The Case of Benin
Memorandum submitted by Prince Edun Akenzua
I am Edun Akenzua Enogie (Duke) of Obazuwa-Iko,
brother of His Majesty, Omo, n'Oba n'Edo, Oba (King) Erediauwa
of Benin, great grandson of His Majesty Omo n'Oba n'Edo, Oba Ovonramwen,
in whose reign the cultural property was removed in 1897. I am
also the Chairman of the Benin Centenary Committee established
in 1996 to commemorate 100 years of Britain's invasion of Benin,
the action which led to the removal of the cultural property.
"On 26 March 1892 the Deputy Commissioner
and Vice-Consul, Benin District of the Oil River Protectorate,
Captain H L Gallwey, manoeuvred Oba Ovonramwen and his chiefs
into agreeing to terms of a treaty with the British Government.
That treaty, in all its implications, marked the beginning of
the end of the independence of Benin not only on account of its
theoretical claims, which bordered on the fictitious, but also
in providing the British with the pretext, if not the legal basis,
for subsequently holding the Oba accountable for his future actions."
The text quoted above was taken from the paper
presented at the Benin Centenary Lectures by Professor P A Igbafe
of the Department of History, University of Benin on 17 February
Four years later in 1896 the British Acting
Consul in the Niger-Delta, Captain James R Philip wrote a letter
to the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Salisbury, requesting approval
for his proposal to invade Benin and depose its King. As a post-script
to the letter, Captain Philip wrote: "I would add that 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."
These two extracts sum up succinctly the intention
of the British, or, at least, of Captain Philip, to take over
Benin and its natural and cultural wealth for the British.
British troops invaded Benin on 10 February1897.
After a fierce battle, they captured the city, on February 18.
Three days later, on 21 February precisely, they torched the city
and burnt down practically every house. Pitching their tent on
the Palace grounds, the soldiers gathered all the bronzes, ivory-works,
carved tusks and oak chests that escaped the fire. Thus, some
3,000 pieces of cultural artwork were taken away from Benin. The
bulk of it was taken from the burnt down Palace.
It is not possible for us to say exactly how
many items were removed. They were not catalogued at inception.
We are informed that the soldiers who looted the palace did the
cataloguing. It is from their accounts and those of some European
and American sources that we have come to know that the British
carried away more than 3,000 pieces of Benin cultural property.
They are now scattered in museums and galleries all over the world,
especially in London, Scotland, Europe and the United States.
A good number of them are in private hands.
The works have been referred to as primitive
art, or simply, artifacts of African origin. But Benin did not
produce their works only for aesthetics or for galleries and museums.
At the time Europeans were keeping their records in long-hand
and in hieroglyphics, the people of Benin cast theirs in bronze,
carved on ivory or wood. The Obas commissioned them when an important
event took place which they wished to record. Some of them of
course, were ornamental to adorn altars and places of worship.
But many of them were actually reference points, the library or
the archive. To illustrate this, one may cite an event which took
place during the coronation of Oba Erediauwa in 1979. There was
an argument as to where to place an item of the coronation paraphernalia.
Fortunately a bronze-cast of a past Oba wearing the same regalia
had escaped the eyes of the soldiers and so it is still with us.
Reference was made to it and the matter was resolved. Taking away
those items is taking away our records, or our Soul.
In view of the fore-going, the following reliefs
are sought on behalf of the Oba and people of Benin who have been
impoverished, materially and psychologically, by the wanton looting
of their historically and cultural property.
(i) The official record of the property removed
from the Palace of Benin in 1897 be made available to the owner,
the Oba of Benin.
(ii) All the cultural property belonging
to the Oba of Benin illegally taken away by the British in 1897,
should be returned to the rightful owner, the Oba of Benin.
(iii) As an alternative, to (ii) above, the
British should pay monetary compensation, based on the current
market value, to the rightful owner, the Oba of Benin.
(iv) Britain, being the principal looters
of the Benin Palace, should take full responsibility for retrieving
the cultural property or the monetary compensation from all those
to whom the British sold them.