Benin Plaque: The Oba with Europeans

Brass plaque, from Benin, Nigeria
AD 1500–1600

In 2001 the UK National Census recorded that more than 1 in 20 Londoners were of black African descent, a figure that has continued to rise in the years since. Modern British life and culture now have a strong African component. This development is merely the latest chapter in the history of relations between Africa and western Europe, and in that long and turbulent history the Benin Bronzes, as they used to be known, hold a unique place.

Made in what is now modern Nigeria in the sixteenth century, the Benin plaques are actually made of brass, not bronze. They are each about the size of an A3 piece of paper and show figures in high relief that celebrate the victories of the Benin ruler, the Oba, and the rituals of the Oba’s court. They are not only great works of art and triumphs of metal-casting; they also document two quite distinct moments of Euro-African contact – the first peaceful and commercial, the second bloody.

In these chapters we are looking at objects that chart how Europe first encountered and then traded with the wider world in the sixteenth century. These magnificent sculptures record the encounter from the African side. There are several hundred Benin plaques now in European and American museums, and they offer us a remarkable picture of the structure of this West African kingdom. Their main subject is the glorification of the Oba and of his prowess as a hunter and soldier, but they also tell us how the people of Benin saw their first European trading partners.

This plaque is dominated by the majestic figure of the Oba himself. It is about 40 centimetres (16 inches) square; its colour strikes you as coppery rather than brassy, and there are five figures on it, three Africans and two Europeans. In the proudest relief, on his throne, wearing a high helmet-like crown and looking straight out at us, is the Oba. His neck is completely invisible – a series of large rings runs from his shoulders right the way up to his lower lip. In his right hand he holds up a ceremonial axe. To either side kneel two high-court functionaries, dressed very like the Oba, but with plainer headdresses and fewer neck-rings. They wear belts hung with small crocodile heads, the emblem of those authorized to conduct business with Europeans – and the heads and shoulders of two tiny Europeans can be seen floating in the background.

The Europeans are Portuguese, who from the 1470s were sailing down the west coast of Africa in their galleons on their way to the Indies, but who were also seriously interested in West African pepper, ivory and gold. They were the first Europeans to arrive by sea in West Africa, and their large ocean-going ships astonished the local inhabitants. Before then, any trade between West Africa and Europe had been conducted through a series of middlemen, who transported goods over the Sahara by camel. The Portuguese galleons, cutting out all the middlemen and able to carry much bigger cargoes, offered a totally new kind of trading opportunity. They and their Dutch and English competitors, who followed later in the sixteenth century, carried gold and ivory to Europe and in return brought commodities from all over the world that were greatly valued by the Oba’s court, including coral from the Mediterranean, cowry shells from the Indian Ocean to serve as money, cloth from the Far East and, from Europe itself, larger quantities of brass than had ever before reached West Africa. This was the raw material from which the Benin plaques were made.

All European visitors were struck by the Oba’s position as both the spiritual and the secular head of the kingdom, and the Benin brass plaques are principally concerned with praising him. They were nailed to the walls of his palace, rather in the same way that tapestries might be hung in a European court, allowing the visitor to admire both the achievements of the ruler and the wealth of the kingdom. The overall effect was described in detail by an early Dutch visitor:

The king’s court is square … It is divided into many magnificent palaces, houses and apartments of the courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries, about as large as the Exchange at Amsterdam, from top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles, and are kept very clean.

Europeans visiting Benin in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries discovered a society every bit as organized and structured as the royal courts of Europe, with an administration able to control all aspects of life, not least foreign trade. The court of Benin was a thoroughly international place, and this is one aspect of the Benin plaques that fascinates the Nigerian-born sculptor Sokari Douglas Camp.

Even when you see contemporary pictures of the Oba, he has more coral rings than anybody else and his chest piece has more coral on it. The remarkable thing about Nigeria is that all the coral and things don’t actually come from our coast, they come from Portugal and places like that. So all of that conversation has always been very important to me – we have things that are supposed to be totally traditional yet they are traditional through trade.

