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Nigeria’s Benin Bronzes: ‘It’s not the place of the British to decide their fate’

Funmi Adebayo
By Funmi Adebayo

Writer and former trader.

Posted on Thursday, 24 September 2020 08:25

benin bronzes
Cast brass plaques from Benin City at British Museum. Photo: By Joy of museums - Wikimedia commons

Being a Britgerian I often find myself torn by the fact I’ve been brought up in Britain and I’m of Nigerian descent.

Especially during a time like this, which feels like a new wave Black civil rights movement, it’s hard not to think about the viciousness of the British colonisation of Africa.

Yet here I am, born and living in the nation that robbed my ancestors of so much. Not to talk of also being a Londoner, so living and working amongst monuments that act as constant reminders.

History in the present

To many white Britons, these reminders of Britains’ past serve as a celebratory representation of all they should be proud of. They are cornerstones of British culture to them. I agree with this observation. However, for me, they represent something much more sinister. That a fundamental part of British culture still defines itself through the lens of colonisation, not to be ashamed of, but to be proud of. So proud, that they built monuments as an ode to the very people who warred and pillaged around the world, in the name of spreading their British empire.

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An empire built on the backs of millions of people; my people, who were murdered, tortured, and stolen from.

Many in Britain have advocated for these statues to be moved to museums, instead of being torn down. After all, tearing down these monuments is barbaric, and violence is never justified? The irony is not lost on many Black British Afropeans, such as myself.

My answer to that is, but what of the fact these very museums are full of stolen artefacts, which also harken back to the transatlantic slave trade and the British colonisation era?

Spoils of war

One only needs to stroll through any of the British museums to see the sheer amount of wealth that was looted. A flagrant exhibition of their spoils of war.

Wars they justified by labelling Africans as barbaric and uncivilised. To many Black people, after centuries of battling pervasive racist anthropology, we now recognise these “war spoils” as evidence that Africa wasn’t a dark continent, as coined by Joseph Conrad, but full of rich cultures that developed their own distinctive works of art to demonstrate who they were.

Written language isn’t the only way to pass on messages and spread culture, as much as Western thought would make you believe. Africans knew this. It wasn’t just oral tradition they used to pass down knowledge, but also through mathematics and art. Art considered so valuable and extraordinary, they were stolen by British soldiers and traded across the whole world and displayed in museums they now charge people to enter.

The stubborn resistance by these museums to return any of these artefacts, which don’t just carry monetary value, but cultural significance as well, has become quite frankly an exuberant display of neo-colonialism. It’s one thing to murder and loot from nations in the first place, but then to spend centuries audaciously exploiting their cultural artefacts through displaying them proudly, as a means to attract tourism, and with it billions of money, is insult upon injury.

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I’m very passionate about Africans reclaiming narratives around their history. As somebody who has dedicated her time to shining a light on who we are, it’s been welcome news that the governor of Edo state, Godwin Obaseki, has been instrumental in advocating for the return of the Benin Bronzes.

This has been years in the making though and it’s not clear that the Bronzes will be returned permanently, but rather loaned by different museums across the Western world through the Benin Dialogue Group.

But, it does grate on me that there was ever any pushback.

Serious apology?

Britain surely isn’t serious about their apology for their dark past if they aren’t even willing to permanently return things they clearly stole. By the British Museums own admission on its website concerning the Benin Bronzes, they say it’s important to note the colonial and transatlantic slave history that underpins how they even came to have possession of them.

They clearly state:

Benin suffered a bloody and devastating occupation. No exact figure can be given for the number of Benin’s population who were killed in the conquest of the city. However, it is clear that there were many casualties during the sustained fighting. The occupation of Benin City saw widespread destruction and pillage by British forces.

The Benin Kingdom was one of the wealthiest and oldest kingdoms in West Africa. As noted by the remains of the Great Wall of Benin, another casualty of Britains’ violent colonisation.

A triumph of math and scale. It was noted in the Guinness Book of Records (1974 edition) that the walls of Benin City and its surrounding kingdom was the world’s largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era. Furthermore, according to estimates by the New Scientist’s Fred Pearce, Benin City’s walls were at one time “four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops”.

It was considered one of the most beautiful and well-planned cities in the world. Some would say even better than London! Hardly uncivilised. It didn’t stop the British from destroying the city, however.

The Benin bronzes were also notably shown in the “Museum of Great Britain” in an early scene of Marvels’ Black Panther movie. The character of Killmonger clearly correcting the museum director that the artefacts were indeed stolen.

This inclusion was no mistake. It was an acknowledgment of the very real battle of Africa’s art restitution; an open rebuke of the British Museum.

The Benin Dialogue group insist that the state of Benin first needs to work on a museum to safely house the artefacts, before they are returned back.

Bottom line

I am happy that a real tangible precedence is being set by Governor Godwin Obaseki and I congratulate his efforts alongside Sir David Adjaye and Phillip Iheanacho. I also seek solace in the governor being voted in again, because there were worries that if he lost his governorship all the work would have gone down the drain.

On the other hand, I worry that the museum has been delayed and no doubt on the back burner for now with the focus on COVID-19.

As much as it’s a welcome first step in a long road to true retribution, it is still with a heavy heart. The truth is, it is not the place of the British to decide the fate of these artefacts at all. The Benin Bronzes belong to the Edo people and they should not have to answer to anybody about what they do with them, because they are rightly theirs. If Britain ever wondered how they could actually repay for all their suffering, financing the cost of this museum they insist on would be a start and returning what they stole.

Apologies and performative gestures are simply not enough.

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