Curators affectionately refer to the label describing an artwork as its “tombstone.” Like a tombstone, it contains only the most essential information, including the years when it was created and when it entered the museum’s collection. In a museum, as in a graveyard, any movement by the buried object after this last date is cause for great concern.
Dan Hicks, the Curator of World Archeology at Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, does not agree. He has written a masterful condemnation and inspiring call to action, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution (Pluto Press, 2020), arguing that Western museums should return most of the artifacts that were taken from colonized countries. He focuses on unearthing the violent history of one group of these objects: the approximately 10,000 objects taken from Benin City, in what is now Nigeria, in the aftermath of an 1897 British Navy Punitive Expedition.
These artifacts, now in museums and private collections across the world, include many cast metal plaques and other sculptures, and so are known as the Benin Bronzes (although they are actually brass). More than 1,000 of these plaques, produced over the course of 500 years, decorated the palace of the Oba, the ruler of the Kingdom of Benin. They showed hunters with muzzled leopards, warriors and courtiers, acrobats leaping with rattles and bells, and the Portuguese travelers with whom Benin had been trading since the 16th century. In Benin’s Edo language, the verb sa-e-y-ama means both “to cast a motif in metal” and “to remember.” In pre-literate Benin, the plaques were memory made material.
The Kingdom coalesced by the 11th century in the Niger Delta, where it controlled the land and water routes connecting the African interior with the Atlantic. By the time the British invaded, the Obas had used their wealth to make Benin City into a “sacred monumental landscape.” But Benin’s power, which had created its splendor, threatened British trading interests.
Although officially independent, Benin lay within Britain’s Niger Coast Protectorate, an administrative creation of the Colonial Office which was supposed to respect local sovereignty while defending the area from claims by other European powers. After decades of failed attempts, Protectorate officials finally negotiated a trade treaty with Benin in 1892, so that “citizens of all countries may freely carry on trade in every part of the territories of the King.”
But less than two months after Oba Overami signed a treaty by marking an X, the Protectorate’s Consul General was writing to the British Prime Minister to tell him that the Oba had “paralyzed” commerce in the “very rich” Benin territory. Supposedly, the Oba had used his religious authority to announce that trading was taboo for the commodities Britain desired: rubber and palm oil, which was important as a lubricant for the factories birthed by the Industrial Revolution.
The Oba could not be permitted to slow the wheels of British commerce. Like other African protectorates, the Niger Coast Protectorate often used its troops to enforce treaties with violence. The Consul General concluded his letter by writing that he doubted trade would be as open as desired without “a severe struggle, and a display, and probable use of force” to overthrow the Oba and undermine Benin’s religion as a whole.
This letter, as well as other evidence marshalled by Hicks, shows colonial administrators were thinking about using force to increase Britain’s profit nearly five years before the Punitive Expedition. The death of James Phillips provided an eagerly seized excuse.
Phillips, the newly arrived Acting Consul for the Niger Coast Protectorate, informed the Prime Minister in late 1896 that the Oba was executing those who dared trade in palm kernels. (He might have been attempting to enforce tariffs on trade goods.) Phillips insisted that “pacific measures are now quite useless” and “there is only one remedy… to depose the King.” He asked permission to assemble a force of 400 troops to carry out this deposition, reassuring the Prime Minister that he would probably seize enough ivory from the Oba’s storehouses to pay their expenses. Already, military reinforcements for an as-yet-determined mission had entered the Protectorate, and the waterways leading to Benin City had been surveyed in preparation for an attack. Both Phillips and the Prime Minister would likely have thought that the public would support this use of force. British newspapers had carried reports throughout 1896 about calls from missionaries and traders to prevent the Oba from wielding quite so much power over the spiritual and commercial fates of his people.
In December 1896, Phillips set off to visit Benin City to ask the Oba to remove his trade restrictions. Phillips timed his visit for the Ague Festival, during which it was well known that the Oba was in ritual isolation and could not receive visitors. A royal official also warned Phillips that any white man seeking to enter Benin City during this period would be killed.
Phillips persisted, and he was. Two of the white men who accompanied him escaped the attack on the road to Benin City, and the other six were either killed then or later, during the Punitive Expedition’s attack. Their 250 Kroo carriers were also either killed or taken captive.
Hicks makes a convincing argument that Phillips’ mission was designed to fail. The Protectorate could justify the force it already planned to use if the Oba refused to adhere to the treaty. Of course, Phillip’s death provided a vastly more magnificent excuse for deposing the Oba than a mere refusal to parlay.
