AFRICANGLOBE – The British punitive expedition of 1897 goes down in history as one of the darkest episodes of Britain’s imperial past on the continent. It also unwittingly kick-started the european obsession with stealing African art and artefacts that has reached its apogee today.
In 1896 the British acting Consul-General, James phillips, organised an expedition to the Kingdom of Benin in southern Nigeria against the express wishes of the Oba, Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, who had asked for privacy during the sacred Igue ritual. The party was ambushed and all but a handful were killed.
The British retaliated with a military force that murdered the inhabitants, set fire to the oba’s palace and humiliated and exiled the chief. The British carted off 3,000 pieces of art from the palace including bronzes and elephant tusks, which they sold at auction to “pay for” their losses and which are now disseminated in museums and collections around the world.
Thirty of them, classed as duplicates, were sold back to Nigeria by the British Museum between 1950 and 1972.
Since independence, Nigeria has sought the return of the Benin bronzes to no avail. But where institutions and governments have proved intransigent one individual acted according to his conscience: Mark Walker, the grandson of one of the men involved in the British plunder of Benin City, gave two of these statues back to the current Oba of Benin in 2014 in a gesture that, it is hoped, will inspire others to do the same.
By: Alison Culliford