The first museum in the world to display Benin Bronzes from the February 1897 Expedition was London’s Horniman Museum, and in November 2022 the Horniman became the first to give away its collection.
The Illustrated London News (ILN) of April 10th 1897 showed a small array of items “believed to be the only curiosities which survived the flames” after Benin’s Oba fled and his palace was accidentally burned, and “which have now been acquired by Mr. Horniman for his Free Museum at Forest Hill”. The seller “Mr. W.J. Hider RN” had asked £100 for his souvenirs of the British expedition and has always been thought to be one of its officers: but we can reveal that he was an enterprising Royal Marine Light Infantry medic from the Naval Brigade which overthrew the Oba’s murderous regime, and his sales pitch was less than candid.
Second Sick Bay Steward 150304 Hider, William J. (1873-1962) of the cruiser HMS St. George, flagship of the Royal Navy’s Cape and West Africa Squadron, may have been working alongside the ship’s surgeon Dr. C.J. Fyfe as he was shot dead while tending Marine Capt. G. Byrne – shot in the spine – just as the expedition neared Benin (pictured below). Byrne was to die of his wound in London the following month. Hider fibbed about his birth date to enlist in 1889, well underage, and his son (born on Ascension Island) followed him into the Navy and became a Chief ERA who won the BEM for saving his torpedoed ship in 1943.
The ILN reported that Hider’s haul at the Horniman included a Snider rifle, ivory bracelets, a wooden mirror frame, fans, two ivory executioner’s maces and “a couple of bronze handbells, rung to announce a human sacrifice”. He must have known very well – though apparently failed to tell the museum’s owner – that thousands of remarkable bronze and ivory pieces had indeed survived the palace fire and were on their way to London in crates or in the trunks of officers, rather than a rating’s kitbag. But 2SBS Hider got to Mr. Horniman first.
The British Museum, initially sceptical, later accepted ‘bronze’ plaques and heads (actually brass) and mounted an exhibition in October 1897 – though still unconvinced that these masterpieces of lost-wax casting were indigenous African work – and has added to its world-leading collection in the years since. German museums and collectors competed to buy from London auctions and dealers these African artworks whose significance the British were strangely slow to appreciate, and Mr. Horniman bought more too.
In 2022, a century and a quarter later, the Horniman gave all 72 items of its Benin collection to Nigeria. Trustees were encouraged by their Chief Executive Dr. Nick Merriman (who’d arrived in 2018 and the next year declared the museum’s climate emergency) and press coverage of the handover predicted a wave of restitutions, not least from the British Museum. Professor Aba Tijani, head of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, jubilantly displayed the six pieces he was removing at once. They included one of Marine Hider’s executioners’ maces – whose real function was of course not mentioned – his carved ivory arm-bangle, and the wooden mirror frame. Sixty-six more pieces remained on a 12-month loan, but all 72 were now property of the Nigerian people.
No good deed goes unpunished, as they say. In March 2023, just four months later, Nigeria’s President decreed that all restituted Benin items are the property of the current, ceremonial and entirely unrepentant Oba, and must be handed to him. The Horniman’s six restituted pieces have not been exhibited to the Nigerian people in any museum and nor have items returned from Germany, from the Smithsonian in Washington and others. Everything is just vanishing. The Horniman has negotiated a three-year extension for the remaining pieces but has lost ownership, and Dr. Merriman has risen above his museum’s blunder and will start work as CEO of English Heritage any day now.
Commenting on last week’s three-year loan of Asante gold regalia to Ghana’s ceremonial king by the V&A and British Museum, the British-Nigerian writer Ralph Leonard wrote for UnHerd:
The sad reality is that ‘decolonising’ Western museums will likely mean repatriated artefacts are to be treated as the personal property of redundant African potentates, rather than the common property of the citizenry of these countries. Should this really be the fate of these cultural treasures?
Both the Benin and Asante empires had slavery as part of their social order and were heavily engaged with European powers in the Atlantic slave trade. Indeed, slavery helped them garner the material and productive base to create their wonderful artworks.
These facts shouldn’t dampen our admiration of these artworks… [which] demonstrate the tragedy that is history and the moral quixotism of trying to make the past ‘right’, especially through the symbolism of cultural repatriation based on nationalist mythology.
We should ensure that the treasures of world culture are accessible to as many people as possible. This means defending the cosmopolitan, encyclopaedic museum that publicly displays the various treasures from different civilisations from across the world in relation to each other, for the masses to see and admire…. To simply ‘return’ these artefacts to their lands of origin would be to segregate world culture. The truth is that all these treasures were formed by human beings, and thus they truly belong to us all.
Which matches the views of the Restitution Study Group (RSG), speaking for millions of black Americans who descend from slaves sold by West African kingdoms, notably Benin’s: the RSG calls for its bronzes to remain in the world’s museums, with captions reminding visitors of their ancestors’ suffering at the hands of one of Africa’s most barbarous regimes. But for the 1897 Expedition, its atrocities would have continued into the 20th Century: a stain on humanity.
The difference between the Asante and Benin kingdoms – missed by BBC coverage of the loan, which yet again predicted restitution of the British Museum’s bronzes – was that Ghana’s kingdom had been relatively literate, advanced and wealthy thanks to its gold deposits, and the British did not find its regalia crusted with the blood of human sacrifices as many Benin bronzes were. In 1897, the Benin regime was still predating on its neighbours, enslaving fellow Africans to sell if possible and otherwise sacrifice to the Oba’s ancestors.
Women slaves were routinely crucified, males decapitated or disembowelled, in numbers which appalled the February 1897 Punitive Expedition. Its reports are reminiscent of Richard Dimbleby’s BBC despatch from Belsen. It was to prevent outsiders seeing this mass murder that the unarmed January 1897 British expedition to Benin had been ambushed and slaughtered. Much has changed in the last year and the public is better informed, even if the BBC isn’t yet. Let us hope no more museums will follow Dr. Merriman’s virtue signalling. We must wait to see what damage he does at English Heritage, and what further promotion will be his reward.