As he fled Benin City in February 1897, Oba Ovonramwen looked back to see his royal palace in smouldering ruins. Hundreds of intricate plaques, showing the royal lineage stretching back to the 12th century, had been prised off the palace walls and lay in piles, together with thousands of other precious decorative artefacts that had made his capital a wonder to foreign visitors.
This hoard of treasures – today known as the Benin Bronzes, though including plaques and sculptures made from brass and ivory as well as bronze – was then packed up and taken away by British soldiers. They seized intricately carved elephant tusks, brass castings of the heads of monarchs at least 500 years old, and ivory leopards later given to Queen Victoria, all described by previous visitors as displaying truly “artistic workmanship”.
Six months later, after his kingdom had been absorbed into the British empire, Oba Ovonramwen returned to surrender. He found Benin City unrecognisable, its palaces and holy places destroyed and replaced with British administration buildings and a new golf course.
Back to Benin
The Benin Bronzes taken by the British, later held in museums in London and elsewhere in Europe, as well as America, have long been the subject of great controversy, spawning a proliferation of books, news reports and public enquiries. Pressure to return them to Nigeria, building for decades, recently reached a tipping point. In early 2021, the return of Germany’s collections of Benin artefacts – numbering more than 1,000 – was announced, beginning next year. Several museums in Britain subsequently stated their intention to return items taken in the 1897 attack. The return of these items from a variety of collections around the world is gaining momentum.
While this debate continues to rage, though, the history of the kingdom that produced these exquisite artworks has remained relatively obscure outside the region. Yet it’s a fascinating story, which began perhaps seven centuries before the British attack.
Ovonramwen was the 36th in a long line of obas, or rulers, of the kingdom (or empire) of Benin in what’s now southern Nigeria, east of Lagos; the modern country of Benin, to the west, is unrelated. According to oral history, in the late 12th century, elders of the Edo people turned to the great-grandson of the land’s previous ruler to found a new dynasty. Around the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th century, this new oba, Eweka I, established Ibinu (later translated as Benin by the Portuguese) as his capital.
For several centuries, Benin City was governed by an elected oba along with a council of elders. Then, in the 15th century, a prince wrested the throne from his brother, curtailed the power of the elders and renamed the capital Edo. The new oba took the royal name Ewuare, meaning “the trouble has ceased”. His reign as Ewuare I (1440–73) augured the start of a period of artistic flourishing and state reform, as well as the consolidation of the power of the oba. The oba’s enhanced role now included sole authority to mete out capital punishment.
As the anthropologist RE Bradbury commented, within the oba’s realm, “No one could be put to death without his consent, and any person accused of a capital offence had to be brought before his court.” The epithets attached to the oba reflected this role: “Child of the Sky whom we pray not to fall and cover us, Child of the Earth whom we implore not to swallow us up.”
Ewuare I launched military campaigns that expanded his realm and the reach of his judicial and fiscal authority, marking the start of a golden age for the kingdom. At its height in the 16th and 17th centuries, Benin was a tributary empire ruling over the western Igbo, eastern Yoruba and coastal Itsekiri, among other peoples, and the major trading power along the Nigerian coast.
European travellers were duly impressed by the flourishing kingdom and its capital. Dutch reports from the 16th and 17th centuries described Edo (Benin City) as “the same size as the city of Haarlem” in the Netherlands. That same account, published in Amsterdam in 1668, said of the royal palace: “Every roof is adorned with a small spired tower on which casted copper birds are standing, being very artfully sculpted.”
The art of crafts
As an important centre of culture, the city was home to skilled craftsmen who created the ceremonial heads and plaques that honoured the past divine obas and iyobas (queen mothers). Among the artistic techniques cultivated and perfected there was the lost-wax process of casting metal. This involved first making a wax model of a sculpture, then creating a clay mould around it and melting the wax inside. Molten metal was then poured into the clay mould, filling the space left by the melted wax, before the mould was removed to reveal the cast sculpture.
This multi-stage process had been used in neighbouring Igboland and Yorubaland for several centuries before the golden age of production in Benin. It’s likely, then, that an existing supply chain of producers and trained artisans – copper and zinc miners, smelters, sculptors and blacksmiths, to name a few – already existed, and could be mobilised to meet the kingdom’s increasing demand for the production of such crafts. Royal guilds of woodworkers, leather workers, weavers and potters were also established, making possible the large-scale production of art for the royal court, including the Benin Bronzes.
The increased demand for such works relied not just on skilled craftspeople but also on the availability of wood fuel, clay and wax, which were gathered locally, traded or paid in taxes. As the capital, Edo had the resources to pay for the supplies and labour that made both monumental architecture and fine artistry possible. Such resources included large elephant tusks. Henry Galway, vice-consul of the nearby British Oil Rivers Protectorate, wrote in 1892 that “the king of Benin claims half the ivory obtained in his dominion; when an elephant is killed, one tusk always goes to the king”.
Trade with Europeans, beginning with the Portuguese in 1472, provided Ewuare I and his successors with access to more metals, as well as weapons that helped them defend their tributary subjects. Benin’s traders purchased manillas – brass or copper ingots in the shape of bracelets – from the Portuguese for use in casting, and used that copper to create bronze figures of the Portuguese who’d supplied the metal.
As Atlantic commerce expanded, the oba controlled trade, permitting transactions only by royally approved associations of merchants. Major exports traded to European merchants included pepper, ivory, palm oil, blue coral and leopard hides gathered within the expanding territory. Benin also occasionally sold people captured during its expansionary wars. The Portuguese then sold these enslaved people in the Gold Coast (modern Ghana) in exchange for gold, which they took back to Europe.
The centralised control of trade was not always popular in the region, despite the protections offered by the oba. The Itsekiri kingdom of Warri, established in the 15th century by a prince from Benin, became increasingly independent and by the 18th century it was established as a trading rival to Benin, specialising in slaves, salt and pottery.
Over time, conflict erupted between various of the groups that fell under Benin’s sway, and the kingdom launched military campaigns to retain control over Yoruba and Igbo groups who sought their own trading relationships or new alliances. Olaudah Equiano, the renowned British abolitionist born in Igbo territory in the mid-18th century, noted that, though his place of birth was technically a province of the kingdom of Benin, the “subjection to the king of Benin was little more than nominal”.
With the expansion of the Atlantic slave trade in the late 17th and 18th centuries, other coastal kingdoms began to overtake Benin, which experienced a slow, sporadic decline in its ability to command the region that had been under its control. By 1830, as British captain William Fitzwilliam Owen commented, the “falling off in the trade was severely felt by the people of Benin”.
From the mid-19th century, British encroachment in the region increased, under the pretext of the abolition of the slave trade. Such actions, particularly the annexation of Lagos in 1861, worried Oba Ovonramwen’s predecessor, Adolo (reigned c1848–88). Rather than continuing to negotiate, and fearing that trade would expose Benin to similar gunboat diplomacy, from the 1860s the oba rejected British attempts to negotiate treaties and extend a protectorate over the kingdom.
As British explorer Richard Burton – then a consul in west Africa – observed at that time, Benin “seemed to care little for the suspension of trade: it became painfully evident that they could stand the ordeal better than we could”. And in the early years of the so-called “Scramble for Africa”, the large-scale land grab by European powers that intensified from the 1880s, the kingdom managed to retain its independence.
Rewriting the narrative
Frustrated by the oba’s resistance to British rule, in 1862 Burton disparagingly described Benin City as a “place of gratuitous barbarity which stinks of death”. Rumours of human sacrifice and slave trading began to circulate in European newspapers. Over time, the glowing reports by Portuguese and Dutch visitors in the 15th and 16th centuries were replaced by a narrative of a barbaric, violent, pagan, absolutist state whose people needed to be either rescued and civilised under colonial rule or wiped out altogether.
In January 1897, a British party led by James Robert Phillips, acting consul-general of the Niger Coast Protectorate, approached the city with the intention of deposing the oba and establishing a British-friendly “native council”. Phillips hoped “that sufficient ivory would be found in the king’s house to pay the expenses incurred in removing the king”.
Warned by the Itsekiri of Phillips’ plans, Edo warriors attacked the group, killing the British representatives. Seizing the excuse for a retaliatory punitive expedition, Sir Harry Rawson, admiral of the British naval station in Lagos, attacked the city with 1,200 Royal Marines. Brutal fighting dragged on for 10 days till, on 21 February 1897, the British prevailed and burned Benin City to the ground. An unknown number of Edo people were killed, six chiefs were hanged in the city’s central market and, when the oba returned to surrender in August, he was exiled to Calabar.
The British approach to the city’s wealth had the air of an unplanned bonanza, with a lack of coherent record-keeping of what was taken and where it went. Some of the looted treasure was sold by Britain’s Foreign Office; Dan Hicks, curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, has traced some of the ivory sales to German firms. Lower-ranking officers complained that the senior officers kept the best loot for themselves.
When the soldiers got back to Britain, the art that had decorated Benin City, and which celebrated a royal lineage stretching back over seven centuries, was sold for profit to private collectors and museums. These artefacts subsequently became separated and dispersed through loss and fire; one was even used as a doorstop by the unsuspecting descendant of a member of the raiding party.
However, the Edo people had not forgotten the treasures that had been stolen from them. When Oba Ovonramwen died in exile in 1914, his son and successor took the name Eweka II, harking back to the dynasty’s foundation. He rebuilt the royal palace, commissioned new art and, in the 1930s, began to campaign for the return of his city’s artistic and cultural heritage. His successors continued these efforts, similarly recognising the impact of their predecessors.
In the 15th century, the reign of Ewuare I saw the development of new artistic forms associated with a growing religious reverence for past obas, with statues and plaques honouring deceased obas and iyobas. Under his reforms, the oba was placed at the centre of both political and religious life in Edo. While he was alive, the oba was divine. In death, he was worshipped along with the gods. Casts of ancestors’ heads were, therefore, central to religious life in Edo.
Perhaps recalling that forebear’s influence, the current oba, Ewuare II (crowned 2016), chose a name that reflects his ambition to begin a new artistic and diplomatic golden age for his people. It also nods to his hope for the return of the looted Bronzes, which represented his ancestors’ long heritage – and were last seen decorating the royal palace in a burning Benin City more than a century ago.
Bronwen Everill is the 1973 College Lecturer in History at Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society