1897 British punitive expedition against the Benin Kingdom and its aftermath

By Sue Berryman

What are the Benin bronzes?

The Kingdom of Benin (Edo Empire), located in what today is south-central Nigeria, flourished from the 13th century AD until 1897 when the British annexed it.  It was a wealthy and highly developed kingdom with artefacts in brass[1] and ivory of highly skilled production and of unparalleled beauty and dynamism. In 1935 a French art dealer and collector called it the “Athens of Africa” (Paudrat p. 245, n. 37).  

Brass casting in Benin may have originated in the 13th century.  Casters used the lost wax method (cire perdue) to produce artefacts that affirmed the centrality of the Oba, or divine king.  The artefacts portray the Oba’s divine nature, record the kingdom’s significant historical events and the Oba’s  involvement with them, and honour his deified ancestors.  The Benin bronzes include a large range of objects produced by members of the casters guild—plaques (figure 1), commemorative head sculptures (figure 2), elaborate and rare altarpiece sculptures; ornate staffs and other regalia that might have been carried by members of the royal court; animals (especially leopards—figure 3); and  large birds and articulated snakes that adorned the roofs of the palace in Benin City (Sutton, n.p.[2])

1897 British Punitive Expedition

A root cause of the 1897 British Punitive Expedition was economic.[3] After starting to trade with Portugal in the late 15th century, Benin established trade with the French, Dutch, and English around 1550. In the 19th century, palm oil became the most important export commodity from the West African Coast. It was used as a lubricant for machinery and as an ingredient in soap products in a trade dominated by British compa­nies. The British government thus began taking an inter­est in the region and established the Protectorate of the Bight of Biafra in 1849 and the Protectorate of the Bight of Benin in 1852.

During “the Scramble for Af­rica,” the Berlin conference of 1884-85 divided up Africa into different spheres of influence among the European colonial powers, with the Benin Kingdom falling within the British sphere. The British set up a Protectorate in 1891, first named the Oil Rivers Protectorate (after the major export product) and then the Benin Coast Protectorate from 1893. In 1892, Henry Gallwey, vice-con­sul of the Oil Rivers Protectorate, managed to sign a treaty with Ovonramwen, the Oba (king) of Benin, where Oba Ovonramwen, in exchange for receiving the “gracious favor and protection” of the British government, considerably reduced the independence of the Benin Kingdom.

Oba Ovonramwen and the British had different concepts of “free trade”.  Trade in the Benin Kingdom was organized under royal monop­oly. The Oba demanded gifts (a sort of “custom duties”) from the middlemen who carried out the trade. If these gifts were not sat­isfactory, the Oba closed down the markets until further gifts had been delivered. Oba Ovonramwen did not cede control over the trade after signing the Gallwey treaty, and continued to close down the markets for periods of time to increase his revenues.  The profits of British and local African traders suffered.

Those with commercial interests pressed the British Foreign Office to take military action against Benin’s Oba. In 1896, when Oba Ovonramwen had again closed all markets to outside trade, the Foreign Office finally acceded. The person in charge of the action was Acting consul-general, James Phillips, a recently arrived and inexperienced official, who had the objective of ousting the Oba and establishing a council of chiefs in his place. In 1896 Phillips assembled an expedition that consisted of some 250 men to advance on Benin City (Roese and Bondarenko, p. 298).

Figure 1: Plaque depicting warrior and attendants (16th–17th century), Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Figure 2: Head of an Oba (1550–1680), Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Figure 4: Figure of a leopard. 1550-1680; bronze. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The expedition was conducted with courage and perseverance, but with the utmost rashness. Almost unarmed, neglecting all ordinary precautions, contrary to the advice of the neighbouring chiefs, and with the express prohibition of the King of Benin to advance, they marched straight into an ambuscade….in the forest on each side of the road.

(Pitt-Rivers iii-iv)


Phillips was killed, and only two of the Europeans and a handful of the African servants survived. Ironically, these deaths might have been prevented. The party had been warned in writing by the Oba not to come at that time since Benin was in its annual igue festival (Martin, p. 38).   

“The Oba requested that the visit be delayed for two months, to enable him to get through the igue ritual during which time his body is sacred and not allowed to come in contact with foreign elements. The Igue ritual is the highest ritual among the Edo and is performed not only for the well-being of the king but of his entire subjects and the land. But Phillips showed no sympathy. He replied to the king that he was in a hurry and could not wait because he had so much work to do elsewhere in the Protectorate.” (Martin, p. 38)   

As Roese and Bondarenko (p. 299) write, “Chief Dore Numa was very worried and tried to persuade Phillips to refrain from going to Benin City. The loyal chief’s warning was in vain because Phillips did not pay heed to the advice of an insider.” Phillips wanted to gain a name for himself as the man who established control of the trade in Benin, and his party set out despite the additional warning, clearly with the motive of deposing the Oba.   

The British response to Phillips’ ill-fated expedition was a three-way simultaneous attack on Benin City, an attack now called the Punitive Expedition.  In what appears to have been a desperate attempt to stall the British advance, the defenders performed human sacrifices on a large scale. The killings were still being carried out when the British entered the city and stopped them. The British rounded up and executed the Benin people that fought against them, looted about 3,000 valuable bronze and ivory works of art, burned the Queen Mother’s and other palaces, publicly humiliated Oba Ovonramwen, exiling him to Calabar, the furthermost town in the territory within the British sphere of influence.  The Oba‘s palace was razed, but this fire seems to have been accidental (Lundén, p. 130; Gott n.p.; Martin, pp. 40-41). 

