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Afrodescendants Claim Rights to Benin Bronzes—They Belong to All of Us

We are the Restitution Study Group (RSG), a New York-based non-profit founded in 2000 to campaign for innovative approaches to healing the injuries of historically exploited people. We have supporters within and act on behalf of communities of descendants of transatlantic enslaved Africans globally. Since 2000, one of our primary efforts has been to secure restitution from organisations complicit in the enslavement of Africans between the 16th and 19th centuries by working in partnership with community advocates in litigation, legislation, genealogical research, and direct action.

 

In later years, our work has focused on fighting for our voices to be heard in relation to the artworks known as the Benin Bronzes. Crafted by master guild workers[1] in the Kingdom of Benin between 1500 and the 1800s,[2] these several thousand pieces proclaim key events in Benin history, showcase the divinity of the oba (the king of Benin), and celebrate the wealth and power of the Benin Kingdom. The bronzes are an important and dynamic spiritual, historical, and cultural link to our ancestors for us descendants of transatlantic enslaved Africans, and the homelands, language, and culture from which we have been separated. They are icons of our conflicted, multi-faceted identities.



Some cultural institutions in the Western world have started to ‘repatriate’ bronzes to Nigeria (the modern-day location of the Kingdom of Benin). However, these bronzes have not been placed in a museum for the benefit of the public but have vanished into private hands. The loss of these cultural objects is made more egregious because the full provenance of the bronzes was not examined before they were ‘returned’. Below, we will explore the need for museums to engage properly in provenance research, and to implement more robust procedures, to ensure that the voices of all interested communities are heard.

 

Provenance

 

Taken from Benin City in a British raid in 1897, arguments around the bronzes’ restitution have narrowly focused on the alleged rights of the state of Nigeria to these artworks. However, there can be no doubt that the bronzes, cast from the currency of slavery, must be subject to the rights of the descendants of those whose lives were exchanged for their raw material.

 

We know from contemporary records that manilla bracelets, made from metal mined in central and northern Europe, were used as currency by European slavers, and exchanged with local slavers (including contemporary obas and Benin Kingdom slave traders) in return for enslaved Africans. Recent, cutting-edge scientific research has proven this beyond any doubt, as Dr Tobias Skowronek’s pioneering study of the metallurgical composition of the manillas used by the Kingdom of Benin metalworkers has demonstrated. In Dr Skowronek’s words:

 

Although the importance of European brass, including the potential role of Rhenish sources, in African casting industries has long been recognized, this study definitively identifies the Rhineland as the principal source of manillas at the opening of the Portuguese trade. Millions of these artefacts were sent to West Africa where they likely provided the major, virtually the only, source of brass for West African casters between the 15th and the 18th centuries, including serving as the principal metal source of the Benin Bronzes. […] Manillas had no purpose in European societies: they were a product specifically produced for the African trade and it is clear from documentary sources that Africans were selective in the products they accepted. Edo metalsmiths were likely well aware of the better casting qualities of the Portuguese ‘tacoais’ type manillas, and these were subsequently demanded in trade. Ongoing research may afford additional insights into other West African casting traditions.[3]

 

The currency given in exchange for enslaved people represents those lives lost.[4] We know that in the 16th century, an adult female West African cost 50 manillas; an adult male cost 57.[5] How many destroyed lives therefore does a single Benin Bronze represent? How many displaced families? The bronzes serve as votive vessels for our ancestors’ souls and their memories. They are priceless not because of their artistic merit, but because of this potent spiritual dimension. Western institutions justify handing bronzes over to the descendants of the Oba and Nigerian slavers (those who were not uprooted from their homeland) on the basis of the 1897 conflict, without listening to the voices of us descendants of transatlantic enslaved Africans, who to this day encounter racism and oppression in different parts of the world. Therefore, in order to fully assess any claim made in respect of the bronzes, it is not enough to look to the events of 1897, but rather it is necessary to face the uncomfortable truth about exactly who was involved in the trade of our ancestors, and the rights this confers on descendants of transatlantic enslaved Africans today.

