Monday, January 12, 2004

Guardian - The Looting of Benin

One West African civilization I neglected to mention was Benin (not to be confused with the modern state formerly called Dahomey). The artistic legacy of Benin is substantial in its own right, and although it shares a great deal in common with that of Ife (with which Benin shared many close links other than the merely artistic), the Edo people gave it an interesting, less realist, interpretation all their own. How fortuitous it is, then, that I came across the above Guardian article, from which the following excerpt is taken:

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 outspread wings."


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 late-Victorian empire-building.


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".


It was the looting of Benin that made African art visible to Europeans. When the seized artefacts were sold, entering the collections of museums, there was a sense of surprise and mystification. Although travellers had written descriptions of Benin City, this was the first time anyone outside Africa comprehended the scale of Benin's artistic achievement. So the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius set out to study and collect African sculpture, while in Britain, serious publications - including, in 1899, the British Museum's catalogue of its Benin acquisitions - laid the foundations for the history of the art of Benin and that of Africa.

There were plenty of ambiguities. Frobenius could not believe that the 12th- to 15th-century brass heads of Ife, which are earlier than the art of Benin, were of African origin; he speculated that they were the work of ancient Greeks from the lost city of Atlantis. And in 1903 Henry Ling Roth published a pioneering book on Benin called Great Benin: Its Customs, Art and Horrors. (emphasis added)

Leo Frobenius' attitude towards African culture is hardly dead in our time, as even now there are numerous people all too happy to accredit the creations of black Africans to nonexistent light-skinned invaders. It is simply taken as a given in many quarters that Africans cannot ever have come up with anything worth noticing on their own, without the guiding hand of some white man to lead them on the road to entitlement. The possibility that black Africans weren't all residing in caves or isolated mud huts is simply dismissed out of hand; one would never guess that such peoples could be capable of constructing structures of the sort over which Olfert Dapper rhapsodized in 1668. Another little-known fact is that Benin possesses the world's longest known series of earthworks, extending to more than 16,000 km in length and covering an area of more than 6,500 square km; they are also the world's second largest man-made architectural feature, after the Great Wall of China - quite a planning achievement for people supposed by some to possess IQs characteristic of mental retards!

PS: A short Wikipedia entry on the Punitive Expedition of 1897 can be found here; the page also provides a link to a more detailed portrayal of what happened in the course of that little imperial adventure. Although I normally wouldn't put too much trust in any site with a name like "Race and History", this article on the Edo people, the founders of Benin, seems mostly accurate, and actually appears to have been written by an Edo person (the name "Osamuyimen" being very much in the typical Edo style).