Bronze Cockerel from Benin Kingdom to be returned to Nigeria

Benin Kingdom_Okukor2
Bronze cockerel ‘Okukor’ at Jesus College in Cambridge (Source: The Guardian)

Another return of an artifact from a Western institution to an African country, which I applaud… but I remain guarded. Why am I skeptical? Well, because if over 50% of artifacts in the great museums of this world (Louvre, British Museum, MET, Tervuren, etc) which generate a lot of money, and knowledge to western schools, researchers, etc, is made up of looted treasures… will the benefactors of the loot willingly return these? And if they return these, who is to say that it is the real thing? One should not expect a thief not to cheat you again! Below are excerpts from the article in The Guardian. Enjoy!

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Rooster from Benin Kingdom (18th century)
Rooster from Benin Kingdom (18th century) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the MET)

A bronze cockerel taken by British colonial forces and donated to Jesus College Cambridge is to be returned to Nigeria in an unprecedented step that adds momentum to the growing repatriations movement.

The Okukor, described by the college as a “royal ancestral heirloom”, will be one of the first Benin bronzes to be returned to Nigeria by a major British institution since the punitive expedition in 1897 when thousands of bronzes were stolen from Benin City by British forces.

No specific date for return has been released but the college stated that the bronze cockerel “belongs with the current Oba at the Court of Benin”. The return was recommended by Jesus College’s Legacy of Slavery Working Party (LSWP), a group dedicated to looking at the institution’s connections to slavery, which confirmed the piece was donated in 1905 by the father of a student.

[…] Victor Ehikhamenor, a Nigerian artist and member of the Benin Dialogue Group, said: “No matter how small the gesture may look, it is a huge step towards the realisation of restitution of the works from the Benin Kingdom that were looted by the British. This is very important example, which I hope other Europeans, especially British institutions, will follow without any excuses or delays.”

Dan Hicks, a professor of archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and a representative of the Benin Dialogue Group, said: … In the past, our attention on this matter was focused on national collections like the British Museum and the V&A – but in reality such loot is held in dozens of institutions across the regions: city museums, art galleries and the collections of universities.”

[…] The Jesus College announcement comes almost exactly 12 months after the release of a report commissioned by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, which recommended the return of colonial-era artefacts by France.

Queen from Benin kingdom
Queen from Benin kingdom (at the MET)

The report’s authors, the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and the French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, told the Guardian that the British Museum, which houses a huge collection of the Benin bronzes, was acting like “an ostrich with its head in the sand” by not acting faster on repatriations.

[…] Since the release of the report, Ivory Coast, Senegal and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have made formal requests for the return of artefacts. European countries including France and Germany have committed to handing back objects, with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam opening talks with Sri Lanka and Indonesia and describing the Netherlands’ failure to return stolen artefacts as a “disgrace”.

The news comes a week after Open Society Foundations (OSF) announced a $15m initiative aimed at strengthening efforts to “restore cultural objects looted from the African continent”. …

Looted Ancient Egyptian Artifacts are Returning Home

Coffin of Shesepamuntayesher, mummified 2600 years ago (National Geographic)
Coffin of Shesepamuntayesher, mummified 2600 years ago (Source: National Geographic)

It is true: some ancient Egyptian artifacts smuggled into the US are returning home. For many years, people looted the graves of pharaohs in Egypt and smuggled their finds by express shipping to the US (and other countries – particularly in Europe). Excerpt of an article in National Geographic reads:

Some 2,600 years ago, an Egyptian woman named Shesepamuntayesher was mummified and laid to rest in an elaborate three-part coffin to ensure the continuation of her life force and the beginning of an eternal afterlife.

Stylized face of Shesepamuntayesher depicted on her coffin (Source: National Geographic)
Stylized face of Shesepamuntayesher depicted on her coffin (Source: National Geographic)

Shesepamuntayesher’s afterlife has unfortunately included a trip to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and an ignominious stop in a garage in Brooklyn, New York. On Wednesday, thanks to a five-year investigation by U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the empty sarcophagus that once cradled her mummy is being returned to Egypt, where it will be housed in the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo.”

The damages done to Egyptian culture, and many African cultures, by art smugglers and looters cannot be quantified. It is important to fight to preserve these ancient cultures which tell us so much more about some of the world’s greatest civilizations, and about humanity in general. So it feels good to see art going back to their land of origin: like the looted art from Benin Kingdom which was returned to its people, or the great Obelisk of Axum, which was stolen by the Italians in 1935, and later returned after countless demands from the Ethiopian government in 2005. Please do check out the rest of the article on National Geographic.

When Looted Art is returned to Nigeria

Pendant Ivory mask representing Queen Idia, Iyoba of Benin City (16th Century)
Pendant Ivory mask representing Queen Idia, Iyoba of Benin City (16th Century)

A British man recently decided to return looted art that his grandfather had taken (stolen?) away during the 1897 Benin City Massacre. The article about the art returning is on BBC. I do salute the man for doing it; and I wish the British museums and museums around the world will return art looted by Europeans in African countries and countries around the world. True, the man excuses his grandfather’s acts by saying: “We are taught from a very young age that the killing of enemy combatants under the umbrella of statehood is a regrettable necessity of life.” And excuses the art looting by saying, “To him [his grandfather], it was probably no more than picking up stuff that’s washed up on the beach, because people had fled and nobody owned them any longer.” But he is happy they are now back in Benin City. “These objects are part of the cultural heritage of another people… to the people of Benin City, these objects are priceless.”

