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.”
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.
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Available at: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/benin-bronzes-looted-by-the-british-returned-to-nigeria-46550
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Available at: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=8849&partId=1
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Available at: https://www.britishmuseum.org/pdf/KingdomOfBenin_Presentation.pdf
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Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/mar/08/benin-bronze-row-cambridge-college-removes-cockerel
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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/