By Charlie Kimber
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2791

The Benin Bronzes — a symbol of Britain’s bloody past

A powerful new book tells a bloodsoaked story of British plunder in Africa
Issue 2791
A bronze hanging in the British Museum appears to show a group of warriors

Beautiful African art, now held in the British Museum as a trophy of Empire (Picture: Son of Groucho on Flickr)

Go to the British Museum in London and you can enjoy the Benin Bronzes, some of the most remarkable examples of African craft and art.

But these beautiful objects are the result of a war crime, looted from part of what is now Nigeria. They are the proceeds of murder, destruction of a highly developed society and racist revenge for opposition to expansion of British rule.

The invasion of Benin in 1897 is the subject of a powerful new book by Paddy Docherty. A large British force, equipped with machine guns, artillery, rockets and all the latest technology of death, smashed the Edo people. After their victory, the army and navy stole many thousands of artistic and cultural treasures and then burnt Benin City to the ground.

British losses amounted to ten dead and 50 wounded. The Edo death toll was probably thousands. But as with imperialist butchery in the modern era, the invaders weren’t counting.

This killing rounded off a long battle to sweep away local rulers and establish a new part of the British Empire. To that end, Britain used deliberate mass starvation and slaughter of civilians. This was buttressed by disgusting slurs of local leaders seeming “like monkeys in personal appearance” and being “semi-savages”.

The wrecking of Benin was unquestioningly cheered on by the media and politicians. One of the few voices of opposition came from Irish nationalist MP John Dillon. He told the House of Commons that far from being about the “blessings of Christianity and civilisation” it had been motivated by the “interest of commerce”.

Docherty says the attempted justification for the assault was two-fold. The first was a form of what’s now called “humanitarian intervention.” Benin’s Oba (King) Ovonramwen was denounced as a despot who presided over human sacrifices.

These claims were highly exaggerated. But newspapers such as The Manchester Guardian took the lead in describing the supposed awfulness of Ovonramwen’s “city of blood”. The second was that Benin’s rulers had sanctioned an attack that killed a small group of British soldiers and officials.

In fact the arrogant British had assumed they could just walk into Benin City without opposition. They soon discovered that the people that they treated with contempt could fight back. 

Docherty is good in describing how the British ruling class was initially wary about occupation of Africa. For financial reasons, and because of limited resources, successive governments outsourced trade to private companies, backed occasionally by British firepower.

But once other powers began pressing their own claims it was necessary to grab territories and establish a permanent military presence. He also looks at the way slavery was replaced by business in “legitimate commerce”. The big slave traders moved, for example, to palm oil exports which were highly profitable. And instead of taking slaves to the Caribbean, the British oversaw their use in Africa on the palm oil plantations.

The Benin invasion was the iron fist to back up the power of bankers and the early multinational companies. The Benin loot became a symbol of that process. It was seized, sold and displayed as the fruits of British success that had overthrown dangerous, exotic and lesser peoples. It was a symbol of racial hierarchy and class strength.

So Docherty is right to rage at the scandalous refusal of the British Museum—and other British institutions—to return the objects to Nigeria. Their refusal underlines how Empire attitudes persist, and how Britain’s rulers will not engage with the blood and filth of their history.

Blood and Bronze by Paddy Docherty is available now from Bookmarks bookshop £20 plus postage. Bookmarks will be hosting a book launch on 21 February, 6.30pm. Paddy Docherty will be joined by David Olusoga in the chair. This live in-person event will be in the bookshop, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London, WC1B 3QE. For details and to book go here

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