The Benin Punitive Expedition, which took place over 18 days in February 1897, took full advantage of British public outrage. It deployed 5,000 European and African soldiers and carriers in three simultaneous advances. One column marched through the jungle from the coast toward Benin City, while two flotillas of warships and gunboats advanced up flanking waterways with the goal, as one participant put it in his memoir, “to harass and destroy towns and villages while the main operations lasted, and so increase the punishment inflicted on the nation.”
The British forces ludicrously outpowered those of Benin. The sale of “arms of precision” had been prohibited within the Protectorate since 1893, supposedly to inhibit the slave trade. But while Benin’s soldiers were fighting with flintlock guns and knives, the Punitive Expedition brought more than 3 million bullets to stock its 1,200 bolt-action rifles and more than 30 Maxim machine guns.
Eight members of the Punitive Expedition were killed in action. Hicks digs into British administrative records to demonstrate that Benin’s losses must have been enormous. The flotillas were instructed to “destroy all towns” along their route, and Hicks’ descriptions of machine guns spraying bullets “continually and indiscriminately” into the bush as the British advanced, and of thousands of shells and rockets raining down on undefended settlements, bring to mind Vietnam and Iraq. Hicks also points to the ominous silence in British records of any mention of help for displaced, wounded, or captured Africans.
The silence of the records was deliberate. Colonial authorities already knew that the British public did not like the idea of machine guns mowing down armies fighting with medieval technology, as had been shown by their outcry over the killing of 8,000 Zulu warriors in the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War. The authorities responded not by stopping massacres, but by stopping keeping records of them.
The Punitive Expedition was not satisfied with killing people. They also intended to kill a culture. The Expedition’s Chief of Staff’s to-do list after the taking of Benin City reads “Ju-Hu houses to blow down… Queen Mother’s house to be burnt.” The Expedition destroyed Benin City’s mausoleums, hundreds of homes and administrative and religious buildings, and the artisan workshops that produced Benin’s splendor. Hicks calls this process, undertaken to break the power of religious prohibition on trade, a deliberate “transformation of a living sacred and royal place into an archaeological site.” Within a month, the British had built a golf course. Its ninth hole lay where the city’s most important sacred tree had been.
Besides the plaques, they also took the artwork decorating 35 ancestral shrines, one for each of the unbroken line of Obas who had ruled from 1440 onwards, and hundreds more statues, body ornaments, ceremonial objects, and carved ivory tusks. The vast majority of Benin loot was handled by the white men who participated in the Expedition, who used it for personal profit. Within months, some of them had sold Benin loot to European museums, who rapidly put it on display.
And there, largely, it remains. Oba Akenzua II made the first formal request for repatriation of the loot in 1936. This, along with most other subsequent Nigerian calls for repatriation, was ignored. Descendants of looters have voluntarily returned a few looted objects, but Nigeria has had to purchase the rest of the Benin objects it has on the open market (where they can sell for millions).
By laying out the extremities of what he calls the Expedition’s “ultraviolence” and diagnosing it as a malevolent instance of white fragility, where the avenging of an injury justified “the suspension of any normal moral codes,” Hicks intends to do away with any lingering sense of the fairness of Western museums keeping the Expedition’s loot. He also wants to explore what it means for them to display it. Drawing on the Afro-Caribbean intellectual Aimé Césaire’s 1955 Discours sur le colonialisme, which described European ethnography museums as places where “a secret contempt of others dries up our hearts,” Hicks posits that colonial-era anthropology museums were designed to set out concise visual arguments in support of anti-Black racism. Displays of human skulls and photographs purporting to document racial types alongside prehistoric stone tools and other “crude” artifacts reassured citizens of their biological or cultural superiority. Otherwise, they might have worried that their victories over the colonized were due merely to the technological superiority of the machine gun.
Museums taught visitors that Africans were both other and less: alien minds in inferior bodies whose tendency toward violence could be controlled only through force. As the introduction to H. Ling Roth’s influential 1903 book Great Benin: Its Customs, Art and Horrors puts it, “the wide physical and mental differences that exist between the white and black man” meant that “an African is no more an under-developed European than a rabbit is an undeveloped hare.” As Hicks puts it, loot was displayed to illustrate an origin myth — a just-so story explaining why Africa deserved its punishment and subjugation.
These ethnographic displays operated in parallel with other galleries presenting the story of Western civilization. Oxford, for example, boasted two museums of archeology. One, the Ashmolean Museum, held antiquities from Greece and Rome along with British works of art, making the claim that roots of British civilization could be traced back for many millennia. In the Pitt Rivers Museum, on the other hand, visitors saw non-Classical antiquities from “primitive” cultures.
The two museums presented two sets of ancestors: one to worship and the other to shun. The British stole the objects from Benin’s ancestor shrines in order to decorate their own.
