The Kingdom of Benin took centuries to build and just a few days to raze to the ground.
In February 1897, British forces stormed the ancient kingdom’s capital city with rockets, shells and Maxim guns capable of firing 600 rounds per minute. A flotilla of warships joined the assault from adjacent waterways.
Benin’s defenders, fighting with blades and muskets, were swiftly massacred. The British burned the city and built a golf course on the ruins.
Victorious soldiers also looted thousands of precious artifacts from shrines and palaces. Within months the “Benin Bronzes” were on display at the British Museum in London.
Haul of loot from Benin including carved ivory tusks. Credit: Pitt Rivers Museum
Museum as a weapon
The bronzes, which are mostly made of brass, tell a story of life in the royal court through finely-crafted renderings of kings, warriors, hunters with wild animals, and foreign explorers.
A demonstration takes place opposite a statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Oxford. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
Hicks accepts the charge. The museum was a “weapon” — as integral to imperial domination as the Maxim gun, he writes — that was used to “legitimize, extend and naturalize new extremes of violence within corporate colonialism.”
Exhibitions reduced cultures to trophies in glass cases in order “to tell the story of the victory of Europeans over Africans,” he said in a phone interview. They were used “to inspire colonial administrators and soldiers … who fought these wars and thought they were doing so in the name of civilization.”
The bronzes were feted as masterpieces but they were presented as the work of inferiors. Hicks quotes one British Museum curator saying that he was “puzzled to account for so highly developed an art among a race so entirely barbarous as were the Bini,” referring to the ethnic group — also known as the Edo people — that founded the Kingdom of Benin.
The author draws a parallel between these colonial-era art displays and the pseudoscientific exhibitions that compared fake skulls as evidence of racial hierarchies and were phased out after World War II due to their association with fascism. He believes the ongoing display of looted heritage amounts to a continued celebration of violence and white supremacy.
Benin Bronzes on display at the British Museum, which holds the world’s largest collection. Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
Hicks’ book focuses on the Benin Bronzes, as he believes they represent an indisputable case for restitution, which Nigeria has sought since its independence from the British Empire in 1960. (The Kingdom of Benin is located in what is now the southern Nigerian state of Edo.)
Drawing on accounts from soldiers and British officials, the author dismantles myths to tell a story of brutality and greed. Officially, the “punitive expedition” of 1897 was a response to an attack on a convoy led by Captain James Phillips, consul-general of the Niger Coast Protectorate, a month earlier. Phillips and several of his men were killed by Bini troops while on a mission to, ostensibly, lobby the king of Benin over access to the valuable palm oil and rubber in his territory.
But documents from Protectorate leaders show plans for a punitive expedition were discussed as early as 1892. Phillips himself had written to Prime Minister Lord Salisbury requesting weapons for an invasion of Benin to ease the flow of commerce. In this light, Hicks argues the mission was designed to provide a pretext for attack. He also shows that such a large British force, which he estimates at around 5,000 men with 10 warships and 38 Maxim guns, could not have been assembled in the month between expeditions.
A meeting between Benin chiefs and Vice-Consul Henry Galway of the Niger Coast Protectorate in 1892. The British wanted palm oil and rubber from Bini territory, and plotted to depose the king over restrictions on trade. Credit: Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of AfricanArt, Smithsonian Institution
British officials and museums downplayed the destruction and claimed damage was accidental. This is contradicted by the systematic approach Hicks reveals in soldiers’ diaries. “Work to be done Saturday February 20th,” wrote Captain Egerton, chief of staff for the expedition. “Walls and houses to be knocked down. Queen Mother’s house to be burnt.”
Officially, looted artifacts were sold to pay the expedition costs. But Hicks cites a curator at the British Museum who later admitted much of the take was “shared out carefully among the officers.” A museum catalog revealed that bronzes were acquired “via the liquidation of estates of old soldiers.”
Altarpiece taken from Benin by Admiral George Leclerc Egerton, now at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Credit: Pitt Rivers Museum/Dumas-Egerton Trust
While Benin’s experience may have been exceptional for the scale of destruction and the heritage lost, Hicks situates it within the routine practice of colonial pillaging during the “scramble for Africa,” as imperial powers carved up the continent into separate spheres of influence from the late 19th century to the breakout of World War I.
Throughout this period, many prized African artifacts arrived in Western museums via violent conquest, from sculptures taken by France in the sacking of Abomey, to the gold looted by British soldiers from the Asante Empire.
Hicks blames intransigence from museums. “As a sector, our leadership has tried to sweat this one out,” he said, while his book invites readers to help break the impasse by joining the movement for restitution.
The Quai Branly Museum in Paris holds the largest collection of African heritage artifacts in France. A government report has recommended these be made subject to restitution. Credit: FRED DUFOUR/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
Hicks notes that bronzes preserved for centuries at Benin’s royal court have only been lost, neglected or destroyed since arriving in London. His research led to the discovery of sculptures abandoned in broom cupboards and used as doorstops, and ivory artifacts repurposed as piano keys and billiard balls.
Ghana has sought the return of gold looted from the Asante empire. British museums offer a compromise of adding new context to such exhibits. Credit: WIKI COMMONS/Picasa
The road ahead
Hicks dismisses “relabeling” as a superficial ploy to avoid questions of ownership and meaningful action. He hopes to eventually see museums “where nothing is stolen, where everything is present with the consent of all parties.”
Where an item’s provenance is established, the author and curator suggests that restitution claims proceed on a case-by-case basis through dialogue between claimants and museum trustees. Where objects are not sought for immediate return, a transfer of ownership could signal recognition of their origin in lieu of restitution.
Hicks also believes Western museums can still play an important role providing education about the world’s cultures, but only if they embrace radical change.
“The consequence of ignoring these questions is losing our social legitimacy,” he said.