 

How Claims Ought to be Assessed

 

Whilst there is no one consensus amongst museums as to how restitution and repatriation claims should be dealt with, there are common threads. The main issues around eligibility usually focus on the circumstances in which the objects were taken (whether there was any illegality/compulsion); the cultural or spiritual significance of the objects to a particular community or nation; and the historical and scholarly importance of the objects. Above all, close attention must be paid to the moral force of any given claim. Restitution claims are one of the few areas where a moral argument may override legal title, especially as institutions across the world feel increasingly called upon to ‘do the right thing’. The Restitution Study Group has sent letters setting out the moral arguments and our community’s interests in, and rights to, the Benin Bronzes to numerous stakeholders, starting in 2022, before most repatriation decisions were taken.

 

Once the institution’s process for hearing the claim begins, there is no consensus on the steps that should be followed. However, there are instructive guidelines. The Arts Council England has published detailed guidelines entitled ‘Restitution and Repatriation: A Practical Guide for Museums in England’,[6] which offer a wealth of instructive information on the steps institutions should follow when dealing with claims. For example, they should investigate the claim by carrying out (where necessary) further research; they should meet with the claimant to discuss their aims; and they should prepare a report on the claim, to be considered by an independent decision-making body. Following such steps, they should ensure that there is transparency, fairness, and collaboration for all claimant parties throughout the claim process.

 

Given this overarching focus on the moral impetus of a claim, it is astonishing that institutions have not conducted full provenance research before ‘repatriating’ the bronzes, and that the claims of descendants of transatlantic enslaved Africans has been ignored in this sphere. Institutions cannot assert that repatriation has been made on moral grounds, when they are handing over objects to the descendants of elite Africans and have failed to even engage with the claims of the descendants of the enslaved, for whom the bronzes hold almost sacred significance.

 

The Need for Ongoing Debate: A Revised Approach

 

The descendant community’s rights to and interests in the bronzes have been ignored for too long. Western institutions have adopted a reductive and indeed proto-colonial approach to the bronzes’ provenance by focusing solely on the British raid in 1897 and ignoring the circumstances in which the bronzes were created in the first place and the material from which they were cast.

 

Because descendants of transatlantic enslaved Africans continue to be excluded from the ‘dialogue’ around the Benin Bronzes, access to which is tightly regulated by museum curators and Western state representatives, such exclusion is perpetuating the same inequalities that once led to the bronzes’ creation. Indeed, a handful of museums have already ‘jumped the gun’ and ‘returned’ bronzes to Nigeria, while proudly announcing their supposedly anti-racist and anti-imperial credentials on all available channels. This has happened despite our protestations of the fact that those bronzes have since been transferred to a private collection in Nigeria. They are now exceedingly unlikely to be accessible to the general public in Nigeria, let alone to members of our community.[7] The bronzes were not so much ‘returned’ as simply ‘handed over’.

 

The presumption of a number of Western institutions has been that they do not need to consult with us, nor even hear us out. These acts of ‘restitution’ are a fiasco and represent an incalculable loss to our community.

 

Framing the debate in a way that ignores much of the objects’ provenance is not only historically inaccurate but allows West African elites to avoid taking responsibility for their communities’ historic role in the slave trade. There is virtually no chance that the objects will remain accessible to our community once they have been handed over to private collections in West Africa. The spiritual connection we have with the bronzes will be forever lost, as will be the educational opportunity and the chance to find innovative ways of healing and overcoming painful aspects of the history of slavery, which literally is not ‘black and white’. This is not something any institution of learning and education should take lightly. Unfortunately, this statement must be directed at the University of Cambridge, too.