The obvious technical and artistic mastery of the Benin Bronzes posed a bit of a problem. They did not, by themselves, demonstrate Benin’s primitivity. But their tombstones told the story of Benin’s murder of innocent British citizens, making the message of their display clear. Viewers should not be fooled by African cultures that seemed to be as ancient, as skillful, or as human as their own, for Phillips’ death seemed to prove that the primitive violence of the inferior African would always emerge in the end.
Hicks compares displays of colonial loot to Nazi exhibitions of “degenerate art.” Both tried to persuade viewers of the inferiority of those who made the them. This message of inferiority then paved the way for persuading the public to accept their dispossession and extermination. But while museums removed displays of photographs and models of racial “types” when their association with Nazi cruelties became too patent, displays of looted artifacts remained.
The founding statement of the activist group Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford pointed out that students from formerly colonized countries come to the university only to “find their own history held hostage, bequeathed to the archives by their oppressors.” In Oxford’s museums, these students see themselves not as scholars but as objects of inquiry. Thus, Hicks argues, these displays continue to serve the same purpose as they did when they were created: showing the superiority of the colonizer over the (formerly) colonized.
The louder the calls to repatriate the Bronzes become, the louder is the message of their continued display: the needs of the people who want the artifacts to leave the museum matter less than the needs of the people who want them to stay. Museums who oppose returning the Bronzes demonstrate their belief in the superiority of European and American museums and academic institutions over those of Nigeria. This isn’t full-blown white superiority, but it is uncomfortably close.
Western museums have complex justifications for their retention of the Bronzes. Hicks makes such swift work of demolishing these justifications that one wishes he had included a summary chart. One of these reoccurring arguments is, as on opinion writer put it in The Guardian in 2018, that the descendants of the Benin royal court are not “morally worthy owners” of the Bronzes unless they “apologize for slavery.” Benin’s artisans cast the Bronzes using copper that the Obas acquired in trade for the people they sold to Europeans. Hicks acknowledges that Benin profited from slavery, but describes how many of the museums now holding major collections of the Bronzes did, too. The British Museum, for example, was created to house the 71,000 items collected by Sir Hans Sloane, who left them to the British nation on his death in 1753. Sloane’s collecting was made possible by his immense wealth derived sugar plantations, worked by enslaved Africans, in colonized Jamaica.
Meanwhile, General Augustus Pitt-Rivers, whose donation of 30,000 objects formed Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, inherited the money he used for collecting from relatives who owned Caribbean sugar plantations. He also benefited from his share of the payments they received following emancipation in 1838. In the only form of reparations for slavery that Britain has ever paid, slave-owners were richly compensated for the supposed loss of their property. If we require “morally worthy owners” of the Bronzes to show that they or their ancestors never profited from enslavement, we would have few to choose from.
Nor is enslavement the only cruelty that Europeans profited from in Benin. In the months before Phillips’ failed excursion, Parliament had been debating whether to consolidate its West African sphere of influence into a united colony. Sir George Goldie, founder of the Royal Niger Company, which held an official charter to trade in the area, saw his opportunity. Since Britain would have to buy out his charter, Goldie, like a tech executive timing the announcement of a new product for the eve of his company going public, did what he could to goose the price of his little empire. Hicks demonstrates how influential Goldie must have been in planning the Punitive Expedition and proclaiming its triumph to the British public. By November 1897, with the Punitive Expedition fresh in their minds, Parliament had decided to revoke the Company’s charter, ultimately agreeing to pay £865,000, along with half of all the income from mining on the 500,000 square miles of their former territories for the next 99 years, for what the Company had demonstrated was so hard won.
The Company retained its trading stations in what became the colony of Nigeria. By 1910, nearly a thousand large rubber plantations had been established by the colonial Forest Department around Benin City. The gradual tightening of control over Benin’s trade had finally been completed. The Royal Niger Company was absorbed into Unilever only in 1987. And Unilever, of course, is still garnering criticism for profiting from forced and child labor on palm oil plantations.
The signage in museums holding Benin Bronzes today generally mentions that Nigerians want them back. Vienna’s Weltmuseum, for example, even features a whole gallery on the “Shadow of Colonialism,” where visitors can use fancy touchscreen tables to take polls on their thoughts on how the museum benefited from “appropriation and colonial violence.” Hicks impatiently dismisses all this as virtue-signaling, with museums taking the opportunity to say that they care about the issue of colonial-era collecting without actually doing anything about it. For Hicks, no amount of re-writing labels or “shuffling around of stolen objects in new displays that re-tell the history of empire” will prevent museums from repeating colonial violence “as long as a stolen object is present and no attempt is made to make a return.” Just as the glorification of white supremacy on a Confederate monument still shines forth, no matter how many “contextualizing” signs might be clapped on its base, so, too, does the retention of the Bronzes continue to work to justify colonialism.
