Benin Bronzes in the British Museum

Let Us Call Racism By Its Name: Benin Bronzes

Let Us Call Racism By Its Name: Benin Bronzes

Wealth, art, culture and a vibrant history were not things that many Victorians associated with the savages from the ‘Dark Continent’ of Africa. Unfortunately, they are still not widely associated with Africa today. The British Empire was the largest the world had ever seen. It created racist ideals to justify its atrocities and those ideals are still deeply entrenched into British society today. When the Benin Bronzes were brought to London in the late 1800s they challenged the idea that the Africans lacked civility and culture. The Bronzes were stolen from Benin in an act of revenge and still sit in many museums in Britain. Britain’s continued refusal to return them signify Britain’s pride in its imperial past and current racism.

History

The Kingdom of Benin, located in what is now Southern Nigeria, has a long and beautiful history. The original people of Benin (or Edo people) were ruled by Kings of the Sky or Ogiso. By the nineteenth century, Benin grew increasingly rich through trade in Palm oil, textiles and of course in feeding Europes insatiable need for slaves. Benin dominated trade along the coastline which was called the Bight of Benin.

 

King of Benin Empire
Benin Oba

In the 1880’s and 1890s, Benin resisted signing protectorate treaties with Britain. It was after all thriving Kingdom in its own right, it even established the first colony in Lagos. In 1897 Britain descended upon Benin. The King or Oba was exiled, the palace was burned to the ground and the city was concerned. The sculptures carved into brass which previously decorated and depicted the amazing history of Benin were brought back to London and sold. Many were displayed in Museums, with the British Museum in London holding the largest collection- holding the spoils of Empire.

 

British men with stolen bronzes
British men with stolen bronzes

“The Victorians were enthralled by military victory and there were great emotional surges of righteous outrage when British blood was spilt… by some insignificant tribe that dared to stand in the way” David Olusoga in Black and British: A Forgotten History

Implications Today

Reparations- The action of making amends for a wrong one has done, by providing payment or other assistance to those who have been wronged.- Oxford English Dictionary

The conversation around the return of the Benin Bronzes has opened up arguments around the idea of reparations. Lots of work has been done to lobby governments and institutions across the world to provide social repair for wrongs committed, to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and take responsibility. Unfortunately, the large majority of these petitions have fallen on deaf ears, especially where slavery is concerned. I believe that reparations should not just be monetary but should include the return of stolen artefacts. Reparations aim to right the wrongs of the past, but many believe that reparations aren’t necessary. But reparations were necessary when the government awarded slave planters Billions after abolition right?

Nigeria has been trying to get the Benin Bronzes to be returned since their independence in 1960. This year the British Museum along with other institutions have made a deal with Nigeria to loan them the Bronzes. Godwin Obasek the governor of the Nigerian State of Edo said to Reuters:

Whatever terms we can agree to have them back so that we can relate to our experience, relate to these works that are at the essence of who we are, we would be open to such conversations

One of the Benin Bronzes
One of the Benin Bronzes

This is a small step in the right direction and has opened up discussions on giving back other stolen artefacts. Although countries like Greece and Ethiopia have rejected the idea of a loan. A temporary loan rather than a permanent return is- in my opinion, like a merciful slave master allowing a poor slave to visit family on other plantations for Christmas, then demanding their swift return to work the next day. It’s good but it’s nowhere near good enough.

During summer I asked various British historians and history lovers about their thoughts and feelings on the Benin Bronzes and the bigger question of reparations over social media. Their responses were unsurprising. Their argument was that artefacts stolen or not should be displayed where they the British public could see them- preferably for free and that Britain owes nothing to no one, that we should stop paying attention to the past. I found it strange that any historian would argue that people should forget the past.

Even when the topic of reparations was brought up in university the entitled and racist responses remained the same. As one of three People of Colour on my course, I sat and listened in the lecture theatre to the privileged responses of my pairs. Again, they gave the same entitled answers, and again I wasn’t shocked. That sense of entitlement that makes people feel a sense of ownership over stolen goods was born out of Empire and nurtured by racist beliefs that are deeply entrenched into British society. Gone are the days of Empire and the slavery and colonialism that it brought, but the stain they have left behind on British society is immovable. But we can move towards a place of acceptance and healing.

The permanent return of the Benin Bronzes and more discussions on the topic of reparations in public arenas are the first steps towards atoning for sins and atrocities of Empire that were so vile the British education system is committed to ignoring them and with effects so long lasting that millions are still feeling its effects.

Refusal to give the bronzes back and to ignore the lobby for reparations is British racism in action. Let us call it by its name and demand justice.


References

Benin Bronzes: Will Britain return Nigeria’s stolen treasures?
Should Britain pay reparations for slavery?
Bringing home the Benin Bronzes: Nigeria open to loans rather than a permanent return 
Benin Empire
Western reactions to Benin bronzes | Civilisations – BBC Two
Black and British: A Forgotten History

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