21 Apr Real Life Wakanda: A look at how Europeans looted African art.
At the end of the 19th century, the Kingdom of Benin in Nigeria had managed to retain its independence and the Oba (King) Ovonramwen (1857-1914) exercised a monopoly over trade which the British found irksome. As is with story of European colonialism, the Benin territory was coveted by an influential group of investors due to its rich natural resources such as palm-oil, rubber and ivory. After British consul Richard Burton visited Benin in 1862 he wrote of Benin’s as a place of “gratuitous barbarity which stinks of death”, a narrative which was widely publicized in Britain and increased pressure for the territory’s subjugation. This is real life, no Wakanda.
The British were obsessed with overthrowing every African king and taking control of their resources by any means necessary. The Oba was not at all interested in the dishonest trade practices displayed by the British army and effectively ended the trade of Palm Oil in 1896 which just heightened the need for the British Army to take over the territory forcefully and send the King into exile.
A punitive expedition
After a Benin strike set in place by the King’s advisors to protect the kingdom from what he believed would be an ambush attack, On Feb 9th, 1897, the British set out on a “Punitive Expedition” by a United Kingdom force of 1,200 men.
Destruction of the City’s Walls
Homes, religious buildings and palaces were deliberately torched. On the third day, the blaze grew out of control and engulfed part of the city. The city’s walls were once the largest earthworks created in the pre-mechanized era and were estimated to be four times longer in total than the Great Wall of China. Little evidence of these structures still exist after destruction at the hands of the British.
Troops captured, burned, and looted Benin City, bringing to an end the West African Kingdom of Benin.
Most of the plunder from the city was retained by the expedition with some 2,500 (official figures) religious artifacts, Benin visual history, mnemonics and artworks being sent to England. The British Admiralty confiscated and auctioned off the war booty to defray the costs of the Expedition.
About 40% of the art was accessioned into the British Museum, London, some works were given to individual members of the British Military as spoils of war, and the remainder was sold by the British Admiralty to pay for the expedition as early as May 1897 at auction in London (Stevens Auction Rooms, 38 King Street, London, May 25, 1897, followed by several sales at William Downing Webster, Bicestor, between 1898-1900).
Most of the Benin bronzes sold at auction were purchased by museums, mainly in Germany. The dispersal of the Benin art to museums around the world catalysed the beginnings of a long and slow European reassessment of the value of West African art. The Benin art was copied and the style integrated into the art of many European artists and thus had a strong influence on the early formation of modernism in Europe.
Writer: Nigerian-American, Aizehi Nomo is graduate of the University of California Los Angeles, Herb Alpert School of Music; Department of Ethnomusicology. She is a singer, writer, content creator and forever student. Co-founder of Jazz Hands for Autism and a regular contributor to Amplify Africa and AfroPunk she uses her platform and art to create meaningful discourse and advocacy for marginalized communities.