Colonialism and the expansion of empires

The empire of Benin and its cultural heritage

by Kuljit 'Kooj' Chuhan

The ancient kingdom of Benin began around AD900 although some sources suggest much earlier dates. From its base located in what is now Nigeria, it became a large empire and by around the fifteenth century some sources say that it stretched from Sierra Leone to as far as Congo. Its people were known as the Edo and they were ruled by an Oba (king).

High quality arts

Benin was, and still is, famous for its oral history traditions and for its highly skilled craftsmanship and arts, especially wood carving, weaving and brass casting. Brass casting reached a particularly high level of aesthetic and technical sophistication in the sixteenth century when decorative plaques and sculptures (now known as ‘The Benin bronzes’) were made to decorate the palace of the Oba.

The social structure was complex and sophisticated, and the territory was well developed with the Oba residing in an extremely well fortified and masterfully designed palace. Benin was both the name of the kingdom as well as its central city. In the sixteenth century there was significant trade with Portugal, in enslaved Africans, ivory and pepper along with mutual respect – banquets and presents being offered to each other on a regular basis. The captain of a Portuguese ship, Lourenco Pinto, observed that:

'Great Benin, where the King resides, is larger than Lisbon, all the streets run straight and as far as the eyes can see. The houses are large, especially that of the king which is richly decorated and has Fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such Security that they have no door to their houses'.

In the nineteenth century, Britain and other European powers were shifting from the lesser profitability of slavery to the more profitable direct colonial takeover of African states by signed treaties. Benin held out against this, yet finally agreed to the 'Gallwey Treaty' with the British in 1892, following dubious negotiations.

British looting of Benin

Even so they refused to cooperate with many of the British trading and other demands. In 1897 the British government was keen to add Benin to their tally of countries under their control, and sent a small troop of 10 soldiers to Benin with unclear intentions who were attacked and killed by the Oba’s soldiers. The British government responded by sending 1,200 soldiers, armed with Maxim machine guns to massacre Benin. After 17 days of fierce resistance from Benin’s soldiers and much bloody fighting the British took control of the Kingdom.

Most British casualties were African recruits who were sent on ahead, which the British expended with glee. As Felix Roth, a naval surgeon with the British troops put it:

'No white men were wounded; we all got off scot-free … Our black troops, with the scouts in front and a few Maxims, do all the fighting'.

The city of Benin was burnt to the ground and the Oba’s palace was destroyed and looted of its magnificent and valuable bronze and ivory sculptures which were sold off to pay for the expedition. There are over 1,000 Benin bronzes in various public and private collections, many in Germany and the USA, and around 200 at the British Museum. Both the morality and the legality of holding art collections which have been stolen are being questioned, and there are a number of demands from Nigeria and Benin as well as within Britain that these bronzes should be returned.

The different perspectives on the looting of Benin are explored at: