Our picture shows the Royal Navy’s HMS Rattler intercepting the Brazilian slave ship Andorinha off Lagos in August 1849 (from Illustrated London News, December 29th 1849).
The Restitution Study Group, speaking for black people who descend from the slaves that West Africa’s kingdoms sold to foreign traders, has been making the point that exporting of slaves to Brazil continued long after the trade to the Caribbean and USA had been stopped. HMS Rattler was the Royal Navy’s first warship with a screw propellor and famously towed HMS Alecto backwards in the Navy’s demonstration of propellor power versus paddlewheeler in 1845.
Rattler was thus well suited to intercept speedy American-built sailing slave ships during the Navy’s blockade of the Bight of Benin. The ILN’s correspondent described the chase:
About two o’clock we were nearly within gun-shot of [Andorinha], when – alas! how uncertain are the things of this life! – a dense mist set in, which obscured the whole horizon, and rendered her for a time invisible. Before the lapse of many minutes, however, she was again sighted by the officer of the watch; and as we had by this time gained so much upon her as to bring her within the range of our guns, we discharged three rounds from a sixty-eight pounder, the last of which, having fallen in rather dangerous proximity to her stern, caused her to heave to, after a most interesting and exciting chase of nine hours’ duration. Thus terminated the career of a vessel whose success is without a parallel in the annals of this revolting traffic.
This vessel was manned by a motley crew, consisting of 39 cut-throat looking fellows, exclusive of her commander, who was a Brazilian of note, and a Spaniard of distinction, nominally as a passenger. It was subsequently ascertained that this large American-built schooner, which exceeded 200 tons burden, had made 11 successful trips [carrying slaves], and had treble that number of escapes. She had been chased from time to time by most of the English and other cruisers stationed in the Bight of Benin, including some of our fastest sailing-vessels.
The narrative from Benin today is that the Oba (King) and his chiefs had abandoned the selling of slaves by the 19th century, just keeping a few to behead or crucify sometimes in honour of the ancestors, a custom which I described recently. It’s since emerged that Ojo Ibadan’s account of Benin’s monstrous regime was printed in at least three British newspapers in January 1899, a month before the South Wales Echo startled its readers with the same story.
Benin, its elites would like us to believe today, was peaceably independent in the 19th century and trading palm oil, ivory and other produce – and it must have back from the world’s museums its bronze artworks, so wickedly looted by the British expedition which deposed the Oba in 1897. But Rattler’s busy campaign in the Bight in 1849-50 undermines this story – West Africa’s slave-selling kingdoms were still in business in the middle of that century, exporting slaves where and when they could, Benin’s Obas not excluded.
The screengrab above is from a remarkable list of “about 2,428 Slave Trade Vessels detained by RN Vessels &c” between about 1810-60, Rattler’s being mainly Brazilian-flagged slavers in the Bight of Benin (the “piratical junks” listed were from a later action with the East Indies fleet). The Alipede appeared, though misspelt as Alepide, in the London Gazette (October 11th 1851). Her master had been Antonio Cipro da Sa Bittencourt, she displaced a modest 90 tons, and after being judged at court in Sierra Leone to have been “equipped for Slave Trade” Alipede was forfeited and condemned to be broken up.
The same page of the London Gazette lists prize money paid to the crew of Rattler’s sister ship Pluto on the blockade for two seizures in early 1850. Royal Navy crews used to get their share of condemned slavers, allotted by rank, for the assessed value of the ship itself and also head money for slaves thus freed. This prize money was an incentive to the sailors, of course, but perhaps a fair reward for risk: thousands of them died of tropical diseases during the decades of the Navy’s blockade. The picture shows Rattler deliberately firing to miss Andorinha, as smashing the slaver with a 68 lb cannonball would sink both ship and slaves. The idea was to enforce surrender – humane, of course, though considering the prize money at stake, practical too.
Nigeria today is in a terrible state: last week its national grid – never robust these days – collapsed entirely, delivering 0% of electrical output for many hours. Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State (which includes Benin City) said while visiting Germany that Nigeria has enough bronzes for now. A fair point, considering the challenges of running any museum – not least its security cameras, alarms, climate control – and keeping its artefacts safe when you have no electricity. Siemens AG seems not yet to have produced the miracle intended in 2022, when a massive restitution of Germany’s museums’ Benin bronzes coincided with its multi-year Nigerian LNG and oil deal, following Siemens’ contract to overhaul Nigeria’s grid.
Remarkably, Nigerians still try to get to Brazil regardless of risk: in July the world was shocked by photos of four men who’d survived a 14 day ocean voyage to Vitória, the capital city of Epirito Santo, perched on the rudder of a cargo freighter (or in its trunking). Other stowaways survive the shorter hop to the Canaries using the same desperate method, while the shipping world debates how many may have been simply swept away and drowned. And how many of the 7,000 boat-borne migrants packed onto Italy’s tiny Lampedusa island this week are Nigerians?
In 2021 the Nigeria Social Cohesion Survey found 73% of its citizens wanted to leave. So without making tasteless remarks about rats and sinking ships, if even a proportion of these millions get their wish, in future more people of Nigerian heritage could see Benin’s artworks in the world’s museums than would ever see them in Nigeria – particularly as bronzes and ivories that have been restituted there so far are being locked up and hidden, at best. These are not merely commodities, unlike the slaves Africa’s rulers used to sell, and descendants of those slaves want them displayed around the world with full explanations of what was done to their ancestors. Art doesn’t of itself right past wrongs, but it can educate.
For foreign museum trustees and curators still to talk of entrusting their world-heritage collections to a country in such chaos is irresponsible. Even for those who accept the principle of returning artefacts, the only sensible course is to halt any talk of restitutions and offer Nigeria’s museums 3D-printed replicas of the precious works, which in the locked display cases they’ll need will be indistinguishable from the originals, and to wait and see whether conditions change.