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The Contested Benin Bronzes: The bloody past of this world art, and why there can’t be a single owner

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This article by the renowned expert on the Benin Bronzes, Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin, Professor Emeritus of the University of Göttingen, explores the recent history of attempts to ‘restore’ the Bronzes to Nigeria. She argues that they transcend our conventional categories of ownership and must be viewed as ‘world art’.

History Reclaimed is grateful to Professor Hauser-Schäublin and Schweizer Kunst for permission to re-publish this article which first appeared in the ‘Art and Morality’ issue of Schweizer Kunst, vol. 125, 2023, pp. 72-84.

Download the original PDF here (German)

 

In the summer of 2022, Germany transferred the property rights of a total of 1,130 artefacts – now collectively referred to as “Benin Bronzes” – to the state of Nigeria, which was built on a colonial foundation. They come from the Kingdom of Benin in what is now Edo State. The most famous objects include the bronze memorial heads of kings and slain enemies, bronze relief panels with martial depictions, richly carved ivory tusks, many smaller, less spectacular ritual objects, as well as everyday objects.

They were stored in German museums for over a hundred years, preserved through two world wars, researched, published, exhibited and made into what they are today: world art. With the transfer of ownership, which was sealed in December with a state act that received media attention, Germany’s public cultural assets became Nigeria’s public cultural assets.

A surprise announcement followed in the spring of 2023, which caught German politicians off-guard. Shortly before the end of his term in office, President Buhari, ignoring all of the state’s cultural and political institutions, handed over all Benin bronzes on his own authority – including the “restitutions” still expected from other states – to the King of Benin. Public cultural assets – state property – thus became private property.[1]

The collections date back to the British “punitive expedition” of 1897 against the Kingdom of Benin. The army confiscated several thousand objects from the sacred buildings of the royal court, which were transported to Great Britain and sold there. A large part of the spoils of war ended up in ethnological museums in Great Britain (the British Museum houses the most extensive collection with almost 1,000 items), in continental Europe (especially Germany, with the Ethnological Museum in Berlin alone owning around 500 objects) and in the USA (the third largest collection with 400 items is in the Field Museum in Chicago).

There is now a database, Digital Benin, whose management is based at the Museum am Rothenbaum in Hamburg. It shows that there are 5,246 Benin objects in public collections worldwide [2]. There are a total of around 100 objects in Swiss museums; 53 of those artefacts were confiscated. The Benin Initiative Switzerland, which has aligned itself with the “Benin Dialogue Group”, which is also based at the Hamburg Museum, decided to “give back” these objects directly to the king; here, too, public cultural assets would be turned into private property – in a speedy process [3].

Since independence in 1960, Nigerian politicians have repeatedly called for the return of the Benin bronzes. In the past twenty years, the pressure has increased, not least due to a changed perception of the military-colonial events: what were then considered as spoils of war, which was rightfully the property of the victor, now — against the background of established international conventions such as the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict of 1954, and the UNESCO Convention on the Illicit Traffic in Cultural Property of 1970 – are assessed as looting and war crimes.

Although these international agreements are not retroactive, i.e. not applicable to events of earlier times, they have changed the perception of events of that time. From an international perspective, the pressure shifted to moral criteria: responsibility and reparation for colonial injustice. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 also contributed to this. It empowered the native population of the USA to reclaim bones and sacred objects from museums and to decide for themselves what happens to them.

Other settler states – i.e. colonies that the European settlers made their own – followed this example. In Germany, the Nazi past and the search for works of art that were confiscated by the National Socialists and thus taken away from Jewish citizens in particular, play a central role. The Washington Declaration of 1998 formulated corresponding principles, which Germany has accepted as an obligation. Museum holdings are widely researched for cultural assets confiscated as a result of Nazi persecution and the works of art found are returned to their rightful owners – hence, restitution.

As the art critic Gerhard Mack recently called it, a “guilt neurosis” has evolved from this, with effects on the handling of colonial collections [4]. Accordingly, today’s dominant discourses about the colonial circumstances under which ethnological collections came into being are characterised by a perpetrator/victim  template. This postcolonial view of the past has developed into tunnel vision that only seeks and accordingly finds colonial atrocities, assigns blame, and insists on “restitution” [5].

