British museums may loan Nigeria bronzes that were stolen from Nigeria by British imperialists

The Benin Bronzes were stolen in the looting that occurred during a punitive British expedition into what is now Nigeria  

Adam Lusher
Sunday 24 June 2018 18:09 BST
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Benin Bronzes at the British Museum
Benin Bronzes at the British Museum

Nigeria might be willing to let Britain, the imperial power that stole its Benin Bronzes, return them on just a loan basis rather than giving them back permanently, it has emerged.

While other countries, like Greece over the Elgin Marbles, have refused to accept anything other than a permanent return of treasures seized during the colonial era, it seems that some Nigerian officials might be willing to settle for borrowing back what was stolen from them.

Nigeria has been seeking the return of the bronzes ever since the country gained independence from Britain in 1960. The treasures were plundered during a punitive British expedition in 1897, which culminated in Benin City being burned and looted.

Two hundred of the Benin Bronzes were taken to the British Museum, although some items have also gone to museums in Oxford and Cambridge, and others have ended up in institutions all over Europe and the US.

The Benin Bronzes eventually joined Ethiopia’s Maqdala treasures and the Elgin Marbles in being artefacts whose permanent return was resisted by Britain, often on the grounds of legislation banning museums from permanently disposing of their collections.

Other governments, including Ethiopia and Greece, have rejected the idea of loans and demanded full returns, saying they should not have to borrow their own stolen property.

In Nigeria, however, there are signs that a loan may now be accepted.

Godwin Obaseki, governor of the modern Nigerian state of Edo where Benin City is located, has revealed that European museum officials have floated the idea of returning the bronzes on loan and he has responded positively.

“Whatever terms we can agree to have them back so that we can relate to our experience, relate to these works that are at the essence of who we are,” he said, “We would be open to such conversations.”

Mr Obaseki said he was now discussing the loan idea with Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), adding that local authorities had already earmarked a site for a new museum to take the returns.

“In some cases it could be a permanent loan and in some cases it could just be for temporary display. In other cases it could be a return of works,” he said.

The NCMM said senior officials had held talks with representatives of European museums to discuss a loan.

A NCMM spokesman said: “Nigeria is not averse to the loan of artefacts.”

If agreed, the loan would be highly controversial, but it might be seen as a success for the Benin Dialogue Group, which was established in 2007 to try and work out a way to have a permanent display of the bronzes in Benin City, their original home.

Before being taken by the British, the bronzes adorned the palace of Oba [king] Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, the fabulously wealthy ruler of Benin, a different territory to the area that became the modern-day African country called Benin.

Disputes over trade between Ovonramwen’s Benin and Britain eventually culminated in the Acting Consul-General in the region, James Phillips, setting off towards Benin City in defiance of the Oba’s request for him and his delegation to stay away.

Philips’ motives seem to have been revealed in the postscript to a letter that he had written to Lord Salisbury in November 1896: “I have reason to hope that sufficient ivory would be found in the King's house to pay the expenses incurred in removing the King from his stool."

Before he could depose the Oba, however, Philips and all but two members of his delegation were ambushed and killed.

Despite nearly all accounts agreeing that the Oba had not ordered the January 1897 ambush, Britain organised what became known as the Punitive Expedition, led by Admiral Sir Harry Rawson.

After a fierce battle, the British force captured Benin City on February 18 1897. They torched the city, sent the Oba into exile and looted some 3,000 artworks from his palace.

Among them were the bronzes, many of which now reside in the British Museum. One Benin bronze - a sculpture in the shape of a cockerel – even found its way to the dining hall of Jesus College, Cambridge, after being bequeathed in the will of a former British Army officer in 1930.

In 2016, however, the college removed the artwork from display after students complained about its looted origins.

In March last year representatives of ten European museums - including those in Germany and Austria as well as the British Museum in London, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology - attended a Benin Dialogue Group meeting in Cambridge.

The British Museum told Reuters it had not received a formal request for any loans from Nigeria’s government.

Museum spokeswoman Hannah Boulton told Al Jazeera: "It is absolutely not the case that everything in the museum's African collection was plundered or looted or whatever phrase you want to use.

“But obviously there are certain circumstances or certain events that happened, and certain examples like the Benin Bronzes, where that material wouldn't have come into the collection the same way today.”

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