The British Admiralty auctioned off most of the looted objects to pay for the military expedition, reserving some as gifts for officers of the Expedition.[4]  As a result, Benin bronzes fanned out primarily into Western museums, with large numbers now residing at the British Museum, London, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, and Ethnological Museum, Berlin  (Brown, n.p., Sutton, n.p.).  

Restitution of the Benin bronzes to Edo State, Nigeria

The major issue now is the restitution of the Benin bronzes (and ivories) looted in the 1897 Punitive Expedition.  Unfortunately, there is no legal basis for restitution of these artifacts.  Their looting predated any of the international agreements, such as the UNESCO 1970 Convention, about the protection of cultural heritage.  Since Nigeria was not a sovereign nation at the time of the looting of the bronzes, the Kingdom of Benin was unprotected by any national laws, such as ones defining all cultural objects as belonging to the country.

The only recourse is moral suasion– an uphill battle. In 2002 Peter-Klaus Schuster, the Director-General of the State Museums, Berlin, rejected any lending or restitution. He signed the 2002 Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums by the major museums of Europe and America, explaining that:

“Through the Declaration, these museums wished to stress the vital role they play in cultivating a better comprehension of different civilizations and in promoting respect between them… The collections in Berlin were acquired through the art market or private commerce. No deal was in fact possible without a contract of sale or permission to export. This does not mean that nothing was sold or exported. But it does mean that all objects came legally into the collections” (Opoku4).

However, in 2010, the Benin Dialogue Group[5] (BDG) was formed to pressure museums that have large collections of Benin bronzes to return them. This campaign has borne some fruit.  In December, 2018, the British Museum agreed that within three years “some of the most iconic pieces” in the historic collection will be returned on a temporary basis to form an exhibition at the new Benin Royal Museum in Edo State. 

Contrary to Schuster’s position, the Ethnologisches Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin joined the BDG and has subsequently actively participated.  As of 2019, it is supporting plans to build the new museum in Benin City, Nigeria, that will showcase an exhibition of historical artefacts from the former Kingdom of Benin (website of Ethnologisches Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin). Like the British Museum and contrary to Schuster’s 2002 position, it may consider lending bronzes from its collection.  However, as in the case with the British Museum, it may not entertain transferring legal title to Edo State for any bronzes sent from their museum.


[1] Although called Benin bronzes, Benin’s brass casters used bronze, brass, and copper, bronze being an alloy primarily of copper and other metals (often tin) and brass being an alloy of copper and zinc..

[2] “n.p.”, or “no page”,  is used when the source is an internet article without pagination

[3] This section relies heavily on Lundén’s chapter 4, “1897 Edo-British war” (pp.121-137) in Displaying Loot: The Benin Objects and the British Museum.

[4] For example, the Expedition’s Chief of Staff Captain George LeClerc Egerton, were rewarded with 39 bronzes, many of which were loaned or donated to the Pitt-Rivers museum in Oxford (Martin 154).

[5] Members of the BDG are museum directors and delegates from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom with representatives of the Edo State Government, the Royal Court of Benin, and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.


About the author: Dr. Sue Berryman got her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, specialising in the political economy segment of an inter-disciplinary social science program. She taught at the Harvard Business School and then joined the RAND Corporation, an American think tank, as a senior analyst. She left RAND to became Director of the Institute on Education and the Economy at Columbia University, after which she joined the World Bank in Washington D.C. At the Bank, she specialised in assessing how governments allocate public resources in sectors for which the Bank might lend.   In 2019, at the age of 81, she completed the summer program offered by ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, and has since been writing detection novels on art crime.

Disclaimer: this article is intended for educational purposes, and does not purport to provide legal advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.

Bibliography:

Brown, K (2018) ‘Benin’s Looted Bronzes Are All Over the Western World. Here Are 7 Museums That Hold Over 2,000 of the Famed Sculptures’ in ArtNet News. July 27, 2018.

Ethnologisches Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin website, sourced from <https://www.smb.museum/en/museums-institutions/ethnologisches-museum/about-us/whats-new/detail/in-zusammenarbeit-mit-dem-ethnologischen-museum-benin-dialogue-group-konkretisiert-plaene-fuer-museum.html&gt;

Gott, R (1997). ‘The Looting of Benin’ in The Independent, 22 Feb. 1997. Sourced from <http://www.arm.arc.co.uk/lootingBenin.html>

Lundén, S (2016). Displaying Loot: The Benin Objects and the British Museum.  Ph.D. dissertation. Sweden: University of Gothenburg, 2016.

Martin, M. R (2010). Legal issues in African Art.  PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 2010. Sourced from <https://doi.org/10.17077/etd.gaw6ymph>

Opoku, K. (2008). Benin to Berlin Ethnologisches Museum: Are Benin Bronzes Made in Berlin? Vienna,  2008. Sourced from <http://www.africavenir.org/fileadmin/_migrated/content_uploads/Opoku_BeninBerlin_03.pdf>

Paudrat, J.L (1984). ‘From Africa’ in Rubin, Willian (ed.) Primitiv­ism” in 20th Century Art. Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984: 125-178.

Pitt Rivers, A (1968). Works of Art from Benin, Collected by Lieutenant-General Pitt Rivers, Inspector of Ancient Monuments in Great Britain (1900; reprint, New York: Hacker Art Books, 1968).

Sutton B (2019). ‘Long in Exile, the Looted Benin Bronzes Tell the Story of a Mighty African Kingdom’ in Artsy Editorial. Feb 21, 2019. Sourced from <https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-long-exile-looted-benin-bronzes-story-mighty-african-kingdom&gt;