But back to the Benin Bronzes and their long and bloody history. The Kingdom of Benin formed in the 14th century as a warrior state, and went down in African history as such. Its impressive relief panels with depictions of warriors from the 16th century illustrate the aggressive, heroic cultural ideal. The Benin kings pursued an expansionist policy that varied in intensity depending on the era, with conquests and subjugation of other societies that were forced to pay tribute, and with the extermination of villages and looting. They carried out what even Nigerian historians call “massacres” and “bloodbaths” and turned prisoners of war into slaves in large numbers.

From the 15th century onwards, the Portuguese, British, Dutch and French travelled to West Africa for trade; they were initially interested in pepper, rubber and palm oil. A lively European-African exchange developed: a chief from the kingdom was invited to visit Portugal, and Portuguese mercenaries supported Benin’s troops on their military campaigns in the 16th century. They were harbingers of globalisation and the colonial subjugation of the continent, which was decided at the “West Africa Conference” in Berlin in 1884/85 with the division of Africa among the major European powers.

The slave trade of West African kingdoms, which dates back to the pre-colonial period — Dahomey (today the Republic of Benin), Ashanti (today Ghana), Benin and especially the Sokoto Caliphate (both today in Nigeria) — experienced a massive boom with the transatlantic slave trade. They hunted around eleven million Africans – men, women and children – and sold them as slaves; these became forced labourers on plantations in the USA, the Caribbean and Brazil. The Kingdom of Benin was an important hub and provided “supply” with its notorious military campaigns.

There was no lack of demand from European slave traders and owners. Imported European goods, especially manilas – bracelets made of metal alloys – served as currency in exchange for slaves and were in great demand, so Europeans exported tons of them there: they served as raw material for the Benin bronzes. To this day, it is still not clear to what extent the Arabs, Portuguese and the Yoruba (Ife) contributed to the development of bronze casting (using the cire perdue or lost wax process). In any case, it was Benin artists who used this technique to create masterpieces that are among the greatest in the world [6]

The use of this newly introduced, everlasting material was a royal monopoly, which is why the bronze casters (like all other artists) were based at the royal court. Most memorial heads represent specific ancestors of the kings. Some are also images of a defeated rival or foreign ruler: severed heads of the killed opponents were brought to the bronze casters and served as models. The artefacts made of bronze and ivory were sacred objects and were placed and venerated on ancestral altars in the royal court. The ancestors embodied in them were seen as the otherworldly source of the king’s power and legitimised his rule. The bronzes were therefore also symbols of power.

In rituals, mainly animals, but also people, were sacrificed to them. The killing of people — slaves, unpopular people, opponents, rivals — was a privilege reserved for the king, the Oba. Benin artists also depicted scenes of human sacrifice. The victims’ arms were tied behind their backs, a wooden stake was pushed into their mouths as a gag and their heads were finally severed. The torsos were then thrown into a sacrificial pit or left to vultures to eat, which – if they feasted on them – was taken as a sign that the ancestors and gods had accepted the sacrifice [7].

In 1807 Great Britain decided to ban the slave trade. This severely affected the Kingdom of Benin, which had benefited from it for centuries. The Oba monopolised the trade at the expense of the neighbouring Itsekiri, who had been trading partners of the British. At the same time, political difficulties also emerged: inside the kingdom there was  unrest among chieftains and from outside it was under pressure from Islamist groups. The British pushed for free trade and presented the Oba with a free trade treaty in 1892, which he signed but did not respect. A diplomatic mission was supposed to negotiate directly with the Oba, but it was clear to the British that he would later have to be removed and replaced by a council as an instrument of British colonial power.

The king initially did not want to receive the mission that had been arranged at short notice because he was currently conducting a sacrificial ritual for his deceased father, but he finally agreed anyway. He appears to have instructed his chiefs to leave the mission undisturbed. But the war chiefs decided to kill the ten Europeans and over 200 African porters and attendants. The attack with rifles and machetes on the unarmed delegation – as one of the war chiefs involved in the attack confirmed – took place on January 4, 1897. Eight Europeans and a large number of porters were massacred.

