by the French President, Emmanuel Macron in 2017 in Ouagadougou to return colonial loot from the French colonial museums and to commission a groundbreaking report by Senegalese writer, Felwine Sarr and French art historian, Benedicte Savoy that ultimately supported his decision.

For the last decade, a consortium known as Benin Dialogue Group with cooperation from the National Commission for Museums and Monuments has been working to repatriate some of these Benin bronzes and establish a permanent display in Benin City.

Obstacles to the repatriation

The British Museum holds about 900 objects arguably the largest collection so far and with the support of the government has denied restitution. This lies within a larger debate about taking responsibility for colonialism as a crime against humanity. Furthermore, the British Museum is currently prevented from returning their loot by the British Museum Act of 1963 and National Heritage Act of 1983.

Those in charge of museums, in the early quest for the repatriation of these artifacts, were initially unaware of the problem of colonial loot. When pressure mounted, they downplayed the critique, ridiculed the critics and even defamed them.

Another pressing question by most museums/governments is what happens to the artifacts upon its return to their home country. Frankly however, this should not be their concern. What the rightful owners do with their art is their decision and this should not delay restitution.

There are many objects in private hands and museums. Appealing to such persons to return them might prove difficult because some are just not willing to do so and there are no laws compelling them.

Many western countries have laws ensuring the return of Nazi-looted art, this approach has not been extended to art stolen from Africa and other parts of the world.

Changing attitudes to repatriation by international museums.

Germany’s Minister for Culture aptly captures the changing realities for most international museum institutions. ‘‘We face a historic and moral responsibility to shine a light on Germany’s colonial past. We would like to contribute to understanding and reconciliation with the descendants of people who were robbed of their cultural treasures during the colonial era.”

Asmau Hussain-Braimah,

National Museums, Abuja