By Paddy Docherty
My first encounter with the Benin Bronzes was in a happy springtime about fifteen years ago, when I found myself swept up into a relationship with a British Nigerian woman, who identified closely with her family connections to Benin City. At the time, I had a hazy idea that the British Museum held a collection of superb sculptures from the historical Kingdom of Benin, and knew that neither of us had seen them, so one day I surprised her with a museum trip.
That visit to the British Museum will always stay with me: few people could forget their first sight of the Benin Bronzes. The remarkably stylised figures from history and myth, the rich colouring of the alloys, the stunning skill behind the elaborate casting; everything combines to deliver a powerful impact. That wonderful spring day therefore remains fresh in my memory all these years later.
From this pleasant beginning, however, my experience of the Benin Bronzes later took a darker turn. Besides the happy recollections, one thing I carried away from that visit was a deep curiosity about how exactly the Bronzes came to be in London and, most especially, since they were taken in an act of colonial violence, why are they still there? The British Museum signage is factual but very brief, mentioning the “Benin Punitive Expedition” of 1897 but leaving a great many unanswered questions. To my surprise, an authoritative history of this episode of British Empire history was not then readily available, so I resolved that some day I would write one.
Happily, although it took me longer than expected, I can now say that the book exists… Blood and Bronze: the British Empire & the Sack of Benin was recently published by Hurst & Co. It tells the story of the British intrusion into what is now southern Nigeria, leading inexorably to the brutal attack on Benin during which the entire cultural patrimony of the country was packed up and shipped to London. Despite being fairly familiar with British colonial wrongdoing, I was nonetheless surprised and appalled at what I found in the archives – some truly grotesque official lawlessness, including a cover-up at the very highest level of the British government.
What I found only emphasised the moral case for returning the Bronzes to Nigeria. Given the currency of the topic, and the misunderstanding of the history which sadly some people are willing to promote, it is urgently important that people know the full story behind the British seizure of the Benin treasures, and become aware of the terrible wrongdoing behind their being in London and other cities of the rich world. With this important task in mind, I am delighted to say that I will be joined by the leading public historian David Olusoga at a special event at Bookmarks on February 21st – we’ll be discussing my book and taking your questions. Please come and join us.
Paddy Docherty is the author of Blood and Bronze: the British Empire & the Sack of Benin, published by Hurst. He is on twitter @paddydocherty. Register for the event here.
Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts