Is it time to return the Benin Bronzes?

In 1897 the King of Benin City (in present day Nigeria), Oba Ovonramwen, was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with an agreement he had signed with the British; permitting them to undertake direct trade with locals, limiting his weapons stockpile and banning human sacrifice and slavery – all in exchange for cash subsidies.  Having had enough of these British-imposed restrictions, in defiance, he broke his agreements. 

In January 1897, seeking concord with Ovonramwen, the British government sent an unarmed mission to discuss opening-up trade and the abolition of human sacrifice.  Things went drastically wrong and a gruesome massacre of the British ensued – resulting in the deaths of 230 African clerks and porters and seven British officers.  Adding further tragedy, on 9 February 1897, Britain retaliated with a wholescale attack on the Benin regime, ransacked the Oba’s palace and removed its works of art.   Through a series of historic conflicts Oba Ovonramwen had burnt his bridges with other chiefs, precluding a collective response by the people of Yorubaland[1].  The Oba was subsequently exiled to Ghana and the Kingdom of Benin was integrated into the British Empire, before becoming part of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 1963.

Much of what remains of the palace treasures can be seen in the British Museum today – although the plaques are also in many museums around the world, principally Britain, USA, Germany and Nigeria.

The British Museum is in dialogue with Nigerian Partners about the future of the Bronzes[2].  Upping the ante, in October 2022 the Smithsonian reported that it had returned 29 Benin Bronze artworks to Nigeria[3].  Whilst in December 2022 Cambridge University made moves to see the restitution of 116 historical objects taken by British during the sacking of Benin in 1897[4].

Many of the treasures in the British Museum were acquired by avid collectors from willing sellers, but the Benin Bronzes are more plainly in the loot camp.  It’s a debate that will intensify in the coming months, but any action to return the bronzes will require the UK parliament to repeal the British Museum (1963) and Heritage (1983) acts.  It’s also likely that restitution will impose some safeguards, to prevent the risk of dissipation of the treasures once returned.  And it may also result in an element of sharing the treasures between Western and Nigerian museums[5].

Photos (c) Essential London

[1] Falola, Tony. The history of Nigeria. (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1999).

[2] British Museum, ‘British Museum story – Benin bronzes’, [online].




Leave a Reply