The Benin Bronzes: A Tragic Story of Slavery and Imperialism Cast in Brass
The Benin Bronzes is the name given to a group of artifacts produced by the Benin Empire, which occupied the area which is today Nigeria. The Benin Bronzes consist of several thousand commemorative plaques and sculptures that are made of brass of variable composition (despite being called ‘bronzes’).
While such metalwork was already being produced by the craftsmen of the Benin Empire as early as the 13th century, many of the Benin Bronzes were created between the 15th and 16th centuries. The Benin Bronzes were seized by British forces during the Benin Expedition of 1897, and were given to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Many of the pieces were later sold, and ended up in the collections of museums around the world. Today, there are calls for the bronzes to be repatriated to their country of origin.
Benin Bronze Ife bust. ( Public Domain )
Brass plaques and sculptures were being created by the Edo (known also as the Bini), the indigenous people of the Benin Empire, as early as the 13th century, prior to their contact with Europeans. These pieces of metalwork were produced using a process known as lost-wax casting, a technique that was discovered as early as the Copper Age. The Benin Bronzes are some of the best examples of sculptures produced by this technique.
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The Benin Bronzes depict a variety of different themes. On the plaques, for instance, human figures, either alone, in pairs, or in small groups arranged hierarchically around a central figure, are represented. As for the sculptures, common themes include animals, human beings and scenes from life in the royal court of Benin. Interestingly, following their contact with the West, Europeans also began to be portrayed by the Edo craftsmen in their artworks. Portuguese soldiers / mercenaries, for instance, are often depicted, and may be recognized by the firearms they carry.
The Kingdom of Benin is famous for its brass castings. This finely detailed example is currently held at the British Museum. ( CC BY 2.0 )
A high level of skill was required for the production of the Benin Bronzes. The craftsmen who made the Benin Bronzes paid great attention to the details of their creations. This is evident, for instance, in the minute details found on the attire worn by the human figures.
Further proof of the craftsmen’s mastery of their art can be seen in the fact that the surfaces of the pieces were designed to show contrasts when the metal was irradiated by a source of light. While the human figures represented are more naturalistic than most African art of that period, the facial features of most figures are exaggerated from their natural proportions.
Benin kingdom (Nigeria) mid 16th to 17th century. British Museum (London). ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Human Cost of the Bronzes
The metal required for the production of the Benin Bronzes was acquired in a form known as manilla. This was a form of money in the shape of bracelets that were usually made either of bronze or of copper. These were brought to the Benin Empire by European traders, and were usually exchanged for slaves. Therefore, it may be said that the history of the Benin Bronzes is closely connected to the slave trade, and that these beautiful pieces of art were made possible by the heinous trade in human lives.
An Okpoho variety of Manilla from the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria. ( Public Domain )
Nevertheless, this side of the story is often overshadowed by another episode in the history of the Benin Bronzes. In 1897, a punitive expedition known as the Benin Campaign of 1897 was launched by the British against Benin City. The Benin Empire was defeated, Benin City was burned and looted, and the Benin Bronzes were seized by the victorious British troops as war booty.
These pieces of art were sent to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, many of which were then sold to cover the cost of the expedition. A large number of the Benin Bronzes ended up in the British Museum, while other pieces were purchased by museums around the world.
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Benin Bronzes portrayed many different characters, including Europeans ( CC BY 2.0 )
Fair Spoils or Time for Repatriation?
There have been many calls over the years for the Benin Bronzes to be repatriated to their country of origin. Occasionally, these have met with success. In 2014, for example, two pieces of the Benin Bronzes were returned to Nigeria by Mark Walker, the grandson of one of the soldiers who took part in the campaign of 1897.
In 2016, a bronze cockerel was taken down from the hall of Jesus College, Cambridge University, and discussions have been underway about repatriating the artifact ever since. As of 2019, no date had been provided for the bronze cockerel’s possible return to Nigeria, but the college stated that it “belongs with the current Oba at the Court of Benin.”
