Black History Month 2020: Benin Court Art II

October is Black History Month in the UK, an event that has been celebrated nationwide for over 30 years. Originally founded to recognise the contributions that people of African and Caribbean backgrounds have made to the UK, it has expanded to include the history of Black people in general. Those of you have visited our World Stories gallery will know that we have collections from all over the world. Over the month of October, we are going to take a closer look at some of the objects with hidden black histories that are not told within the confines of our gallery.

Today we are continuing the story of a group of bronze and brass sculptures in our World stories gallery. In part one we discussed how Benin City expanded under the rule of Oba Ewuare the Great and how it came to be known for the quality of its metalwork. In this blog we are going to going to discuss the later history of Benin City and what happened after contact with European traders and settlers.

The first Portuguese traders arrived in Benin 13 years after the death of Oba Ewuare the Great in 1472. They were astonished to find a vast kingdom of interlocking cities and villages in the middle of West Africa and named it the “Great City of Benin”, describing it as one of the most beautiful and well-planned cities in the world. Out of respect for Oba Ewuare’s laws the Portugese did not try to trade for slaves but instead starting trading guns and currency bracelets known as ‘manilas’ to the people of Benin in return for palm oil, pepper and ivory.

By the 17th century Benin was one of the richest cities in Africa and in 1691 the Portuguese ship captain Lourenco Pinto described it as follows:

“Great Benin, where the king resides, is larger than Lisbon; all the streets run straight and as far as the eye can see. The houses are large, especially that of the king, which is richly decorated and has fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown, and the people live in such security that they have no doors to their houses.” 

The Dutch Explorer Olfert Dapper (1636-1689) described it thus:

“When you go in you enter a great, broad street which is not paved and seems to be seven or eight times (wider) than Warmoes street in Amsterdam. This Street is straight and does not bend at any point. It is thought to be 4 miles long. At the gate where I went in on horseback, there was a very big wall, very thick and made of earth, with a very deep and broad ditch outside it… and outside this gate there is also a big suburb. Inside the gate and along the great street I just mentioned, you see many other great streets on either side, and these are also straight and do not bend. The houses in these towns are in good order, one placed evenly closed with it’s neighbour, just as the houses in Holland stand.”

Ancient Benin City by D. O. Dapper (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-30841)

The Benin Massacre of 1896

Benin was to remain on relatively friendly terms with Europe until the end of the 19th century, a period which became known as the ‘Scramble for Africa’. From around 1881 onwards the great powers of Europe began invading, occupying, dividing, and colonising African kingdoms to expand their empires and control the valuable resources. We covered how France conquered and colonised the Kingdom of Dahomey in a previous blog, but it was Britain who were to bring the downfall of Benin City.

By the 1890s Britain had become frustrated with Benin City’s monopoly on the trade in palm-oil, rubber, and ivory in West Africa. Following an abortive attempt to “open up” Benin territories via a treaty in 1896 the Acting Consul of the British Niger Coast Protectorate, a man named James Philips, formulated a plan. He would lead a military expedition of around 250 soldiers into Benin posing as a peaceful trade mission with the real aim of deposing the Oba and selling off his ivory to defray the costs. Unfortunately for Phillips, the Oba received word of his intentions and a Benin strike force ambushed Philips force before they reached the city. Only two members of Phillip’s expedition survived, Commandant Boisragon and District Commissioner Locke.

Boisragon and Locke escaped down the Benin River to Sapele where they met Locke’s assistant – a man called Henry Lyon, formerly of Appleton Hall in Warrington. News of the incident soon reached Britain where it became known as the ‘Benin Massacre’.

Captain Alan Boisragon and District Commissioner Locke

The Punitive Expedition of 1897

The British response to the massacre was swift and on 12th January 1897 the British Admiralty appointed Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson to lead an expedition to capture the Oba and destroy Benin City. The invasion force consisted of about 1,200 Royal Marines and sailors supported by forces from the Niger Coast Protectorate.

After a bitter struggle, the British forces reached Benin and set fire to the fortifications, homes, temples and the palaces of the city. Looting began soon afterwards and around 2,500 works of art were removed and sent to England where most of them were confiscated by the British Admiralty.

Earliest known photograph of Oba’s compound in 1891 by Cyril Punch (1857-1932) – Smithsonian National Museum of African Art

The Looted Bronzes

Most of the so-called Benin bronzes were sold to museums in Germany. Around 40% of the art was accessioned to the British Museum whilst others were sold at auction to pay for the costs of the expedition. The examples you can see today in Warrington Museum were donated by the family of Henry Lyon although it is not clear whether Henry removed them from Benin City himself or they were a gift from someone who did.

When they reached Europe the Benin bronzes were unlike any African artworks and artefacts known to the people there. These beautiful objects, made through elaborate processes and from rich materials, were records of a powerful and advanced civilisation and forced many Europeans to confront their racist assumptions about the African continent.

Benin Bronzes in the British Museum (by Joy of Museums)

Benin City Today 

Whilst modern Benin City is built on the same location as the vanished capital there is extraordinarily little that survives of the Great City of Benin. Nothing remains of the fortifications which today would be considered a wonder of the world on par with the Great Wall of China or the Great Pyramid. A single house in Obasagbon – known as Chief Enogie Aikoriogie’s house – is probably the last remaining vestige of the original planned Benin City to retain the fluted walls, pillars, sunken basin and carved decoration of pre 1897 Benin.

Modern day metalworkers continue to make work in Benin and are now allowed to make sculptures for sale in the market as well as the Oba’s court. You can go to Igun Street, just outside the palace grounds, and see people casting bronze and brass.

There is hope that Benin’s heritage will be better reflected in the future however, as architect David Adjaye has been commissioned to design a new museum – the Benin Royal Museum – which will finally house many examples of the looted art of Benin in the city that produced them.

Modern-day view of bronze casting using the lost wax method (by Takkk – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0).

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