The brass needed to make the plaques was usually transported in the form of large bracelets – called manillas – and the quantities involved are staggering. In 1548 just one German merchant house agreed to provide Portugal with 432 tons of brass manillas for the West African market. When we look again at the plaque, we can see that one of the Europeans is indeed holding a manilla, and this is the key to the whole scene: the Oba is with his officials who manage and control the European trade. The three Africans are in the foreground and are on a far bigger scale than the diminutive Europeans, both of whom are shown with long hair and elaborate feathered hats. The manilla shows that the brass brought from Europe is merely the raw material from which Benin craftsmen would create works of art like this; and the plaque itself is a document that makes clear that this whole process is controlled by the Africans. Part of that control was a total prohibition on the export of the brass plaques. So, although carved ivories were exported from Benin in the sixteenth century and were well known in Europe, the Benin plaques were reserved to the Oba himself and were not allowed to leave the country. None had been seen in Europe before 1897.

On 13 January 1897, The Times announced news of a ‘Benin Disaster’. A British delegation seeking to enter Benin City during an important religious ceremony had been attacked and some of its members killed. The details of what actually happened are far from clear and have been vigorously disputed. Whatever the real facts, the British, in ostensible revenge for the killing, organized a punitive expedition which raided Benin City, exiled the Oba and created the protectorate of Southern Nigeria. The booty from the attack on Benin included carved ivory tusks, coral jewellery and hundreds of brass statues and plaques. Many of these objects were auctioned off to cover the costs of the expedition and were bought by museums across the world.

The arrival and the reception of these completely unknown sculptures caused a sensation in Europe. It is not too much to say that they changed European understanding of African history and African culture. One of the first people to encounter the plaques, and to recognize their quality and their significance, was the British Museum curator Charles Hercules Read:

It need scarcely be said that at the first sight of these remarkable works of art we were at once astounded at such an unexpected find, and puzzled to account for so highly developed an art among a race so entirely barbarous …

Many wild theories were put forward. It was thought that the plaques must have come from ancient Egypt, or perhaps that the people of Benin were one of the lost tribes of Israel. Or the sculptures must have derived from European influence (after all, these were the contemporaries of Michelangelo, Donatello and Cellini). But research quickly established that the Benin plaques were entirely West African creations, made without European influence. The Europeans had to revisit, and to overhaul, their assumptions of easy cultural superiority.

It is a bewildering fact that by the end of the nineteenth century the broadly equal and harmonious contacts between Europeans and West Africans established in the sixteenth century had disappeared from European memory almost without leaving any trace. This is probably because the relationship was later dominated by the transatlantic slave trade and, later still, by the European scramble for Africa, in which the punitive expedition of 1897 was merely one bloody incident. That raid and the removal of some of Benin’s great artworks may have spread knowledge and admiration of Benin’s culture to the world, but it has left a wound in the consciousness of many Nigerians – a wound that is still felt keenly today, as Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian writer and Nobel laureate, describes:

When I see a Benin Bronze, I immediately think of the mastery of technology and art – the welding of the two. I think immediately of a cohesive ancient civilization. It increases a sense of self-esteem because it makes you understand that African society actually produced some great civilizations, established some great cultures, and today it contributes to one’s sense of the degradation that has overtaken many African societies, to the extent that we forget that we were once a functioning people before the negative incursion of foreign powers. The looted objects are still today politically loaded. The Benin Bronzes, like other artefacts, are still very much a part of the politics of contemporary Africa and, of course, Nigeria in particular.

The Benin plaques, powerfully charged objects, still move us today as they did when they first arrived in Europe, a hundred years ago. They are arresting works of art, evidence that in the sixteenth century Europe and Africa were able to deal with each other on equal terms, but also contested objects of the colonial narrative.

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