For the time being, many museums, such as the British Museum where many of the Benin Bronzes are kept today, are still resisting the calls to repatriate these artifacts.
Germany Promises to Hand Back Benin Bronzes
However, The Guardian reports that Germany will be the first country to hand back at least some of their Benin bronzes. The country’s culture minister, Monika Grütters, recently announced that Germany will start returning a “substantial” collection of the artifacts to Nigeria in 2022. Grütters said, “We face up to our historic and moral responsibility to shine a light and work on Germany’s historic past. The treatment of the Benin bronzes is a touchstone [of this process].”
The unknown number of Benin Bronzes will be returned to “a politically neutral body, the newly founded Legacy Restoration Trust,” according to The Guardian. Germany says they will also help fund the creation of a pavilion to hold the artifacts until they can be added to the collection of the Edo Museum of West African Art, which is set to be completed in 2025.
Top image: A display of the Benin Bronzes in the British Museum. Source: CC BY SA 3.0
By Wu Mingren
Updated on April 30, 2021.
Cascone, S., 2014. Benin Bronzes Looted by the British Returned to Nigeria. [Online]
Available at: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/benin-bronzes-looted-by-the-british-returned-to-nigeria-46550
Jenkins, T., 2016. We can’t rewrite the bloody history of the Benin Bronzes. [Online]
Available at: https://capx.co/we-cant-rewrite-the-bloody-history-of-the-benin-bronzes/
New World Encyclopedia, 2017. Benin Empire. [Online]
Available at: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Benin_Empire
The British Museum, 2017. Benin Plaques. [Online]
Available at: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=8849&partId=1
The British Museum, 2017. The wealth of Africa: The Kingdom of Benin. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britishmuseum.org/pdf/KingdomOfBenin_Presentation.pdf
Weale, S., 2016. Benin bronze row: Cambridge college removes cockerel. [Online]
Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/mar/08/benin-bronze-row-cambridge-college-removes-cockerel
www.boundless.com, 2017. The Benin Bronzes. [Online]
Available at: https://www.boundless.com/art-history/textbooks/boundless-art-history-textbook/africa-in-the-modern-period-33/other-african-art-203/the-benin-bronzes-734-6663/
So there, the article is wu wu,
“wasn’t Ouidah, one of the biggest African slave ports, in Benin ?”
This article that I commented on is about the Kingdom of Benin (and its bronzes), which was located in what is now Nigeria. Ouidah was and is an entirely different place, located in what is now the Republic of Benin, which is an entirely different country (it was formerly called the Republic of Dahomey before the country’s name was changed in the 1970s). No, Ouidah could not have been in the Kingdom of Benin; Ouidah was in an entirely different country and was never associated with the Kingdom of Benin historically. Ouidah was and is located in the Republic of Benin, in the Aja area, whereas the Kingdom of Benin was in what is now Nigeria, in the Edo area. It seems you do not have even the least comprehension of the basic geography and history of the region.
“ did Benin not also export slaves from other African cultures or allow them to be exported in large numbers ?”
No. Absolutely not. That is the entire point of my earlier comment. Read the book Benin and the Europeans (1969) by A.F.C. Ryder that I referenced earlier in its entirety and you will see that this is definitely not the case. The slave trade from Benin was extremely limited in numbers and only lasted for brief periods of time, and it was of extremely marginal or negligible importance to Benin’s economy. If you can’t be bothered to read Ryder’s book at least read the 1965 article (“The Slave Trade, Depopulation and Human Sacrifice in Benin History: The General Approach”) by James D. Graham on Benin. While it is nowhere near as in-depth as Ryder’s book, it at least gets the general point across that the Atlantic slave trade was of marginal importance to Benin and that Benin was not greatly involved in that trade at all.
“I am not saying Benin’s culture was based on the slave trade but there was involvement surely.”
