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The Thief Can’t Prescribe: On “Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes”

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Though a “well-written feat of archival analysis,” Barnaby Phillips’s guide makes an attempt to justify British plunder whereas debating if the Benin Bronzes ought to be returned. 

Credit score: Flickr

Early in Barnaby Phillips’s well-researched Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes, he laments the situation of Benin Metropolis’s famed earth wall, reputed to be 4 instances longer than the Nice Wall of China on the top of the Benin Empire. The wall encircled not simply the empire’s capital but additionally a stunningly deep moat — all a part of a strong protection system. However on a latest go to, the writer was dismayed: the trenches had crammed with sewage.

That is one among a handful of non-public moments that stayed with me from Phillips’s vivid historical past of objects taken from West Africa within the 1890s and bought as “unique” artwork on the world market. Outstanding amongst them have been the Benin Bronzes, the metallic plaques that when lined the royal halls of a monarch known as the Oba, the king of the Benin Empire, now a part of present-day Nigeria. Of the bronzes, 200 wound up within the British Museum; the remaining have been scattered to sellers and different museums, and plenty of stay in Europe behind glass or held on millionaires’ partitions. The second remained with me as a result of it signaled a specific skew in understanding how historical past impacts the current.

With out diminishing the size of analysis right here, you will need to state outright that the graft and barbarism of the British Empire shouldn’t be information to us Africans. Any novelty ascribed to Loot derives from an extended historical past of dismissing African reminiscence as ahistorical. The decision for the return of African cultural objects can also be not a latest improvement. Half a century in the past, my uncle Nii Kwate Owoo made a movie, You Disguise Me, shot within the basement of the British Museum, revealing the travesty of so many looted objects from Africa simply sitting in crates at European museums. He additionally described the trade of Western “consultants” that fashioned round colonial theft — with historians, curators, ethnographers, artwork critics, and distributors all making careers as specialists in African plunder.

What Loot achieves with talent is to embed info in regards to the particular person journeys of the Benin Bronzes in compelling narratives, tracing the lives of the British officers who looted the palace of the Oba. They saved selection objects for themselves whereas reserving a good haul for queen and nation. Quirky revelations uncover the callous nature of British officers. African troopers of their retinues got 1 / 4 ration of water on lengthy treks. Lieutenant Vernon Haggard wrote a letter to his father, by which he gleefully states that one can whack the carriers “as a lot as you please.” And there may be an event the place journalist Raymond Blathwayt recounts the consul-general of the Niger Coast Protectorate Ralph Moor eating with associates whereas a person condemned to dying was chained to a pillar beneath them. Within the morning, the person is executed and his physique thrown into the bush “to show these folks a lesson.”

The persistent disregard for Africans delegitimizes any humanitarian claims that the British later used to justify their invasion of Benin. The variety of Edo folks killed by the indiscriminate use of Maxim weapons, explosives, and rocket missiles within the assault on Benin Metropolis alone most likely accounted for extra misplaced lives than any executions on the Oba’s command over many years. Even worse, after Benin Metropolis had fallen, the British carried on burning villages of their quest to seize the monarch, with no regard for the lives and livelihood of the Edo folks.

Paradoxically, what’s reaffirmed in Loot is the clear business finish for which the British have been ready to kill in astounding numbers. As 1892 Consul-Common Main Claude MacDonald defined, “minerals, gum Arabic, gum copal, palm oil, kernels, and so on.” have been out there in massive portions in Benin’s territory, and, crucially, in making ready to invade Benin Metropolis, they’d estimated that “enough Ivory could also be discovered within the King’s home to pay the bills in eradicating the King from his stool.”

The excessive valuation positioned on this invasion would possibly seem to be a precursor to the costs that the Benin Bronzes command on the world artwork market, however I don’t imagine so. Some resisted the African provenance of those masterpieces, with one British customer speculating that “it’s most likely the Portuguese have been the founders of [the] nation,” and the Manchester Courier newspaper asking “skilled travellers” to assist “clear up the issue of the origin and which means of the Benin Bronzes.” Ascribing the origins of artwork for which the likes didn’t exist in Europe was the peak of delusional, imperial vanity, however it handed for knowledge in a chauvinistic quest.