The rewritten labels are now accompanied by announcements of “dialogue groups” and the commissioning of official reports on repatriation, but even the most promising of these beginnings have had a way of trailing into inaction. For example, in a 2017 speech at a university in Burkina Faso, the French President Emmanuel Macron said he “cannot accept that a large share of several African countries’ cultural heritage be kept in France” and promised “to do everything possible” to return “African heritage to Africa” within five years. Three years later, Macron’s sweeping promise has led to zero returns. Currently, the French National Assembly is considering a bill that would allow for the repatriation of a paltry 27 objects looted from Benin — but only if Nigeria builds a suitable museum to house them.
Other European institutions, including the British Museum, are also waiting for new museums which may never arrive. Even then, they have promised only to loan, not return, their loot. Even this is an advance, seeing as how the British Museum, although it has often loaned its Benin objects to other Western museums, has repeatedly claimed they are too fragile to loan to Nigeria.
Hicks’ vision of the future of museums is one in which “nothing is stolen, where everything is present with the consent of all parties.” He proposes that museums refill themselves by commissioning new works by artists from the dispossessed communities, “to bear witness” to the losses of colonialism. He would like to see the Bronzes returned not to Nigeria but to the Benin Royal Court. (The current Oba, Ewuare II, who holds a master’s degree in Public Administration from Rutgers, ascended to the throne in 2016 and is known for his work to decrease human trafficking.) But he thinks that it is not his place, nor that of any other holder of loot, to dictate what is done with it after its return.
Both Hicks and I are white academics, trained in the very systems of archeology and anthropology that worked so hard to demonstrate that people who look like us are superior to people who do not. Commendably, although he has worked closely with them, Hicks avoids speaking for Nigerians or others directly impacted by the harms of colonialism. Instead, he identifies a role for descendants of colonizers: “to change the stories that we tell ourselves.”
Hicks believes that the rise of unabashed racism means the West has never needed the expertise of anthropologists more, to show Europeans and Americans that there are other, equal, ways of seeing, knowing, making, and living in the world. But he calls on the largely white field of curators to disavow their authority while offering their expertise in service of repatriations.
As a first step, Hicks wants curators to write what he calls, adapting Achille Mbembe’s theory of necropolitics, “necrographies” — histories of loss which can inform restitution claims. One urgent initial project is simply to find the loot. Hicks’ new inventories, the first major attempt to locate the Bronzes since Philip Dark’s 1982 catalogue, cover at most two thirds of them, perhaps less. Many of the vanished Bronzes are undoubtedly in private collections, but even major museums have been slow to catalog their Benin holdings or to make that information available. It is telling that Hicks, with all the resources of Oxford behind him, had to take to Twitter to find Bronzes, asking his followers to tag collections with “#BeninDisplays.”
As a last-ditch effort, Western institutions often justify their holding of Benin loot by claiming that at least it has been better preserved in their hands than it would have been if it remained in Africa. As the Oxford art historian John Boardman put it succinctly in 2016, “rape proved to be a rescue” for the Bronzes. Hicks deftly demonstrates the “sheer chaos and haphazard contempt” that has actually characterized Western treatment of the Bronzes. In some cases, the loot was scattered so randomly among new owners that two plaques forming one image are now in different institutions. For example, a Portuguese trader’s legs are in Vienna, 900 miles away from the rest of his body in the British Museum. And as late as 1972, the British Museum was selling off Benin plaques deemed to be “duplicates.”
Although The Brutish Museums is specifically directed to curators, Hicks also suggests an activist role for museum audiences. The Western public has played a crucial role in the fate first of Benin and then of the Bronzes. They were looted in part to teach the public a lesson, and the public has so far passively accepted that lesson. It is past time to change.
We can all protest the ongoing display of Bronzes. In the United States, for example, Hicks had identified 38 institutions that hold Benin loot, from the 26 plaques in the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the lone one in a university art gallery in Iowa City. The public can also refuse to participate in sales of Benin objects. In 2010, a Nigerian-led campaign successfully prevented the sale of loot by a descendant of one of the leaders of the Punitive Expedition, but the sales continue. Christie’s attempted to auction a Benin plaque as recently as June 2020.
“Restitution is not subtraction,” Hicks argue, “it is refusing any longer to defend the indefensible.” The continued display of Benin loot is a continued violence. Museums are not neutral. They bear the prejudices and hatreds, the idealizations and dreams, of the people who create, study, and visit their holdings. Returning the Bronzes will not heal the wounds inflicted in their taking. But it will take the knife out.