Loudly though it demands restitution of ancient artefacts from Western museums, the Nigerian Government seems less concerned about the Benin Bronzes which it already owns. Where exactly are they? The questions just keep coming.
Germany signed over 1,130 bronze artworks from five of its state museums on July 1st 2022. Two were presented to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) that day, 20 more at Abuja five days before Christmas.
All the rest now belong to the NCMM, with a few allowed to remain on display in German museums for up to 10 years (but no more than 40 at a time) and the rest in storage. Despite Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock’s claim in Nigeria that she was returning the bronzes to “you, the people”, they’ve not been seen by the Nigerian people since. The NCMM’s director, the modestly-qualified Professor Abba Tijani, has been quietly handing them over to the Oba (King) of Benin.
In 2018 the enormous ‘Benin Red Book’ was published, propaganda for the present Oba and his forebears covering 592 lavishly printed pages. It weighs 4.8kg without slipcase and Blackwell’s have some new copies online at £55.99 post free – a snip at £11.65 a kilo (you even get ten free teabags). Official title: The Benin Monarchy, an Anthology of Benin History.
Full-page colour plates show Benin ivory and bronze artworks, many credited to German, British, American and Austrian museums (the German pieces now belong to Nigeria of course). Many other pictures are unsourced, but bronzes on pages 73 and 82 are credited to “National Museum, Benin” – the NCMM’s own museum in Benin City.
In November 2022, the German-financed Digital Benin database went online. This splendid resource shows 5,246 artefacts in 131 institutions around the world; the fifth-biggest collection is the 285 pieces at the National Museum, Benin, illustrated with either modern colour snaps or old sepia photos stapled to file cards. Neither of the NCMM’s own bronzes which are shown in the Oba’s propaganda volume is listed. So where did they go between 2018 and the end of 2022?
Since independence in 1960 there have been repeated, well-reported thefts from Nigeria’s state museums, some of which artworks have been returned but many not – the best known being the Windsor Castle Oba which General Gowon stole from Lagos museum to give to Queen Elizabeth II on his state visit in 1973. Why are curators and trustees in the U.K. and America persisting in efforts to restitute bronzes to Nigeria, which seems unable to keep them safe?
The Oba’s book is interesting for a number of reasons. A 1970 colour photo across pages 70 and 71 shows blood-soaked ancestral altars with massive carved ivory tusks and bronze heads, bells and plaques. Bronzes which the 1897 Punitive Expedition found on display in Benin – the ones now shown, cleaned up, in Western museums – were crusted with the blood of human sacrifices then. Presumably by 1970 it was only chicken gore which was being splashed on the altars, to honour the ancestors and in memory of the mass sacrifice of prisoners and slaves in former times.
A modern colour painting on pages 302-3 imagines street fighting in Benin as the expedition deposed Oba Ovonramwen. Most of the advanced column which entered Benin were in fact black soldiers, not the blood-crazed whites shown here, and nor was there any fighting inside the city. A couple of the notoriously inaccurate rockets which the expedition had aimed in the general direction of Benin as it fought through the jungle had landed, by a fluke, in the Oba’s palace compound, so he and his supporters ran away into the bush. Those two rockets prevented an awful lot of bloodshed.
Nor was the city burnt on February 18th: thatched roofs on the far side of town caught fire by accident three days later, and strong wind blew the flames across to the Oba’s palace. The blaze was so sudden and unexpected that only the wounded in the temporary ‘hospital’ and the expedition’s ammunition could be saved from the flames. Officers lost everything but the clothes they stood up in, provisions too, so they were delighted when the Illustrated London News correspondent arrived that evening and shared out his three months’ personal provisions before they set off back to the coast next morning.
The Red Book’s text is as contentious as one might imagine, but fair enough, he who pays the printer may always call the tune. It’ll make a splendid doorstop.
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