Looted treasure: part of the
British Museum's Benin collection. Photo: Frank Baron
Thursday September 11, 2003. The Guardian
We set fire to the Queen
Mother's house and those of several chiefs; the fire spread uncontrollably and
destroyed a large part of the city. The royal palace was also burnt, although we
claimed this was accidental. The royal palace of Benin was one of the great
cultural complexes of Africa, a continent that, according to Victorians, wasn't
supposed to have anything like it. It was a court as big as a European town.
"It is divided into many palaces, houses, and apartments of the
courtiers," reads Olfert Dapper's enthusiastic 1668 account, "and
comprises beautiful and long square galleries... resting on wooden pillars, from
top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of
their war exploits and battles... Every roof is decorated with a small turret
ending in a point, on which birds are standing, birds cast in copper with
An engraving shows the soaring spires with their metal birds. These may have
represented the Bird of Prophecy that Esigie, the 17th-century oba, or king, of
Benin is said to have killed after the bird squawked of disaster as he set out
to war. And then it was no more. The palace was gone, the city wrecked, a
culture halted overnight. It was, after all, a punitive expedition.
The European "discovery" of African art began with the British
punitive expedition against Benin in 1897. This series of articles about art and
the British empire begins there, too. The empire for a long time was shoved out
of historical memory, an embarrassment that, in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Britain
wanted to forget. Perhaps it is because it's safely in the dust that people now
find the story complex, interesting and full of ambiguities.
None of that purported complexity was apparent in 1897 when Benin was
crushed, its treasures stolen as if its people had produced nothing and knew
nothing. The destruction of Benin City happened at the most irrational period in
the history of the empire, when Britain competed with the French, Germans and
Belgians to grab as much of the African continent as possible. Between 1880 and
1902 Britain seized Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, the Sudan and Rhodesia; it
established possession of South Africa and controlled eastern Africa from the
Cape to the Suez Canal, fulfilling - partly - the megalomaniac dreams of
imperialists such as Cecil Rhodes and Joseph Chamberlain. The attack on Benin
took place in the year of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, Empress of
India. The Daily Mail, voice of popular imperialism, had been founded the year
before. A year later Rudyard Kipling published The White Man's Burden:
"Take up the White Man's Burden/Send forth the best ye breed."
The best ye breed. Ralph Moor, governor of Britain's west African Niger Coast
Protectorate, had a problem. British traders were outraged that Oba Ovoranmwen,
ruler of the still-independent Benin, demanded customs duties from them. A
British officer, Lt James Phillips, set out under Moor's authority to lay down
the law to the oba. As Phillips approached Benin City - with eight British
officers, 200 porters and a band - he was ambushed. The British officers were
killed. Moor now had a casus belli for the annexation of another bit of Africa.
The punitive expedition set out two months later, led by Sir Harry Rawson with
1,200 British troops. Oba Ovoranmwen was put on trial and exiled.
It resembles one of those episodes of cultural misunderstanding that
anthropologists love to tell. In fact, Benin had been dealing successfully with
Europeans since the 15th century, when the Portuguese began to trade in west
Africa. Oba Ovoranmwen had every reason to think he could maintain favourable
trading terms with the British. He reckoned without the hysteria of
The Victorians were decent people, moral people. They were even moral about
art - so much so that they missed out on the revolutionary art of the
avant-garde being created in wicked Paris. Most of all, the Victorians were
moral about their empire. The great Victorian art critic John Ruskin made one of
the most passionate encomia of the morality of empire in his inaugural lecture
as Slade professor of art at Oxford in 1870. The event was so sensational that
it had to be transferred to the Sheldonian Theatre to accommodate the crowd.
"This is what England must do," Ruskin declared, "or perish: she
must found colonies as fast and as far as she is able, formed of her most
energetic and worthiest men."
A photograph taken in 1897 shows these very best men sitting among the ruins
of Benin, smoking, smiling. On the ground in front of them are treasures of
16th-century art: brass plaques that decorated the pillars of the oba's palace.
Nine hundred of these plaques were found in a storehouse, having been removed
during redecoration of the palace. Along with these powerful pictorial reliefs,
the punitive expedition discovered the rich artistic culture of Benin going back
well before Portuguese contact: heads of Queen Mothers and other ancestors -
such as the elegant, stately and vigorously alive 16th-century head of a Queen
Mother, now in the British Museum - and snakes and hunters, all cast in brass by
the lost wax process. Some of these treasures were privately looted. But many
were taken back to Britain officially as "reparations".
The language of empire degenerated so easily. The brutality of the punitive
expedition was the foaming consequence of Ruskin's fervent idea, the moralism
supposed to be the British Empire's character. The killing of Lt Phillips and
his officers was slavered over in Britain as an atrocity committed by a
blood-soaked sacrificial culture. And so the classic art of Benin was brought to
London to be sold to provide compensation for the families of the British
Ruskin, as far as I know, never commented on the art of Benin. Doubtless he
would have found it, as he did a lot of things, disgusting and repellent. But in
truth, there never was a better embodiment of all he thought best in art.
Ruskin's brilliance was to argue for the rough, the rugged, the organic in art,
which he saw as an expression of a flowing, holy communal life. The art of Benin
was made, as Ruskin said art should be made, in a spirit of community and faith,
by anonymous craftsmen.
It shows. The Benin plaques and sculptures in the British Museum are at once
imaginative and classical, with a compelling mixture of smoothness and
sharpness, natural observation and unforced fantasy. Brass was the preferred
medium of the royal art of Benin because its redness was beautiful and menacing,
with an authority and a fiery presence that makes this art live. It has lived
longer, anyway, than the British empire.