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Benin Bronzes: who has the moral right to decide?

Restitution Study Group

HR has recently been contacted by the Restitution Study Group, speaking on behalf of descendants of enslaved people living in the Unted States, the Caribbean and Britain. They have given us permission to publish their letter to the Charity Commission in which they claim a “co-ownership interest” in these relics and strongly oppose their transfer to Nigeria. Rather, they wish the museums to hold them in trust: “they are the wealth and legacy of slave descendants, not the slave traders. We want our children and the world to see these treasures and to learn their slave trade origin”.

An open letter to the Charity Commission. 

We are the Restitution Study Group, a United States based non-profit organization concerned with slavery justice. This letter is submitted on behalf of UK, Caribbean Commonwealth nations, and USA citizens whose ancestors were enslaved in exchange for metal manillas that were melted and cast into the Benin bronzes. Slave descendants have a co-ownership interest in these relics and we ask that you reject any request to transfer them to Nigeria.

We want to secure access to these relics for our children and families at museums in the UK and USA — in this case the Horniman Public Museum and Park Trust in the UK. The Kingdom of Benin through Nigeria would be unjustly enriched by repatriation of these relics they made with manilla currency they were paid to raid villages with illegal guns and other weapons, steal women, children and men, sell them into the Transatlantic slave trade, and sometimes kill them in ritual sacrifices.

Justice and the law of restitution requires that co-ownership of the relics be given to the DNA descendants of people enslaved in the region. Co-ownership — only because some “Benin bronzes” are made of ivory and wood, not metal, and some were made before the Transatlantic slave trade commenced. Most were made after the Transatlantic slave trade started.

We have done DNA testing and identified numerous descendants of people enslaved in the area called Nigeria. Some are coming specifically from port areas controlled by the Kingdom of Benin during the Transatlantic slave trade. Eighty-three percent of Jamaicans have DNA from enslaved ancestors from the area called Nigeria today. Ninety-three percent of African Americans have DNA from their enslaved ancestors from this area too. Over 3.6 million people were enslaved and traded in the Transatlantic slave trade from the area called Nigeria.

The Kingdom of Benin grew wealthy of their participation in the slave trade. The Bronzes even celebrate European slave traders who brought this wealth — several Benin bronzes depict European slave traders carrying manilla bracelets they paid in exchange for humans. One image of this is attached.

The Horniman Public Museum and Public Park Trust is misguided in trying to return the Benin Bronzes to the descendants of slave traders. So are all other charitable organizations trying to do the same (i.e. Pitt Rivers Museum). They do a disservice to the people of the UK and particularly the DNA descendants of the people enslaved. Instead, the museums should serve as permanent guardians over the relics for the DNA descendants of the enslaved who paid for the Benin bronzes with their lives. The DNA descendants still suffer from the vestiges of slavery with hardships due to their slavery heritage.

At a time when DNA descendants are engaged in efforts to secure justice for slavery, there has been no major media outlets reporting on the fact that most of the Benin Bronzes are made with metal manillas the Kingdom of Benin was paid for selling humans into the Transatlantic slave trade. Extensive scholarship exists verifying this fact. It is doubtful that any petition you receive to transfer the Benin bronzes will mention the slave trade origin of the metal in the Benin bronzes. Attached are a few pages from the top scholars verifying this truth.

The subject is very esoteric and there is a media blackout of news about the slave trade origin of the bronzes. DNA descendants’ opposition to the transfer is not being covered by major media outlets either. This gives the false impression that we agree with the transfer. We do not. Black people do not support slave trader heirs just because they are Black.

Nigeria and the Kingdom of Benin have never apologized for enslaving our ancestors. They have no remorse and yet they claim to be the victims. It is true there was one Punitive Expedition in 1897, but it ended the sale and sacrifice of enslaved people who suffered 300 years of Punitive Expeditions at the hands of the Kingdom of Benin.

The only protection DNA descendants have for their interest in these cultural treasures is you. We ask that you not approve the transfer of these relics — they are the wealth and legacy of slave descendants, not the slave traders. We want our children and the world to see these treasures and to learn their slave trade origin.

Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, J.D., M.A.

Executive Director

Restitution Study Group



For articles History Reclaimed has published on this subject, click on the tag #Benin Bronzes. 

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the Restitution Study Group