4 March 2016

We can’t rewrite the bloody history of the Benin Bronzes

By Tiffany Jenkins

 ‘Benin is indeed a city of blood, each compound having its pit full of dead and dying; human sacrifices were strewn about on every hand, hardly a thing was without a red stain.’

That is how the Illustrated London News recorded the destruction of Benin City, in what is modern-day southern Nigeria, when, in 1897, a British expedition was raised to avenge the deaths of nine officers during a trade dispute between the king of Benin and Britain, as the European powers competed to carve up the African continent.

The UK sent 500 men to destroy the city and depose the king. After ten days of fighting, with the soldiers using the newly manufactured Maxim machine guns, they burnt down the palace and looted the royal treasures: magnificent copper alloy sculptures, plaques, and delicate ivory carvings – now known as the Benin Bronzes.

They had been made between the 13th and 17th centuries, and provide an insight into a sophisticated culture, showing scenes of court life and rituals, involving royalty, warriors, and officials. Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office sold them off to pay for the expenses of the operation. Around 900 ended up in the world’s greatest museums, including the British Museum, which has one of the largest sets.

But that is not the end of the story. Since gaining independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria has sought their return, with furious demands much like those issued by Greece for the return of the Elgin Marbles, which were taken in the 19th century, and now the centerpiece of the British Museum.

Nor are the marbles and the bronzes the only treasures campaigners are desperate to get back: Turkey wants the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to return a marble carving of a child’s head removed from a sarcophagus by the archaeologist Sir Charles Wilson in the late 19th century. Even the president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, would like the Natural History Museum in London to send back the human skulls of the freedom fighters who were killed by British colonisers.

Now, in a row similar to the controversy over the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford’s Oriel College, students at Jesus College, Cambridge, have voted in favour of returning one of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. The object they want to be sent back is a cockerel – known as ‘okukor’ – that perches in the dining hall. It has resided in the college since 1930, having been recovered from the royal palace in Benin in 1897. It was adopted as a symbol of Jesus College because three cockerels’ heads appear on the college crest.

In a dense 11-page document written by the Benin Bronze Association Committee, entitled ‘Proposal to Repatriate Benin Bronze’, the students argue for ‘returning [the artefact] to its place of origin’. They claim that returning it to the ‘community from which it was stolen’ is ‘just’, and that ‘the contemporary political culture surrounding colonialism and social justice, combined with the University’s global agenda, offers a perfect opportunity for the College to benefit from this gesture.’

In other words, they want to send back the cockerel as a kind of therapy for the ‘sins’ of British imperialism.

The racial equalities officer at Jesus College, Ore Ogunbiyi, crowed on her blog: ‘It’s quite nice to see Jesus setting a precedent and taking steps in the right direction to weed out the colonial legacies that exist in bits of the university. We still have a lot of work to do with logistics and the rest, but how exciting and momentous and revolutionary is this?! What a time to be a Jesuan.’

In a mealy-mouthed statement – which echoes the lack of resolve shown by Oriel dons in the face of protests against the statue of Rhodes – the college has responded by saying: ‘The request by students is being considered.’

In fact, repatriating artefacts on the basis of what we feel about history would be a serious mistake. Not only would the world’s museums – and institutions like Cambridge University – be emptied, it would be allowing modern-day sensibilities to rewrite history in terms of simplistic goodies and baddies, when it is always more complicated than that. Looking back from today is a privileged and elevated position from which to view the past, and it is one that is often distorted by current preoccupations. We should guard against the simplistic and easily acquired feelings of superiority that we can have by surveying the past through contemporary mores, centuries later.

Besides, which victims should have priority? The story of the acquisition of the Benin Bronzes is ugly; the rise of Britain as an imperial power caused the downfall of Benin, but the story of the artefacts’ creation is not without taint. The glory of Benin and its artistic golden age was built on the slave trade: the Benin Bronzes were crafted from manillas – a traditional form of money usually made of bronze or copper – brought to Benin by European traders, traded for slaves, and then melted down. The very sculptures and plaques these students would like to see returned to Nigeria were created from the proceeds of slavery.

The truth is that objects of art are a misguided target for those truly concerned about social justice. The fact that there is a statue of a cockerel in a university dining room is hardly the most pressing problem facing us today. Repatriating artefacts, or pulling down statues, in order to make amends for colonisation is a poor substitute for reshaping the modern world. These student activists want to censor and rewrite history rather than actually do what young idealists should try to do – which is change the future, not fulminate about the past.

The problem with these campaigns is that in becoming obsessed with colonialism, campaigners lose sight of the original meanings and purposes of the artworks, viewing them only as objects of apology. They become the pawns of wider social and political tussles amidst which they are lost.

Instead of repatriating artifacts, we need to appreciate them in the institutions which care for them – our great museums. For it is here that their true value and meaning is realised.

When the Benin Bronzes first arrived in Europe, they transformed the way people saw Africa. Europeans were surprised that Africans — a people whom they assumed to be backward — could make such refined artwork, as indicated by Charles Hercules Read, a curator from the British Museum, who secured the collection for the museum.

‘It need scarcely be said that at the first sight of these remarkable works of art we were at once astounded at such an unexpected find, and puzzled to account for so highly developed an art among a race so entirely barbarous.’

The artworks were a force for good, however they were acquired. That’s why the Benin Bronzes – and all the other marvellous treasures that we can study and appreciate at close quarters – belong here, in Britain, in our great museums.

Tiffany Jenkins is the author of 'Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums – And Why They Should Stay There' (OUP).