In present-day Ghana, I can nonetheless purchase distinctive brass and bronze jewellery that comes from Mali, Niger, and Chad, the place the centuries-old talent of hammering and twisting these metals stays extraordinary. Anybody who was not busy discovering methods to disclaim the humanity of Africans solely needed to look to different civilizations within the area: in each the Mali and Asante empires, there have been industries of bronze-casting utilizing a spread of strategies, together with the misplaced wax method favored by Benin’s Igun Eronmwon guild of bronze casters.

The rabid give attention to the Oba’s obstruction of British pursuits seemingly resulted from Europe’s financial decline from 1873 till the late 1890s — the British wanted important revenue from the territories they have been exploiting. It’d subsequently be stunning to learn that solely a handful of the looters of 1897 bought their ill-gotten objects quickly after their return. Many held on to their trophies till the 1930s when a era of officers have been “dying, or retiring, or had fallen on onerous instances through the Despair.” One thinks of serial killers holding onto grisly trophies. For most of the marauding officers who bulldozed their approach via the lives of the Edo folks, the worth of the Benin loot was extra prone to have been the reminiscence of their bloody conquest, an everyday increase for his or her egos.

An exterior mosaic, by Nigerian artist, Jimoh Buraimoh, on the partitions of the Benin Metropolis Nationwide Museum. It depicts a royal courtroom scene, of Benin Kingdom. Credit score: Ayodeji Rotinwa

Actually, I might go additional and posit that the preliminary attract of the Benin Bronzes for collectors was additionally blood and gore, or, to cite from an Illustrated London Information article of August 1897, they have been “made extra palatable by their affiliation with an emphatic British navy victory.” In any case, it was British type to gather trophies, some as ugly as Maori heads and the hair and enamel of murdered sovereigns. And, if the worth for the British was ego, then the corresponding loss for the Edo folks was dignity. It’s not for nothing that even the euphemism that the British coined for his or her killing and looting — “punitive expedition” — can’t cover its undercoat of egoistic spite.

This brings me again to the second when Phillips stands on the moat, seemingly not greedy that the dysfunction of present-day Edo State is the larger loss suffered by the folks of Benin. On the top of their empire, they’d a society that was structured to keep up order not simply at a societal stage but additionally a broader environmental one. They hunted elephants and harvested palm oil, however the Oba and his advisors managed the volumes, seasons, and frequency; they weren’t wed to the notion of ruthless revenue. What the British did was to undermine Benin’s societal constructions, humiliate the Oba earlier than his folks, decimate their tradition and cosmologies, and power a consequence-blind, profit-seeking worldview that led to a fast lack of forests and wildlife within the identify of “British pursuits.” Benin Metropolis’s partitions have been set to crumble in that second, its moat doomed to stench.

Essentially the most lamentable a part of this guide is its British inclinations: looting British troopers are humanized via their private histories, however Africans are solely humanized in Western phrases, with tradition outlined via European lenses and no area given to the oral accounts of the Edo folks. The writer decries the situation of a British battle memorial in Ugbine with out discussing the unmarked graves for 1000’s of African and Indian troopers who have been conscripted for and died in British wars. My discomfort intensified in later chapters when Loot appeared to fall right into a cycle of attempting to justify British actions and current a “balanced” debate about whether or not the bronzes belong again in Benin. We don’t hear folks within the Western artwork world debating whether or not, when Nazi loot is returned, the house owners are obliged to duplicate the identical circumstances because the museums by which they have been housed.

The Bronzes have been seen as static artwork by their looters, whereas in Benin the bronzes have been integral to day by day cultural and religious life. Their house owners shouldn’t need to justify what they are going to do with their recovered property. Within the phrases of the Benin artist Victor Ehikhamenor, “The thief can’t prescribe to the rightful proprietor.”

Even with its European focus, Phillips’s Loot is a well-written feat of archival analysis, and I’m certain that its narrative work can be of worth for a lot of within the West. For an African reader like me, nevertheless, it reveals how far Europeans — even those with good intentions — nonetheless need to journey to get away from outdated concepts of the worth of African tradition, historical past, and society. An writer who asks, “Did something good come out of the British invasion?” fully misses the purpose and maybe shouldn’t be writing for Africans in regards to the Benin Bronzes. However maybe the guide was by no means for us within the first place.

This text is republished from the L.A. Overview of Books with permission from the publication. Learn the unique article right here. 


 

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