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Some Thoughts on Benin
There can be few collectors of African art who have not heard about the British Benin expedition of 1897. Benin City, in Nigeria, was sacked by a British led force, following an attack on a group of British administrators and their African bearers. Hundreds of bronze artworks were removed from the Oba’s palace. Today many of these beautiful objects are to be found in the British Museum in London, and in other European and American museums and private collections. The Government of Nigeria has called for the return of these items.
In order to understand just how this situation came about I have written the following account of what happened. I have tried to be objective in that I do not wish to see events only from a British viewpoint. But this is difficult. So, if you wish to make any comments, then please do so.
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“The Benin Expedition of 1897 was a punitive expedition by a United Kingdom force of 1,200 under Admiral Sir Harry Rawson in response to a massacre of a previous British-led force. His troops captured, burned and looted Benin City, bringing to an end the West African Kingdom of Benin. During the conquering and burning of the city, much of the country’s art, including the Benin bronzes, was either destroyed, looted or dispersed.”
Wikipedia entry. 
In 1897 the city of Benin, now in present day Nigeria, was sacked by a British military force. This action was brought about by the killing of a number of Europeans and Africans a few weeks previously. In order to help pay towards the cost of the expedition upwards of 3,000 works of Benin art were ‘removed’ from the Oba’s (King’s) Palace and later sold. Today many people are calling for the return of the so-called “Benin Bronzes”.
On 24th January, 2011, Professor John Picton published a short article in the Art Newspaper. In the article, titled “Compromise, negotiate, support”, Picton suggested various ways forward in this dispute.  On 6th February, 2011, a person called Kwame Opoku published an on-line reply to Professor Picton’s article. The reply is titled “Compromise on the Restitution of Benin Bronzes? Comments on Article by Prof. John Picton on Restitution of Benin Artefacts” and is highly critical of Professor Picton. 
Opoku’s piece begins with the words, “I read with interest and sometimes, with astonishment the article by Professor John Picton”. In my case it was the Opoku piece that filled me with astonishment.
I do not know anything about Kwame Opoku, other than the fact that he has published a large number of articles on the Museum-Security website, in which he usually calls for the restitution of some art-work or other to Africa.  There is, of course, nothing wrong with him doing so and I am in agreement that there is a case for the return of the Benin Bronzes to the city of Benin. However, I do not feel that his case is strengthened when he publishes an article that is so full of inaccuracies.
Take, for example, this opening paragraph:
To start with, I was surprised that Picton describes the British military force, the so-called Benin Pre-emptive Strike Force that went to Benin on 4th January 1897 and was almost annihilated as “British personnel”. “Personnel” evokes in the average English-speaking person, a group of employees other than a military force. One thinks of the personnel of Shell or other British firms in Nigeria or elsewhere. Perhaps the Professor did not reflect on this but he, as a specialist on African art must surely know that this military force consisted of 9 British military officers and some 250 African mercenaries disguised as carriers. The mission of this army was to launch a surprise attack on Benin City, overthrow Oba Ovonramwen and put in his place an Oba amenable to British imperialism.
I am sorry, but this was not a “military force” or an “army”. The nine Europeans were not “British military officers” and the 250 carriers were just that, carriers, not “African mercenaries”.  Yes, the mission’s leader was intent on removing the Oba, but not by means of “a surprise attack on Benin City”.
It is often said that “truth is the first casualty of war”. In other words ‘truth’ is not always an absolute when it comes to history. This is what the modern day Benin artist and art historian Adepeju Layiwola has to say on the subject.
When we consider the case of the British expedition in 1897, the facts and fiction of that encounter are imprisoned in the emotive language of subjective historicity either emanating from the Bini (the people of Benin City) or the British. On the one hand, the Bini’s viewpoint and, indeed, African historiography, is predicated on oral narratives relayed by ‘eye witnesses’ who can be either ‘gifted’ or ‘guilty’ with their capacity to demolish or embellish historical ‘truths’, depending on when, where and to whom the story is being told. On the other hand, the documentation of Benin history from the fifteenth century has become an integral part of British history…This difference is equally inherent in the linguistic struggle between a set of tempered text-words and phrases such as ‘taken away’, ‘removed’, ‘British Punitive expedition’, ‘British protectorate’ as opposed to others with more odious connotations like ‘looted’, ‘pillaged’, ‘sacking of Benin’, ‘empire’ or ‘territory’. British literature on the expedition will always favour the former expressions, while the Bini accounts adopt the latter. 
The Benin Bronzes have now become the African equivalent of the Parthenon Marbles (following Christopher Hitchens’ lead, I refuse to refer to then as the “Elgin Marbles” ) and their future should be considered by all who profess an interest in Africa and African history. But just what exactly is the ‘true’ story behind the events leading up to the sacking of Benin City? And does it throw any light upon the events that occurred at that time?
COPYRIGHT 2012 Michael Yates, All rights reserved.
No portion of this article nor the accompanying illustrations can or may be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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