In the early scenes of the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther, supervillain Erik Killmonger is seen surveying the African collection at the Museum of Great Britain. Killmonger corrects the exhibition’s patronizing white female curator about the origin of an axe.
He says: “It was taken by British soldiers in Benin, but it’s from Wakanda. Don’t trip – I’m gonna take it off your hands for you.”
For a moment, the woman is confused and informs Killmonger that the axe isn’t for sale.
Killmonger replies: “How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?”
As the white curator collapses from Killmonger’s poison, he takes the artifact and deaccessions it.
The short scene, though in a movie about a fictitious technologically advanced African country, positions Wakanda as the center of the discussion on the returning of artifacts stolen by the British during the colonial period. Although Wakanda’s ownership of the axe is mentioned by Killmonger, there are a lot of artifacts scattered all over the British Museum owned by the Benin kingdom, a kingdom that existed long before British troops bombarded it in 1897.
The Story Of Robert James Phillip
When Robert James Phillips took up the position of acting consul-general in October 1896, representatives of the Royal Niger Company (RNC) attended his meeting on October 31, 1896. In the meeting, James Phillip was informed that the king of Benin, Oba Overami (called Ovonramwen), was a major obstacle to British trading and their reach to the interiors. They complained that the king was preventing trade in areas along the Niger River where the British wished to trade directly with the producers of commodities.
The position of those who attended the meeting was that Phillips needed to eliminate native middlemen, and action needed to be taken against Oba Overami.
Due to this, Phillips wrote to the colonial administrators asking to overthrow the oba. His request was turned down. Left with no other options, Phillips decided to pay a visit to the oba.
On January 2, 1897, James Phillips, the acting consul-general, set out from the coast of Nigeria to visit the oba, or ruler, of the Kingdom of Benin.
However, Phillips was warned not to visit the king without the king’s agreement. Phillips did not heed. He was to wait at Gwatto for two days while the king prepared for his coming because a religious festival was taking place. But he told Benin mediation chiefs that he could not and would not wait as asked. He went anyway.
He did not come back.
For the Benin Kingdom, the killing of Phillips had huge consequences. Just a month after, the British colonial government sent 1,200 soldiers under Sir Harry Rawson to take revenge. It was a punitive expedition.
On February 18, the British army took over Benin in a violent and bloody raid. The reports of the raids were full of colonial jubilation. None of the reports mentioned that the British troops had used the opportunity to loot the Benin kingdom dry of its artifacts.
Aftermath of the Expedition
After the kingdom was captured, widespread looting began. All members of the British expedition raided houses, sacred sites, ceremonial buildings, and palaces of high-ranking chiefs. Many of the buildings were burnt down. On Sunday, February 21, 1897, the troops burned down the palace as the whole kingdom reeked of blood.
But as blood flowed, there was a lot to be taken.
After the king was exiled to Calabar, British troops seized over 2,500 artworks and religious artifacts, most of them over 100 years old.
Captain Herbert Sutherland Walker, a British officer who participated in the looting, wrote in his diary titled from “To Benin & Back”, that there was a fellow officer who “is now wandering round with chisel & hammer, knocking off brass figures & collecting all sorts of rubbish as loot”.
“All the stuff of any value found in the King’s palace, & surrounding houses, has been collected,” he added.
Months later, most of the loot was in England. About 800 of the artifacts ended up in the British Museum, where they are still on display. Officers also kept their own fair share of the loot, with some of them still in private collections. Most of the objects taken from the king’s palace were sold all over Europe to pay for the expedition as early as May 1897. Many of them were purchased by Germany.
The Benin Bronzes
In the 18th century, not much African art had been taken to Europe. By the turn of the 19th century, when colonization and missionary work began, African art began to be taken in large quantities by Europeans. In Europe, they were typically referred to as simple curiosities of “pagan” cults. The Benin bronzes changed this perception.
The Kingdom of Benin existed between the 14th and 19th centuries. It had a very rich diverse and multicultural history. Artistic sculptures of a variety of materials such as iron, wood, ivory, and terra cotta dotted different parts of the Kingdom. The palace, a large conglomeration of buildings and courtyards, was the place where many of the rectangular brass plaques whose images portrayed persons and events in the Kingdom were stored.
The bronze and ivory objects had multiple purposes in the daily life of the Kingdom. They were used as decorations, with nails punched through them as they hung on pillars. They were also used as courtly art, which was used to glorify kings and the history of the imperial power of Benin. The bronze and brass sculptures of the heads of kings and queen mothers were very popular. Ritual objects, ornaments, bells, and jewelry were the artistic forms the Benin bronzes took.
As a prerequisite for ascension to the throne, a new king was to install a sculpted head in honor of his predecessor. The features of many of the heads are exaggerated from natural proportions, with large ears, noses, and lips, which are shaped with great care. The most notable aspect of the works is the high-level metalworking skill at lost-wax casting.