The warriors brought 80 severed heads and 130 prisoners to Benin City; many prisoners ended up there as human sacrifices. The British quickly decided to carry out a punitive expedition – today we would speak of a “retaliatory strike”. On February 18, 1897, a force consisting of British and African soldiers took Benin, destroyed the city and forced the king into submission. There the British came across mutilated corpses and equipment from the diplomatic mission as well as bronzes on the altars used for ancestor worship that still bore clear traces of the human sacrifices that had previously been carried out.

One of the military surgeons tapped lightly on a bronze memorial head and noticed that dried blood was flaking off it. A second military doctor wrote in his report that he saw 176 decapitated corpses nearby, and the remains of hundreds of human bodies. The British also came across several hundred bronze relief panels there, half-hidden by the dust and dirt that had accumulated on them over a long period of time. They confiscated all the objects, including dozens of carved ivory tusks that were placed on the memorial heads at the location of the fontanelle, as a direct connection to the forces and beings of the afterlife. According to the norms of the time, confiscation was not plunder. The commander had forbidden looting; this meant that not every soldier was allowed to bag what fell into his hands. However, Benin warlords began marauding immediately after the Oba’s removal, and the king – who was exiled to the port city of Calabar in southeastern Nigeria with wives of his choice – complained to the British that his coral jewellery, his royal regalia, had been stolen by his own “boys”[8].

130 years on the Benin bronzes are described in the dominant discourse as looted art that must be “returned”. The catchphrase “looted art,” adopted without a second thought by Nazi provenance research, distracts from the pre-colonial, blood-soaked history of the objects, which today is viewed as inhumane and laden with war crimes. This raises a fundamental question: Can or should a moral assessment using today’s standards be limited to colonial interactions – the circumstances in which objects were acquired – or should their acquisition and use in earlier contexts also be assessed?

In public political discourse, there is no mention at all of the fact that the “victims” themselves had committed even worse acts than the British troops. In December 2022, the German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, and the Minister of State for Culture, Claudia Roth, joyfully and proudly referred to the colonial injustice on the occasion of the return of the “looted art” – and did not say a word about its bloody pre-colonial history, not even about the hundreds of thousands of victims of Benin rulers who are hushed up, and whose descendants – the descendants of the slaves – have never received justice [9].

The extent to which Germany’s interest in Nigeria’s energy resources, as well as the contracts and investments concluded in this regard, were decisive needs to be examined in more detail [10]. Categorising them as “Looted Art” ignores the bloody history of the Benin bronzes. In fact, the Benin bronzes underwent a change in meaning the moment they entered the art market. As a result, they were stripped of their past and given a new identity: based on aesthetic criteria, and their uniqueness and authenticity, as well as their limited quantity, they were re-evaluated and elevated to the (elitist) category of “art”. At the same time, the cultic-imperial value of the bronzes was transformed into a monetary one, with an astronomical increase in prices: in 2021, a collector who remains anonymous purchased a bronze memorial head from a London dealer for £10 million [11].

Ethnological museums are archives of human history and date back to the art and natural history galleries of the Renaissance. The collection of unusual things of a natural and cultural nature, their storage and preservation for their own sake, regardless of their monetary value, has a long European history. This also applies to the Benin bronzes, whose cultural and historical significance in the context of human history was quickly recognised by museums. Aside from their artistic value, the Benin bronzes embody the beginning of global interconnectivity of economic relationships. These connect the ore mines in Europe, for example in the Rhineland, with manufacturing factories in Birmingham, England, with West Africa and, beyond the hub of the slave trade in West Africa, with the Caribbean and the USA.

Nigeria demanded the repatriation of these spoils of war, citing the collection’s importance to the country’s history and identity. At independence in 1960, the National Museum in Lagos, the former capital, housed the world’s third largest collection of Benin bronzes, created by art-loving colonial officials in collaboration with curators from the British Museum. That would have been around 400 artefacts. The Benin database shows that today only 80 Benin objects remain in this once richly-furnished museum. The ad hoc photos taken, and the inadequate information about the objects in the database, indicate anything but careful preservation, recording and processing of these artefacts, which are described as identity-forming [12]. Nigerian scholars and newspapers have repeatedly reported looting and thefts in recent years [13].

