We reported a month ago that descendants of people captured and sold into slavery by the Benin Kingdom had raised objections to the return of these treasures to the heirs of those who had enslaved their forbears. They have a strong moral case that their wishes should be heard and that bronzes should be kept in Western museums where they are accessible to all.
Supporters of this moral claim, led by Professor Raymond Winbush, have addressed a petition, which we publish below, to British, American and German cultural authorities. The signatories carry weight. Professor Winbush is Director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University in Baltimore, one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the United States. Rev. Dr Jeremiah Wright is President Obama’s former pastor. Kamm Howard is a premiere leader of the reparations movement in the United States. Rev. JoAnn Watson was a legislator and chief staffer for Congressman John Conyers who introduced HR40 the bill for a Slavery Reparations Study Commission.
An important article entitled “Who do the Benin Bronzes belong to?” has appeared in The Atlantic Magazine, written by David Frum. Although he adopts several stock anti-colonialist clichés and manages to miss out the important fact that the British intervention in 1897 put a stop to slavery in Benin, he does give much information on the background to the present debate. He explains sharp differences of opinion and factional conflicts within Nigeria today over this issue, and gives details of the collection of bronzes (then one of the largest in the world) created in Nigeria by British colonial authorities: “When Nigeria gained its independence, in 1960, Lagos held a collection of Benin art exceeded only by those in London and Berlin, plus many more treasures from Nigeria’s numerous other artistic traditions.” This has been largely dissipated since independence. Frum warns frankly of the danger that works of art returned without safeguard are likely to suffer a similar fate. He makes a plea, which we think deserves consideration, for various means of sharing the large number of works presently held in various institutions between Western and Nigerian museums. Such a reasonable outcome—also advocated in the petition we post below—is not helped by the attempted ideological exploitation of this issue by nationalists and western ‘decolonizers’. Frum concludes: “There is a crucial need for expansive, optimistic thinking to replace the polemical rancor that often distorts discussion today … We should be able to honor the past; empower the descendants of those from whom the art was taken; protect the art itself from theft and decomposition; and ensure that the art can be seen as widely as possible … Now the whole world celebrates the cultural achievements of Africa and the artistic genius of Benin. That celebration should only grow larger. The artistic works of all humanity are the common heritage of all humanity: all of those works, and all of us.”
For the full article, https://drive.google.com/file/d/12_nOAqlqUeqKDSQpexya8xEpBZzF7s2p/view
The Benin Bronzes Petition
Honorable Orlando Fraser QC
Chair, Charity Commission
Honorable Helen Stephenson, CBE
CEO, Charity Commission
Honorable Lonnie Bunch
Secretary and Director
Smithsonian Institution BunchL@si.edu
Craig Blackwell, Esq.
Associate General Counsel
Honorable Mrs. Claudia Roth
Minister of State for Culture and the Media
Dear Madams and Sirs,
I am Professor Raymond Winbush, Director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University in Baltimore Maryland, USA, one of 102 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the United States. I am also the author of two books on reparations for the transatlantic trade, Should America Pay? Slavery and the Raging Debate on Reparations and Belinda’s Petition: A Concise History of Reparations for the Transatlantic Slave Trade. I am writing to you to register my support, and that of other Professors, Clergy, and experts listed below, for the co-ownership of the Benin bronzes with descendants of enslaved Africans whose lives financed the making of these cultural artifacts.
We are aware of the fact that in the 2018 book entitled, The Benin Monarchy: An Anthology of Benin History, by Oba Ewuare II Foundation 2018, p205, there is an admission by the Kingdom of Benin that they made the Benin bronzes using manillas they were paid in exchange for people they enslaved. This, they say, started with their trade with the Portuguese in the 16th century. Their slave trading for manillas lasted for 300 years and included British, Dutch. and American slave traders. The kingdom stopped trading men and only traded women in the 17th century. They resumed trading both genders in the 18th century and continued until the Punitive Expedition of 1897. Alan Ryder, in his book, Benin and the Europeans 1485-1897, 1969, p40, says the typical price that Europeans paid the kingdom for an enslaved man was 57 manillas, but they paid the kingdom 50 manillas for women. p302.
The Transatlantic slave trade database and a recent article entitled “Remelted Slave Money,” in the Sächsische.DE, on August, 29, 2022, by Matthias Busse, indicates that at least 1 million people are believed to have been enslaved by the kingdom of Benin during this 300 year period. Most of these people ended up working to death in Jamaica and other Caribbean colonies. In the United States, most were enslaved in South Carolina where they were bred to increase their numbers. Today, 82% of Jamaicans and other Caribbeans, and 93% of the 40 million African Americans have DNA from enslaved ancestors from Nigeria.
We are keenly aware of the issues pertaining to the return of the Benin bronzes. We support the people of Nigeria in their desire to repatriate precious cultural property. We also support the retention of bronzes at Western museums where, due to the transatlantic slave trade, descendants of enslaved people who paid for the bronzes reside.
Considering the volume of the Benin bronzes, circa 2,500 – 10,000, we believe there are enough to share with both groups. Certainly, the descendants of the slave traders should not be the exclusive owners. The children of the enslaved need access to them too. They also need education, employment and business opportunities involving the Benin bronzes.
We know that you have an interest in serving justice and we see this as an opportunity to address two historical wrongs at once: slavery and colonialism. Both are equally wrong, equally connected to the bronzes, and sharing can help bring about healing to both groups.
Below please find other leaders of descendants of enslaved Africans and others who support co-ownership. We are available should you need our further input toward resolving this issue or to coordinate educational, employment and business efforts around the world related to the Benin bronzes.
Thank you kindly for your time and attention.
Sincerely, Raymond A. Winbush, Ph.D. Director, Institute for Urban Research Morgan State University Baltimore, Maryland
Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Pastor Emeritus Trinity United Church of Christ Chicago, Illinois
Kamm Howard, Executive Director Reparations United Chicago, Illinois
Rev. JoAnn Watson, Former Member Detroit City Council and City Council President Pro Tem
Former Public Liaison Congressman, John Conyers Detroit, Michigan