You did not even know where Benin was (as shown by your belief that Ouidah was in the kingdom of Benin, or your apparent belief that the modern day Republic of Benin and the historical kingdom of Benin were the same place) and are in no position to assess to what extent slavery or the slave trade was of importance to Benin’s culture.
“Didn’t the Oba object to Britian’s 1807 abolition of slavery ?”
No. One Oba of Benin might have thought that seizing ships on the ocean was a bad practice and objected to that specific activity but there is no comment by any Oba of Benin anywhere on whether the British ban on the slave trade in 1807 (in 1807 the British banned only the slave trade, they did not ban slavery itself until the 1830s after a slave revolt in Jamaica) was something objectionable or not.
“But I think Britain’s real surge to power was the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution”
Britain’s industrial revolution was hugely influenced by, spurred on by, and supported by its huge involvement in slave trading. The effect of slavery driven capitalism on the start and development of Britain’s industrial revolution was huge. Read the book Capitalism and Slavery (1944) by Eric Williams and Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England: A Study in International Trade and Economic Development (2002) by Joseph Inikori. Actually read those two books in full and seek out other works on the topic. I won’t bother addressing the rest of your speculative comments because you’re clearly way out of your depth at the current time. Do some more reading first and gain some basic familiarity with the topics you wish you comment on first.
To the comment by Permalink – wasn’t Ouidah, one of the biggest African slave ports, in Benin ? And apart from your comments on the early Portuguese connection, did Benin not also export slaves from other African cultures or allow them to be exported in large numbers ? I am not saying Benin’s culture was based on the slave trade but there was involvement surely. Didn’t the Oba object to Britian’s 1807 abolition of slavery ?
I agree Britain or the wealthy in Britain did profit massively from the slave trade. But I think Britain’s real surge to power was the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution and the post the Napoleonic Wars period which contributed to Britain being the unrivalled sea power which assisted hugely in forming the Empire, from which Britian profited enormously. I have found it diffiicult, however, to see the close connection between the slave trade profits and the agricultural and industrial revolution technological developments. You would think technological developments are a thing driven by necessity, so large profits coming in from the triangular trade would reduce that pressure on technological development rather than increase it. But you may have contrary views
Hello Wu Mingren,
No offense, but the main claim that you make in this article is totally and completely wrong.
Although the Portuguese that arrived to Benin the late 15th century were able to buy a significant number of slaves for a one or two decades, it is actually the case that they eventually had a hard time getting the Benin kingdom to sell them enough slaves, because Benin kept restricting the sale of slaves more and more to the point where, by the early 1500s - by about the second decade or so of the 16th century - they were selling so few slaves that the Portuguese king at the time felt compelled to write a letter to the king of Benin asking him to open his markets (that is, to stop restricting the sale of slaves) to the Portuguese traders. However, there was no change, and in fact, Benin started to restrict the sale of slaves even further, to the point that eventually they close off the sale of slaves altogether and the Portuguese became disinterested in Benin and moved their operations further west, where they found the emerging kingdom of Allada and some other smaller kingdoms that were willing to sell them slaves in significant quantities.
Keep in mind that the entire time that the early trade (late 15th century to early 16th century) between Benin and the Portuguese occurred, the Portuguese were actually buying other commodities from Benin like ivory and especially pepper at the exact same time. So actually, even during this early period of trade between Benin and the Portuguese, a large part of the brass or copper manillas and other brass objects that the Portuguese sold to Benin was actually sold in exchange for pepper and ivory from Benin. Furthermore, as already mentioned, Benin eventually restricted the sale of slaves. After the early 16th century, the vast majority of Benin's trade was in non-slave products like ivory and cloth (yes Benin sold cloth as well), and much later (19th century), palm-oil.