I also decided to link back to the story I wrote a while ago about the Benin City Massacre.

Benin City: the Majestic City the British burnt to the ground

Pendant Ivory mask representing Queen Idia, Iyoba of Benin City (16th Century)
Ivory mask representing Queen Idia, Iyoba of Benin City (16th Century)

Today, I would like to tell you about Benin City, the great city at the heart of the Benin Kingdom.  The city, not at all related to the present-day country of Benin, was burnt to the ground by the British who were amazed by its beauty and wealth (just like many ancient kingdoms in the Americas were burnt to the ground by Europeans).   I would like to tell you about this ancient beautiful city whose art still marvels millions of people everyday in worldwide museums: Benin City.

Benin City around 1600
Benin City around 1600

Benin city was the capital of the kingdom of Benin (in present day Nigeria) which was founded in the 13th century by the Edo people, and flourished between the 14th and 17th centuries.  Its early name was Ubinu, which later was turned into Bini, and then Portuguese called it Benin.  The kingdom was ruled by an Oba or king, in a very well-structured hierarchy.  Starting in the late 15thcentury, Benin traded with Europeans items such as ivory, pepper, palm oil, and cloth.  From history books, it is said that the city was laid out in a sophisticated system of huge straight streets, very wide, long, and well-maintained.  Houses were built in rows along the streets.  These houses had covered porches to protect people from the sun or rain, as they sat outside.

Benin City in 1897
Benin City in 1897

The Oba governed over the entire region.  Oba Ewuare, the first gold age Oba, is credited with turning Benin City into a military fortress protected by moats and walls known as the Walls of Benin.  It was from this bastion that he launched his military campaigns and began the expansion of the kingdom from the Edo-speaking heartlands.  At its peak, the empire extended from Onitsha in the east, through the forested southwestern region of Nigeria and into the present-day nation of Ghana.

The state developed an advanced artistic culture especially in its famous artifacts of bronze, iron and ivory.  The Benin artists mastered the art of bronze, iron, and sculpture. The most well-known artifact based on Queen Idia, popularly called the FESTAC mask, currently resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in New York City.

Rooster from Benin Kingdom (18th century)
Brass rooster from Benin Kingdom (18th century)

The Punitive expedition of 1897 was a military excursion by a British force of 1,200 under Admiral Sir Harry Rawson that captured, burned, and looted the city of Benin, bringing to an end the West African Kingdom of Benin.  During the conquering and burning of the city, most of the country’s treasured art, over 3,000 pieces of art work, including the Benin Bronzes, was either destroyed, looted or dispersed.  The British used one of their favorite tactics to burn the city to the ground: deception – they claimed that the Omo n’Oba Ovonramwen had breached a treaty (they wanted to annex Benin Kingdom as a British protectorate, and the Oba refused to sign).  When the Oba realized that the treaty presented to him was a deceptive ploy to conquer his people, he issued an edict barring all British officials and traders from entering Benin territories.  Since the consul general of the Oil River Protectorate authorities considered the ‘treaty’ legal and binding, he deemed this a violation of the treaty and a hostile act.  Repeated attempts by the British to invade the Benin Kingdom followed, but without success.  In 1896, the major Phillip tried to attack and seize the city of Benin without approval from his superiors.

Art from Benin kingdom (18th century)
Art from Benin kingdom (18th century)

However, the Benin noblesmen decided to send a strike force to destroy the invaders (just normal, if an invader comes to burn and loot your place, you strike to defend yourself).  Only two British soldiers survived.  This came to be known as the ‘Benin massacre’ in the British press (In the eyes of the British crown, this was the perfect excuse to attack the Benin kingdom).  On January 12, 1897, Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson, commanding the squadron at the Cape of Good Hope was sent by his high commandment to capture the Oba of Benin and destroy Benin City.  The operation was named ‘Benin Punitive Expedition.’  The invasion of Benin kingdom was launched on February 9, 1897.  The field commanders were instructed by their commander-in-chief to burn down all Benin kingdom’s towns and villages, and hang the king once captured.

Queen from Benin kingdom
Queen from Benin kingdom

On February 17, 1897, Benin City fell to the British.  On that fateful day in history, the city of Benin lost its independence, its sovereignty, its Oba (king), its beauty, and its control of trade.  The city was looted and burnt to the groundThe ivory at the palace was seized.  Nearly 3000 of the famous Benin Bronzes and other valuable works of art, including the magnificently carved palace doors, were carried back to Europe.  The Oba was exiled to Calabar with his two wives, and subsequently died there.  Today, every museum in Europe possesses art treasures from Benin.

To read a detailed account of the destruction of Benin city, check out the Benin Massacre page. Edoworld.net tells about the Benin Kingdom and its magnificence, as well as its destruction. The art pieces shown on this page are all exposed at the MET, and pictures were taken during my visit to the MET. Watch and enjoy a quick history of Benin City.