Objects reappeared on the international art market, were bought by collectors, and sometimes donated to museums. Recently, for example, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston returned Benin bronzes that had been stolen from the Lagos Museum in Nigeria [14]. These cannot now be found in the database either; their whereabouts are unknown. The museum as an institution was a colonial export. It never really gained a foothold in many former colonies due to different social structures and a different way of dealing with objects. A state must continually invest in public museums – provided it recognises the intangible value of these archives of human history. There is no financial return.

At the symbolic handover of the bronzes in Abuja, today’s Nigerian capital, the two German ministers emphasised the importance of these artefacts for the identity of the entire “Nigerian people”. Ms. Baerbock compared them to the significance of the Gutenberg Bible and Luther’s writings for Germany [19]. This comparison is mistaken: the invention of printing (and the Gutenberg Bible) meant democratisation and dissemination of knowledge, and Luther’s writings were a rebellion against the rule of the church lords and the grievances they created. The Benin bronzes, as has become clear, represent the opposite. In addition, with 250 ethnic groups, each with its own conflict-ridden history, with fundamentalist Muslims in the north, where Sharia law applies, and Christians in the south, and with rich oil and gas reserves from which only a few people benefit, Nigeria is anything but a unified country.

Even if culture, as defined by UNESCO, can play an important role in the peaceful coexistence of peoples – learning to understand and respect one another – the Benin bronzes are an ineffective means of achieving this, all the more so given that the bloodthirsty past of the Benin despots and their cult objects are denied locally, and the story is glossed over and reports even from local eyewitnesses are dismissed as lies. Victims of their own rulers are not mentioned in the elite discourse on Benin City. It is not surprising that in Nigeria, institutions and politicians at various levels – national, state and local – have argued for years over who is the rightful owner of the Benin collection from Germany.

A new museum, the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), was planned, to which Germany pledged several million euros so that the bronzes could be exhibited there and made publicly accessible, as the EMOWAA homepage used to announce. All of this has now been superseded and the relevant sentence has been removed. It is unclear what motivated President Buhari to give the Oba of Benin a national cultural asset for unrestricted use as his private property [16]. For German politics, this was undoubtedly a fiasco that made waves internationally and it has slowed down the willingness of other states to restitute.

The dispute over the “rightful” owner reveals a fundamental problem: a European capitalist concept of property is used in restitution and restitution discussions [17]. This is based on exclusive private property – the hierarchical relationship between a person and an (inanimate) object – and grants the owner the power to dispose of it, turning it into a commodity that can be sold, locked away, or even destroyed. The legal acquisition of an object is the central criterion [18].

From today’s perspective, war booty is not a “lawful acquisition”, although it is precisely this condition, which focuses exclusively on “acquisition”, that is responsible for the historical blindness in discussions about the return of the Benin bronzes. Their pre-colonial history is not open to discussion. The Benin bronzes embody a wide variety of relationships of different kinds between people, their deeds and suffering; these relationships were constitutive for the artefacts. The capitalist concept of property is unsuitable for such cultural assets with a history that transcends societies and continents. In addition, the Benin bronzes were never the private property of the Oba, as the Benin Initiative Switzerland mistakenly assumes.

Under the name “Restitution Study Group”, descendants of the slaves who were deported to the USA and the Caribbean have come forward and claimed co-ownership [19]. Neighbouring population groups whose ancestors were victims of the Benin wars of aggression are also entitled to co-participation . And finally — if one accepts the concept of shared heritage, which is also promoted by UNESCO — co-ownership should also belong to the museums, because they have ensured the preservation, research and public promotion of these cultural assets. The capitalist concept of private property inevitably leads to a dead end: the Benin bronzes are, beyond “art”, documents of global economic, political and cultural interconnections since the 16th century. They are therefore a world cultural heritage that belongs to everyone: they are shared heritage.

 

ENDNOTES

1 Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin, “Was that the point of restitution?”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, No. 105, May 6, 2023, p. 11.

2 Digital Benin, https://digitalbenin.org/ (last visited on April 20, 2023). In addition, there are an estimated 2,000 unregistered artefacts in mostly anonymous private collections.