Also keep in mind that even before the arrival of the Europeans, there was a copper trade from the western Sudan region of west Africa (especially around the area of today's Mali) down towards southern Nigeria. It was from such copper traded down further south from another part of west Africa that Benin obtained the copper utilized for the brass and bronze that it used in making its earliest sculptural art, before the Portuguese provided another source of brass after their arrival in the late 15th century.
If you want to find out more about what the Benin kingdom's economy was actually based on (no, it was not based on slave-trading), and also about what the actual extent or role of slave-trading to Europeans really was (the slave trade was of extremely limited importance to Benin, this is why they had no problems restricting it and then banning it, even despite the Portuguese desire to obtain slaves from the kingdom), then two sources you should read are the following:
James D. Graham - The Slave Trade, Depopulation and Human Sacrifice in Benin History. The General Approach (1965)
Alan Ryder - Benin and the Europeans, 1485-1897
These works explain quite clearly that the vast majority of Benin's trade with Europeans was not centered around the slave-trade at all, and they also explain what I described above earlier - how the kingdom of Benin deliberately reduced the slave trade between Benin and European traders to virtually nothing.
However it was really the British that made their fortune and their glory off of the slave trade, although many modern British people wrongly deny this today. That topic (how the British empire derived a fortune from the slave trade and used it to fuel its development and expansion) has been covered in many works, but three books I can recommend which discuss this topic are:
Eric Williams - Capitalism and Slavery
Joseph Inikori - Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England: A Study in International Trade and Economic Development
Peter Fryer - Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain
In particular, note what is stated in chapter 2 of Peter Fryer's book, on pages 14 through 18. He provides multiple direct quotes from British sources from centuries past that make it quite clear that British people (including officials, merchants, etc.) of the 17th-18th centuries understood very clearly how vital the slave trade and slavery was to their country's economic development and its increasing prosperity.
I mean no offense, but the main argument of your article is fundamentally untrue in every way. It was not Benin that needed the slave trade to finance its glory. Benin had already had access to copper (to use to make bronze/brass art) through trade routes from other parts of west Africa even before the arrival of Europeans on the west African coast, and it was Benin that killed off the slave trade with Europeans within a matter of a few decades by deliberately restricting the sale of slaves to such an extremely low volume that the slave trading Europeans (at this time, the Portuguese) lost interest and went elsewhere in search of slaves. In addition, during that period, Benin was trading in other products to a great deal as well - particularly pepper and ivory - and after those few decades of early trade with the Portuguese, all its trade with Europeans afterwards was heavily dominated by other products and never by the trade in slaves which was always either non-existent or on a very small scale.
In reality, it was Britain that financed its rise to glory through the slave trade, and there is abundant evidence to show this, which can be found in the three books I cited above.
I mean no offense, but there is simply a lot of misinformation on the internet, and it does no good for your article to add to it. Please consult actual academic/scholarly sources (not internet encyclopedias or amateurish websites with agenda-driven articles by non-scholars) and you will see that what I am saying is true. The sources that you cite in your "references" section, are deeply, utterly, wrong and false in their claims about either Benin's rise to economic prosperity or about its artwork being closely tied to the slave trade. It is not surprising that some of the sources that you cite for your "references" are British. Unfortunately, many of them are themselves committed to hiding from the public just how huge a portion of their own country's rise to economic and technological dominance was based on slave-trade and slavery funds and they instead try to shift this reality onto certain other cultures. It is essentially propaganda and distortion and a direct inversion of the truth. It was Britain that had a bloody history of numerous atrocities (including genocide in Tasmania, atrocities in colonial Kenya, atrocities in India, and even in Canada against the First Nations), whereas the claims against Benin in this regard are wild distortions of truth and history - the supposed sacrifices were almost all executions of criminals, as the first two publications that I referenced above discuss. And it was Britain that owed so much of its glory to the slave trade, not Benin. Please seek out and find the truth in scholarly works by committed researchers and academics, and do not just trust any pieces of propaganda on the internet.
The Benin empire banned the slave trade in its territory. Get your facts right Mr.