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Debate is raging over the long-term security of the priceless antiquities, writes Richard Assheton
At the height of the scramble for Africa in 1897, about 1,200 British troops armed with rocket launchers and machineguns launched a punitive expedition into the kingdom of Benin, in modern-day Nigeria. Massacring an unknown number of people, they scorched the city, burnt down its royal palace and carried away about 10,000 artefacts, among them countless extraordinary brass plaques and sculptures.
These artefacts had been made over centuries for successive kings, or obas, of Benin, to adorn the palace, recording past achievements and providing instructions for ceremonies.
Having been shipped out, many artefacts were added to museum collections; others were handed out as spoils of war. The rest were auctioned, a large proportion to Germany. Collectively, despite many being made from brass, they became known as the Benin Bronzes.
Admiral Sir Harry Rawson’s troops captured, burnt and looted Benin in 1897
Colonial powers initially refused to believe an African civilisation had produced these stunning works. Today, more than 900 lie in the British Museum, and others in museums and private collections all over the world.
Macron leads the way
Nigeria has long demanded the return of the Bronzes. But a new wave of restitution cases in the past decade, fuelled by a landmark report commissioned by President Macron into French-held African art, have given rise to increased calls in the West for the repatriation of the Bronzes. In the era of Black Lives Matter, they have become a talisman for campaigns pushing Britain and European nations to re-evaluate their colonial pasts.
Victor Ehikhamenor, 53, a prominent Benin artist who last year installed a wall hanging in St Paul’s cathedral to mark the 125th anniversary of the massacre, has spoken of his pain at seeing them displayed in a random order in the basement of the British Museum, where its Africa collection is held. He likens it to tearing odd pages from Hamlet or Macbeth, pasting them on a wall and calling them Shakespeare.
A number of western museums and the German government have committed to return to Nigeria the artefacts they hold. Some have begun the process. In 2021, Jesus College at Cambridge University and the University of Aberdeen became the first to do so when they gave back a bronze cockerel and a bust, respectively. In July last year, Germany transferred legal ownership of its 1,130 items, and in a ceremony in December handed over the first 26 to Nigeria.
The Horniman Museum in London has given Nigeria six items and formally transferred ownership of its dozens of others. The archaeological museums at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge have pledged to return their Bronzes, as has the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The British Museum, however, has refused, saying it is bound by law not to give away its collections.
Some of the 900 Bronzes
Spanner in the works
In a decree made public last month, the outgoing president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, 80, threw a spanner in the works of the repatriations. He unequivocally recognised the current oba of Benin, Ewuare II, a descendant of the man toppled by the British, as the owner of all of the Bronzes. He has no formal government role but wields enormous soft power in the city of Benin, east of Lagos, and its federal state, Edo.
Western museums had been dealing not with the royal family but with Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), a government agency, under the assumption that the Bronzes would go to the state. The NCMM has been blindsided by the decree.
Cambridge has quietly postponed a handover ceremony scheduled for this month. The head of the NCMM, Abba Tijani, told The Sunday Times the decree, published in a government gazette, had held up negotiations with other institutions, including the National Museum of Scotland, which want to know where the Bronzes will go before they hand them over. “All our partners that have heard about the gazette say they want to wait and see the current developments, once the final decision has been made, before they can go ahead with any negotiation,” Tijani said, adding that he and his staff were fighting hard to answer these questions.
Nigerian politics at play
The repatriation process has met the reality of Nigerian politics. Three parties — the NCMM, the oba and the state governor of Edo, Godwin Obaseki — each have their own plans to house the Bronzes. The NCMM is planning a new museum of national unity in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, which would presumably hold the Bronzes. The organisation already runs a national museum in Benin, which Tijani said houses all of the Bronzes handed back so far, apart from the Jesus cockerel and the Aberdeen bust, which the oba has. He wants to build his own museum for the returned Bronzes near his palace.
Obaseki, a power rival to the oba, is behind a planned Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin city, which is backed by the British Museum and European donors and has been designed by the British-Ghanaian architect Sir David Adjaye. The British Museum, which has said it would loan Bronzes to the Edo museum, has sent archaeologists to Benin to excavate the site of the destroyed palace. After the presidential decree, it looks increasingly like the British Museum and other donors have backed the wrong horse.