3 Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin, “Benin Bronzes. Swiss museums court the descendants of slave traders and ignore the blood that is on the art treasures,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), May 12, 2023, https://www.nzz.ch/feuilleton/benin-bronzen-schweizer- museen-beschoenigen-die-geschichte-ld.1737087 (last visited on July 3, 2023).

4 Gerhard Mack, «Get out of the guilt neurosis! A story from the Emil Bührle collection shows ways out of the impasse in the restitution debate,” NZZ, June 19, 2021, https://magazin.nzz.ch/kultur/raus-aus-der- Schuld-neurose -sammlung-buehrle-restitution-kunsthaus-zuerich-ld.1631050 (last visited on April 20, 2023).

5 See Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin, “Provenance research between politicised truth-telling and systemic diversionary tactics,” in: Thomas Sandkühler, Angelika Epple and Jürgen Zimmerer (eds.): Historical culture through restitution? An art historical dispute. Contributions to historical culture (Göttingen, 2021), pp. 55–78.

6 A good overview is provided by the articles in: Barbara Plankensteiner (ed.), Benin. Kings and Rituals. Court Arts from Nigeria, exhibition cat., Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna et al., Cologne 2007.

7 See Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin “The long bloody trail of the Benin bronzes”, NZZ, April 25, 2021, p. 54f.

8 The eventful history of the Benin bronzes up to recent times is described in Barnaby Phillips’s book Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes (London 2021).

9 “Speech by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on the occasion of the handover of the Benin Bronzes”, December 20, 2022, in: Foreign Office, https://www. auswaertiges-amt.de/de/newsroom/baerbock-uebergabe-benin-bronzen-an-nigeria/2570312 (last visited on April 20, 2023).

10 See Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin “Exchanging culture for energy”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, No. 6, January 7, 2023, p. 11; «Continuity of exploitation. The return of the Benin bronzes is not just about reparation. There are connections to German energy policy,” Berliner Zeitung, No. 224, September 26, 2023, p. 11.

11 See “The art dealer, the £10m Benin Bronze and the Holocaust”, in: BBC News, March 14, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-56292809 (last visited on April 20, 2023).

12 See Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin, “How a world cultural heritage site is lost,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, No. 50, February 28, 2023, p. 9.

13 See Usman Adekunle Ojedokun, “Trafficking in Nigerian cultural antiquities: a criminological perspective,” African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies, Vol. VI, No. 1–2, November 2012, pp. 163–176 , https://wwwcp. umes.edu/ajcjs/vol-6-issue-1-2-fall-2012/; Taiwo Ojoye, “How 47,000 artefacts are wasting away in ageing national museum,” Punch, May 28, 2019, https://punchng.com/how-47000-artefacts-are-wasting-away-in-ageing-national -museum/ (both last visited on April 20, 2023).

14 See Helen Holmes “The Metropolitan Museum Returned Two of Its Benin Bronzes to Nigeria”, Observer, November 23, 2021, https://observer. com/2021/11/the-metropolitan-museum-returned-two-of-its-benin-bronzes-to-nigeria/ (last visited April 20, 2023). See also on the homepage of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston: “Antiques and Cultural Property”, MFA Boston, https://www.mfa.org/collections/provenance/antiquities-and-cultural-property (last visited on April 20, 2023).

15 Cf. Hauser-Schäublin (see note 9).

16 Kate Fitz Gibbon,«Nigeria gives Benin ruler exclusive ownership of Bronzes. Nigerian government order dramatically changes stakes in restitutions”, Cultural Property News, April 26, 2023, https://culturalpropertynews.org/nigeria-gives-benin-ruler-exclusive-ownership-of-bronzes/ (last visited on April 3, 2023).

17 Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin, “Why are the victims of slavery hushed up?”,NZZ, August 6, 2023; https://magazin.nzz.ch/ nzz-am-sonntag/kultur/warum- Werden-die-opfer-der-sklaverei-totgeschwie- gen-ld.1749788?reduced=true (last visited on October 4, 2023) .

18 Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin and Lyndel V. Prott (eds.), Cultural property and Contested Ownership. The trafficking of artefacts and the quest for restitution (London 2017).

19 Restitution Study Group. Looking to the Past to Create the Future, https://rsgincorp.org/ (last visited April 20, 2023).

 

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Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin