The Benin Bronzes are not one object, but many. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Benin Empire, a powerful kingdom of the Edo tribe, held sway over a portion of Western Africa in the area of what is now Nigeria. Although the term “empire” suggests a very large state, in fact Benin was pretty small, but the political, military, and cultural life of the kingdom was extremely vibrant, lasting from the middle of the 15th century until this part of Africa was annexed as a British colonial possession in 1897. The bronze plaques made by the Benin rulers, often to cement their own political legitimacy by honoring their predecessors, were made by wax casting. They represent some of the finest examples of metalworking in the history of African civilization.
When the British began to find pieces like this in 1897, they were incredulous. After all, the Africans they conquered were supposed to be heathen savages, incapable of advanced arts; some claimed that the Edo people must have learned their sophisticated metallurgy techniques from the Portuguese. As often happened in imperialism, the British seized the Benin Bronzes, ostensibly as “compensation” for an attack by Oba people against a British expedition that set out for the interior. Many were taken to the British Museum in London, where the piece pictured above is still displayed today. Needless to say, the Benin state ceased to exist during the colonial period (the modern nation of Benin is something completely different), and the rich cultural context that gave rise to these works of art was lost.
The Benin Bronzes are objects that today signify the collision of European and non-European cultures. The modern nation of Nigeria, which became independent in 1960, has repeatedly attempted to gain possession of the more than 1000 Benin Bronzes held in European and American museums, the prize specimens being held (naturally) by the British. As products of their culture and history, why should they not be considered the property of the Nigerian people? Alas, even in an era that is supposedly “post-colonialist,” stories about artifacts looted during colonial occupations being returned to their previous owners are quite rare. Most continue to be held by Western museums. In this blog series, we saw a similar situation with the bust of Nefertiti.