The Kingdom of Benin took centuries to develop and only a couple of days to raze to the floor. In February 1897, British forces stormed the early kingdom’s capital town with rockets, shells, and Maxim guns capable of firing 600 rounds per minute. A flotilla of warships joined the attack from adjoining waterways.
Benin’s defenders, fighting blades and muskets, were quickly massacred. The British burned the town and built a golf course on the ruins.
Victorious soldiers looted tens of thousands of valuable artifacts out of shrines and palaces. Within months that the”Benin Bronzes” were on display in the British Museum in London.
Museum for a weapon
The bronzes, which are largely made from brass, tell a story of life at the royal court by finely-crafted renderings of kings, warriors, hunters with crazy creatures, and overseas explorers.
The treasures of Benin have become scattered across 160 museums — and a lot more private collections — across the world. A few of the bronzes are regarded as one of the greatest and most precious African artworks, with solitary bits selling for tens of thousands of dollars.
Geoffrey Robertson: It is time for museums to return their stolen paintings
For a curator in the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford, Dan Hicks presides over one of the world’s largest collections of artifacts created from Benin. However, in his unsparing brand new publication, “The Brutish Museums,” he makes a case for their return while calling for more honesty in the telling of history and the empowering role played by museums such as his own.
Hicks claims his stance was partially informed by the”Rhodes Must Fall” motion, which erupted in South Africa in 2015 and disperses into the University of Oxford, where he serves as a professor of modern archeology. Pupils required the elimination of a statue of colonial tycoon Cecil Rhodes inside a broader”decolonization” effort that amuses the Pitt Rivers Museum as”among the very violent areas in Oxford.”
Hicks takes the fee. The memorial was a “weapon” — as essential to imperial domination because the Maxim gun,” he writes — which has been utilized to”legitimize, expand and naturalize fresh extremes of violence in corporate colonialism.”
Exhibitions reduced cultures to ornaments in glass cases to be able” to tell the story of the success of Europeans over Africans,” he explained in a telephone interview.
The bronzes were feted as masterpieces but they had been introduced as the job of inferiors. Hicks estimates one British Museum curator stating that he was”puzzled to account for so tremendously developed an art one of a race so completely barbarous as were the Bini,” referring to the cultural group — also called the Edo individuals — who based the Kingdom of Benin.
The writer draws a parallel between those colonial-era art displays as well as the pseudoscientific exhibits that contrasted imitation skulls as proof of racial hierarchies and have been phased out after World War II because of their affiliation with fascism. He considers the continuing display of looted legacy amounts to a continuing celebration of violence and white supremacy.
Hicks’ book focuses on the Benin Bronzes since he thinks they represent an incontrovertible case for restitution, which Nigeria has hunted since its freedom from the British Empire in 1960.
Drawing on accounts from soldiers and British officers, the writer dismantles myths to tell a story of brutality and greed. Officially, the”punitive expedition” of 1897 was an answer to an assault on a convoy headed by Captain James Phillips, consul-general of the Niger Coast Protectorate, a month before. Phillips and a number of the men were murdered by Bini troops while on a mission, apparently, the lobby that the king of Benin over access to this precious palm oil and rubber in his land.
But files from Protectorate leaders reveal plans to get a punitive expedition was discussed as early as 1892.
In this light, Hicks asserts the assignment was designed to offer a pretext for an assault. Also, he indicates that this type of large British power, which he estimates at approximately 5,000 guys with 10 warships and 38 Maxim guns, couldn’t have been constructed from the month between expeditions.
The devastation of Benin was celebrated in British papers, and soldiers received awards for their role within it. However, Hicks disputes their assumed heroism. Accounts from army leaders clarify indiscriminate slaughter by a safe distance, while warships ruined cities and towns in their path. Eight British deaths were reported on the Houses of Parliament but no attempt has been made totally Bini losses, regardless of queries from ministers.
The reduction of legacy was likewise incalculable. The earthworks of Benin were an archeological marvel containing a 16,000-kilometer system of walls that formed among the world’s biggest man-made structures. They were — combined with palaces, houses, and religious sites — reduced to rubble.
British officers and museums downplayed the devastation and asserted harm was accidental. That is contradicted by the orderly strategy Hicks shows in soldiers’ diaries.
“Walls and homes to be pumped down. Queen Mother’s home to be burnt.”
Officially, looted artifacts have been offered to cover the trip expenses. However, Hicks cites a curator in the British Museum that later confessed a lot of the take has been”shared carefully one of the officers.” A museum catalog demonstrated that bronzes were obtained”through the liquidation of estates of soldiers.”
For more detailed manuals and advice about this topic, please see Comox Band,