BY Stephen Nartey, 6:00pm August 08, 2022,

The history behind Africa’s most famous Benin Bronzes

This plaque depicts musicians, a page holding a ceremonial sword and a high-ranking warrior. It numbers among the thousands of works looted by British forces during an 1897 raid of Benin City. (Public domain via the Smithsonian's African Art Museum)

The United Kingdom’s Horniman Museum has served notice it will hand over 72 of Africa’s most famous artefacts, including 12 brass plaques known as Benin Bronzes, which were looted by British soldiers in the 19th century to the Nigerian government.

The Chair of Trustees of Horniman Museums and Gardens, Eve Salomon, in a release issued, said the decision to return the artefacts was informed by the knowledge that the objects were acquired through force and it’s appropriate to return the ownership to Nigeria.

The move by Horniman follows a humanitarian initiative by other museums that have returned the Benin Bronzes, which have been clamored for by many African countries over the years.

The French government in 2021 handed over 26 sculptures looted from Benin in 1892. The University of Aberdeen and Cambridge University’s Jesus College extended the same gesture by handing over Benin Bronzes in their possession. The Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC also cleared all of its Benin Bronzes from its art gallery, announcing its intention of sending them back to their African owners.

The repatriation of the Benin Bronzes has stalled over the years over where to place the sculptures and who has ownership of the famous artefacts.

What makes the story of the Benin Bronzes unique and what is its place in history? For students of arts and history, ‘Benin Bronzes’ is a term used to describe historic objects sculpted from leather, coral, ivory and wood among others.  

The bronzes were originally looted from Benin City, the historical capital of the Kingdom of Benin. In modern times, it can be found in (Edo State) Nigeria. It is the political seat of the Oba. It was considered a powerhouse in medieval West Africa.

The Benin Bronzes is considered distinct because of the history it embodies, according to British Museum. The cast plaques, animal and human figures, items of royal regalia and commemorative heads were created by craftsmen serving the royal court of the Oba (king) in Benin City in the 16th century.

The Benin Bronzes served several purposes, according to historians. Spiritually, they played a significant role in the installation of a king. They were used in the performance of rituals and in some respects, served as ancestral altars for past kings and queens. They became the passageway and curtain raiser for the kings and queens of Benin City.

The cast brass plaques, for instance, were used in keeping historical records including social history and dynasty history, and drew a linkage on relationships between the Benin Kingdom and its states and societies.  

Interestingly, the brass plaques were used by the Benin Kingdom to document their earlier engagements with the Europeans in the 15th century.

The influence of the Benin Kingdom, however, diminished after a bloody war between them and the British in the 19th century. This battle, according to historians, was triggered by an attack on a British trade mission that claimed the lives of seven Brits and 230 of the mission’s African carriers. A retaliation by the military forces of the British led to the eventual collapse of the Benin Kingdom in 1897. For their trophies, the soldiers looted what would become one of Africa’s most famous artefacts.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: August 8, 2022


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