Though most of the works are called Benin bronzes, they were made of different materials. Metallurgical analysis of them has shown that some were made of brass, copper, zinc, and lead in various proportions. Some were made of wood, carved by an artist to form an intended shape.
The artist and carvers of these intricate designs were organized into guilds under a royal decree. They lived in special areas in the king’s palace and many of them had areas of specialization.
The dispersal of these arts after the 1897 expedition immediately catalyzed a long and slow reassessment of West African art. Many of the styles adopted by the Benin people started to influence European artists and contributed to the early formation of modernism in Europe.
Locations of the Benin Bronzes
After the 1897 expedition, the Benin bronzes were scattered around different countries in Europe. America also acquired some of them. The high quality of the pieces was reflected in the high prices they fetched in the market. In 1968, Christie’s sold a Benin head for £21,000. In 1984, Sotheby’s auctioned a plaque depicting a musician, with the value estimated at between £25,000 and £35,000 in the auction catalog. In 2015, a Benin bronze head was sold to a private collector for a record fee of £10 million.
The locations of all the bronzes can’t be ascertained, but according to Phillip Dark’s An Introduction to Benin and Technology, the British Museum holds the highest number of pieces at over 700. The Ethnological Museum of Berlin has 580 pieces. In New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, a total of 163 pieces was recorded. In Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology holds 100 Benin pieces. There are more scattered across different parts of the world, including museums in Dallas, Vienna, Boston, Hamburg, and San Francisco. Many are also in known and unknown private collections.
However, the Nigerian National Museum in Onikan, Lagos holds the third largest collection of Benin bronzes. The Ethnological Museum of Berlin and the British Museum have the two largest collections.
Restitution: 124 Years Later
124 years after the expedition, many museums in Europe and America have found it hard to return stolen artifacts. For decades, Benin City has been calling for the return of these pieces to their origin. This is not exclusive to Benin alone, many European countries looted artifacts worth billions of dollars from several colonies in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In 2017, Emmanuel Macron, the president of France admitted to a crowded lecture theatre at Ouagadougou University in Burkina Faso that:
“I am from a generation of the French people for whom the crimes of European colonialism are undeniable and make up part of our history. I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France… In the next five years, I want the conditions to be created for the temporary or permanent restitution of African patrimony to Africa.”
In November 2018, a 252-page report written by Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy recommended, among other things, that France should respond favorably and grant restitutions to African countries that request the return of objects taken during the colonial era.
Historically, the British haven’t shown good faith. Between 1950 and 1972, the British sold 30 pieces of superb Benin bronzes as “duplicates” to the proposed national Nigerian Museum, a horrendous precedent. When the sales stopped in 1972, the museum’s African art specialist apologized and said that they regretted the sales.
In 1977, the organizers of a major festival of black art and culture in Lagos, Nigeria, asked the British for a prominent Benin ivory mask, a 16th-century ivory mask of a famous king’s mother. The British told the organizers that the mask was too fragile to travel.
Nigeria’s news media said that the British requested $3 million insurance, a cost high enough to be considered an insult to a festering injury.
In 2018, Nigerian authorities showed a willingness to accept a temporary return of Benin artifacts. The Governor of Edo (where the Benin Kingdom was located) noted that he was in discussion with British authorities to return the bronzes on loan rather than permanently.
Earlier this year the cultural secretary of Britain, Oliver Dowden, objected to “the removal of statues or other similar objects” and urged museums to “defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”. The British Museum in London, which is estimated to hold at least 73,000 artifacts from sub-Saharan Africa, has largely ignored any petitions for returning the looted objects. Additionally, a sustained campaign against repatriation of the bronzes led by Labour MP Bernie Grant in the 1990’s gained a great deal of popularity.
Following the report commissioned by Emmanuel Macron and written by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, European countries have begun to show willingness to return the Benin bronzes.
The National Museum of World Cultures in the Netherlands launched a policy to consider claims for cultural objects acquired during colonial times. In January 2020, the Netherlands returned 1,500 artifacts to Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, following the closure of Museum Nusantara in Delft. Under this policy, Nigeria could claim 170 or more Benin artifacts if it can prove that they were involuntarily separated from their origin.
In 2021, the German government is discussing the restitution of looted Benin bronzes in its public collections. Hartmut Dorgerloh, the director of the Humboldt Forum (which incorporates the Ethnological Museum of Berlin) said at a press event that exhibiting the Benin bronzes in the new museum complex in Berlin as planned is “now not imaginable”.
Some weeks ago, the University of Aberdeen decided to return a controversial Benin bronze after a review found the item had been acquired in an “extremely immoral” manner.
A museum is currently in the works in Benin City that will help house the permanent return of these artifacts. Completion of this museum will help open a floodgate of more petitions to return the Benin bronzes.
It appears that Western museums are indications of what Europe is: a continent struggling to hold on and do away with its imperialist past at the same time. Why is it so hard to return items that were stolen? Well, like Killmonger asked: do you think they paid a fair price? Depends on who’s answering.