‘Tainted by slave trade’
Buhari’s decree has fuelled concerns in the West that the Bronzes will vanish into the hands of a private family and could meet any fate, from being damaged to being sold. Debate has raged in Germany, particularly, after scientists found last month that some of the Bronzes had been made with metal mined in the Rhineland.
Archaeologists believe the Bronzes were made using metal melted down from manillas, a currency used by the Portuguese to buy slaves from African states, including the kingdom of Benin. The oba kept slaves until the British invasion, with slavery and human sacrifice features of life in the kingdom.
Last year the King of Benin received repatriated artefacts that were looted more than 125 years ago by the British
KOLA SULAIMON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
In the US, an organisation called the Restitution Study Group (RSG), run by a descendant of slaves who has campaigned for reparations, has used this link to argue that the Bronzes are themselves tainted, and that the descendants of slaves sold by Benin must be factored into the debate on what happens to the artefacts.
Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, the founder of the RSG, told The Sunday Times: “Museums are guilty of the neocolonialism they purport to distance themselves from by repatriating the Bronzes.” The group says museums should not, therefore, hand them back.
Till Vere-Hodge, a partner at Payne Hicks Beach, RSG’s lawyers in the UK, said: “Museums are required to carry out provenance research diligently and comprehensively, not just look at one instance in the provenance chain in isolation” — in this case the sacking of Benin in 1897.
He called the “extraordinary” decision of western institutions to give back Bronzes “the ultimate inversion of the moral outcome”.
Divide and conquer
Some have dismissed these as the convenient arguments of those who have always opposed repatriation. Dan Hicks, an archaeologist and curator at Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum and the author of The Brutish Museums, said there is no scientific method to prove that any person is the descendant of a slave sold from Benin, and that it is also impossible to prove that the Bronzes were made from manillas, rather than other metal products. He has made the point that all the Bronzes have met the same fate in the UK that the British Museum claims they would face in Nigeria: the museum has sold them off in the past, while some were blown apart in the Blitz.
Many supporters of repatriation say it is for Nigeria, not western holders of Bronzes, to dictate what happens once they are returned. Ehikhamenor accused the West of taking an old-fashioned “divide and conquer” approach by trying to “confuse” Nigerians. He said: “Of course we have issues of ownership. Where were they taken from? That family still exists. If you say it’s government to government, all right, send them to Abuja and allow Nigeria to decide what they want to do with it.”
One western anthropologist who works with governments on these matters tended to agree: “With Nazi-looted art, you never ask the family [that it’s being returned to] what they’re going to do with the painting.”
Museums weigh the arguments
Nicholas Thomas, director of Cambridge’s archaeology museum, has said he has “no doubt” the repatriation of its Bronzes will still go ahead. It remains to be seen what other museums decide.
Chris Willis Pickup, a lawyer and partner at Mishcon de Reya who represents British charities on restitution cases, said: “Any complexity about who they should be speaking to or what’s going to happen to the objects once they are handed over makes that process more difficult to complete.”
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One source suggested any rift between the NCMM and the oba has been overblown, and that the oba is likely to loan artefacts to Nigerian institutions even if he is the official owner. The oba’s younger brother, Prince Aghatise Erediauwa, has been present at handover ceremonies led by the NCMM. Tijani said: “We are not saying the oba is not the owner.” But he questioned whether the oba and the royal family had the expertise to look after the Bronzes. It seems likely that some will go into the hands of the oba and others to the Nigerian government.
Britain opposes repatriation. One source with knowledge of the matter said Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary at the time, put pressure on museums not to follow Macron after his announcement. In October, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport pulled an amendment to charities law after it emerged it would have allowed the British Museum to return items for moral reasons.
Despite this, the restitution movement continues to gather pace. China and countries in the Middle East are driving a huge museum-building boom. India is said to be gearing up to make claims for contested colonial objects, including the Koh-i-Noor diamond in the Crown Jewels. The Pope, whose Vatican collection is believed to contain Benin Bronzes as well as countless other treasures, suggested to journalists last month that he would be willing to hand back stolen items. “The Seventh Commandment comes to mind,” he said. “If you steal something you have to give it back.”