The scramble for Africa’s lands, minerals and labour by European nations seeking wealth and glory forever changed the ways in which many of the continent’s civilisations operated. The introduction of European practices and the idea of their superiority altered the path of Africa in fields ranging from religion to medicine to even the calculation of time. Africa was a land rich with art and culture. The Malian Empire produced about half of the world’s gold supply at the time, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe demonstrated masterful architectural design with its layering of granite to create structures without using mortar and the Kingdom of Benin boasts beautiful and intricate crafts. During the invasion of Africa’s great lands, many artefacts were removed from their places of origin and have ended up in several museums and private galleries across the world. This week, Germany has accepted the return of artefacts from the Kingdom of Benin known as the “Benin Bronzes”.
The Kingdom of Benin was established around the 13th century with its location in what is now known as Nigeria. Their artisans famously crafted sculptures and plaques from ivory, wood and brass. These creations were usually used to depict historical moments such as the rise of a new Oba (king) and many were used to adorn the altars of Oba’s and Queen Mothers who had passed. A great number of the Benin Bronzes were used to decorate the walls of the Benin Royal Palace as a way to show the history of the Kingdom. Trade between the Portuguese and the Kingdom for these crafts, as well as pepper and gold, was prominent. The artisans even began to make saltshakers for their European trading counterparts.
The Kingdom of Benin was thriving, however, in the 19th century the strength of the Kingdom began to dwindle as the royal family fought for the rights to the throne and civil war erupted. This prevented the once ever so mighty Kingdom from resisting British interference in their trading relations. In 1897 a great tragedy struck the Kingdom. The British invaded the Benin City and set it ablaze, the Royal Palace was engulfed in flames. The British looted the great city, and many artefacts were taken to the UK or given to the forces according to rank. This attack was justified as being a retaliation to the attack of a British trade expedition on their way to Benin City. From there the Benin Bronzes were sold to museums and private dealers in the UK and Germany with some being donated to the British Museum. Over 500 of the Benin Bronzes can be found in the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and restitution is said to begin as of next year. The artefacts will be held in Edo Museum of West African Art that is to be constructed in Benin City, Nigeria.
Maintaining a cultural identity is important no matter where one is from. Although they have a relatively wide audience in the museums that have held them for the past decades, this audience likely does not reflect the people that created them. The return of artefacts to African nations from which they were stolen is a way to provide individuals a chance to connect with their cultural history as well as to educate them on their ancestral practices.