The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge has announced it will return 116 objects taken from Benin City in 1897 in what the University describes as “the so-called ‘Punitive Expedition’ mounted by Britain in response to a violent trade dispute”.
For much of the 19th Century the Royal Navy had been doing its best to stop slave ships of other nations collecting their manacled cargoes, with many British sailors on the blockade dying of disease in the Bight of Benin. The colonial government tried to promote trade in goods not Africans, but in the 1890s the Oba of Benin was still finding it easier and more profitable to trade in humans.
The expedition to overthrow him found at his palace revolting atrocities which are not much mentioned these days, and the antiquities it sold to defray its cost are referred to as “loot”. But this loot had saved a great many Africans from a life of slavery, or from death as one of the bloodthirsty Oba’s human sacrifices. A “violent trade dispute” is hardly an adequate description of the affair.
The current rush to repatriate Benin bronzes began in 2016 when the Oba’s great-grandson asked for the return of Jesus College’s cockerel. On 9 October 2016 the Sunday Telegraph’s Colin Freeman reported his visit to Benin: he interviewed Prince Eden Akenzua but sadly couldn’t get into Benin Museum to admire the collection of bronzes, finding it “closed for refurbishment”.
I did get into that museum some years before and was alarmed to see the gaps in its display cases and shelves. In 1978 I was a freelance photographer and sold my work through Camera Press, a London agency which supplied publishers around the world. One day they phoned with an interesting proposition: would I go and photograph Nigeria for three weeks?
This was extraordinary, visas were never given to journalists or tourists. Other than the few necessary to help Nigeria extract its oil and spend the new wealth, foreigners were not much required. The Punch newspaper group in Lagos was a Camera Press client and its chairman was friendly with the dictator General Obasanjo. During one of their weekly games of squash at Lagos barracks the pair deplored the way Nigeria was always getting a bad press despite modernising rapidly.
Reporters shouldn’t be let in for fear of what they might discover, but perhaps a photographer could come to see the modern wealthy Nigeria, with Punch to show him around and keep him out of trouble? Hence Punch’s offer to Camera Press, which had only two staff photographers and couldn’t spare one for three weeks. A few months earlier I’d returned from covering the Eritrean war with the BBC’s reporter Simon Dring and this apparently qualified me as an old Africa hand, so would I go? I would keep copyright, Camera Press would syndicate, Punch would provide accommodation and facilities. I jumped at the chance.
Of course the trip took more than twice the anticipated three weeks and I was rationing my 35mm cassettes by the end. The Biafran War was in recent memory so there was paranoia about a white man with cameras, so manifestly a spy, and my minder often had to flourish his letter from the Ministry at soldiers and police. In country areas children ran after our car screaming “Oyinbo, Oyinbo!” (White Man), foreigners being so rare. Corruption was obvious and everywhere but oil money was being spent, and as we dutifully toured car plants, ports, motorways, schools, hospitals, oil refineries, farms and mines I contrived to catch shots of everyday Nigeria as well.
In Benin I asked if anyone was still casting bronze, as I’d seen the Benin Bronzes in the British Museum, and we did find a few artisans using lost-wax to cast some indifferent pieces – clearly the old craftsmanship was gone. So I asked to see what was in the museum there. This was unwelcome, but I did get in eventually. When I asked the curator why there were all these gaps in the shelves and cabinets, he explained with some embarrassment that the Head of State and his ministers were in the habit of sending to the museum when they wanted a gift for a foreign dignitary. Maybe looting the Benin museum was less conspicuous than taking pieces from the National Museum?
Sad as this was, people were being shot at road blocks, lynched after traffic accidents, and when the military machine-gunned prisoners lashed to oil barrels on Bar Beach, NTV would broadcast the show. Life was precarious and I could understand why the museum staff didn’t argue with men carrying guns. I certainly wasn’t going to put them at risk by taking photographs of what I’d not been supposed to see.
My tour of the Nigerian Miracle complete, I worked for Shell-BP for a week down in the oilfields – they’d never been able to get a visa for a photographer – and then flew to Ougadougou to photograph Save the Children Fund’s work in Upper Volta, one of the world’s poorest countries: quite a contrast. My Nigerian pictures were used in magazines and newspapers for years, because apparently no other foreign photographer got in. The pictures of Fela Kuti, King of Afrobeat, at home in Lagos with his 27 wives, are still published occasionally.
In subsequent decades I’ve watched the debate over restitution of artworks and wondered how many smart apartments around the world host a Nigerian bronze with a little indian-ink accession number on the back. In the 1940s and 50s the Colonial Office actively bought Nigerian artworks on the open market for little outlay—they weren’t much valued—so at independence in 1960 the Benin and Lagos museums were well stocked with artistic heritage.
One example is the 12” bronze head of an Oba, which General Gowon presented to Her Majesty the Queen on his state visit to Britain in 1973. It was intended to be a replica of the original dating from 1600, but modern craftsmen’s efforts to recreate it for Gowon were so ridiculous that he simply stole the original and described it as a skilful copy. It’s at Windsor Castle to this day. If royal curators were suspicious of an accession number or some other clue they were too polite to air their misgivings. It wasn’t until The Art Newspaper published its investigation in September 2002 that the theft became widely known outside Nigeria
An August letter to the Telegraph describes Windsor’s Oba as “the most precious artwork ever displayed in the Nigerian National Museum” and seeks the repatriation of “a present, willingly given” to the Queen. One might equally say it was looted from the Nigerian people by the leader of their military junta, and what a good thing it’s been kept safe at Windsor since 1973.
If Nigeria wants to claim the moral high ground it should first publish the inventories of its museums at independence in 1960, and circulate descriptions and photos of any pieces it can’t produce today; the Windsor Oba heading the list of course. Copies of those inventories must surely be at the FCO archive and the British Museum even if the Lagos government proves “unable to find” its own files. Benin was not involved in the Biafran war so anything missing from there since 1960, and for that matter other museums, can only have been looted by Nigerians themselves.
This month a Sunday Telegraph report was headlined “Nigeria Faces Collapse Into Chaos”. Its internal conflicts are indeed getting worse: why do curators who plan to return originals imagine they will be safe there? Did they not see the fate of irreplaceable antiquities in failed states of the Middle East, in Afghanistan, Cambodia? There are factions in Nigeria for whom representations of humans are haram and who would be happy to melt those ancient brass pieces for scrap.
It would be a sad day when museums in Berlin, Paris, the USA and London had nothing to show but plastic 3D replicas, with the priceless originals lost to future generations both in Nigeria and abroad – who may come to curse today’s well-intentioned, but regrettably only former, custodians of Nigerian artworks outside Africa.”