 

The origins of the bronzes lie in slavery. The act of forcing people into chattel enslavement—capturing them; shackling them like animals; taking them away from their country and homeland; and transporting them overseas in squalid conditions in order to undertake forced and unpaid labour—is one of the most egregious and harrowing examples of concerted, organised violence in human history. Indeed, according to the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, between 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million African people were enslaved and transported to the New World. Two million of those captives died on the voyage in appalling conditions, from disease, malnutrition, and, in some cases, murder.[8]

 

Slavery remains a problem to this very day. A recent CNN report has revealed how Benin City is the heart of modern-day human trafficking.[9] A meaningful debate about the Benin Bronzes requires consideration of history without editing out those parts that may be uncomfortable for African elites today. That includes inviting the government of Nigeria and the oba of Benin to examine the roles that their communities played in perpetuating violence against fellow West Africans, which led to them using the proceeds of slavery that are the starting point in the bronzes’ provenance chain. To hand over further bronzes to Nigeria and/or the oba or his family, without having this discussion with descendants of transatlantic enslaved Africans, thereby denying us any say in the future of the bronzes, would be like enslaving our ancestors all over again. Our voice must be heard.

 

Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, Esther Xosei, and Sheila Camaroti Silva


Deadria Farmer-Paellmann is a lawyer and the executive director of RSG. Her pioneering work has led to legislative change in New York concerning the roles of American banks in financing chattel enslavement and the transatlantic slave trade, and today she coordinates the campaign for joint rights over the Benin bronzes for descendants of transatlantic enslaved Africans globally.

 

Esther Xosei is a leading scholar and activist in the International Social Movement for Afrikan Reparations in the UK. She is co-vice chair of the Pan-Afrikan Reparations Coalition in Europe and serves as the legal advisor for the Stop the Maangamizi: We Charge Genocide/ Ecocide Campaign.

 

Sheila Camaroti Silva is a Brazilian descendant of enslaved Africans. Now resident in Germany, she campaigns for greater historical literacy around slavery and forced migrations and is an advocate for RSG’s work globally.

 

[1] Barnaby Phillips, Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes (Simon and Schuster 2021) 6: ‘For hundreds of years, the Igun Eronmwon guild worked for its one and only patron, the oba. He provided security—slaves, money, and other gifts—but little freedom’.

[2] See Oriiz Onuwajeobaro Ikime, The Benin Monarchy: An Anthology of Benin History (Whitefox Publishing Ltd 2020) 205.

[3] See Tobias B Skowronek et al, ‘German brass for Benin Bronzes: Geochemical analysis insights into the early Atlantic trade’ (2023) 18(4) PLOS ONE e0283415.

[4] Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution (Pluto Press 2020) 219: ‘Most [bronzes] were cast from brass, melting down the manillas and wire that the copper producers of Bristol, London and Liverpool traded for enslaved people, transforming the very substance of a transaction between humanity and inhumanity, objecthood and subjecthood, and forming memory markers for significant events’.

[5] Bryan Freyer, Royal Art of Benin: In the Collection of the National Museum of African Art (Smithsonian 1987) 54.

[6] Arts Council England, ‘Restitution and repatriation: a practical guide for museums in England’ (Arts Council England) <https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/supporting-arts-museums-and-libraries/supporting-collections-and-cultural-property/restitution-and-repatriation-practical-guide-museums-england> accessed 10 April 2024.

[7] Oliver Moody, ‘Berlin’s Benin bronze return a fiasco as artefacts vanish’ The Times (London, 8 May 2023), <https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/berlins-benin-bronze-return-a-fiasco-as-artefacts-vanish-jq9xsn9cf> accessed 10 April 2024.

[8] ‘Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database’ (Slave Voyages) <https://www.slavevoyages.org/voyage/database> accessed 10 April 2024.

[9] Nima Elbagir, Hassan John, and Lillian Leposo, ‘A smuggler’s chilling warning’ (CNN World, 27 February 2018). See Phillips (n 1) 32: ‘slavery had existed in Edo society before the Europeans arrived and would continue after Europeans had abandoned the trade’.

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