Plundered History. Stolen Culture (part two) Seeking The Truth

17th May 2021

“There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain.”

James Baldwin

The Plundered City

If you are fortunate to be standing in a museum to study one of the glorious Benin bronzes in the UK you could be in London, Oxford, Glasgow, Belfast or any one of the 45 institutions with artifacts from that historical Nigerian city. In Europe you could be in Oslo, Paris, Stockholm, Barcelona, Vienna or Berlin. In fact, 25 museums in Germany have Benin Bronzes. In America and Canada the number is around 40. All in all, as there are 161 public institutions around the world with items from Benin, you have a very good chance of being able to see one. That is, of course, unless you live anywhere in the entire continent of Africa where there are just eleven museums with Benin artifacts, of which nine are in Nigeria. My own experience is that those few pieces left in their home nation are not usually of the quality of those that have ‘turned up’ elsewhere.

‘Turned up’. How else to describe how those artistic and cultural items managed to get so far from their origin? Well, one thing that most exhibits will have in common is a small plaque or label with a short description that inevitably seems to include the words ‘taken’, ‘confiscated’ and even sometimes ‘looted’ by the ‘punitive British military expedition of 1897’. Having spent time in Benin (as CEO of Guinness Nigeria Plc. whose largest brewery was there and where we were the biggest employer I was a frequent visitor) I have always been fascinated, not just by the bronzes but also with the ivory and other carvings. Many are the hours I have spent in the Africa section of the British Museum and other institutions, marveling at the detailed craft-work and incredible skill inherent in these works. Yet I have always taken those words ‘punitive expedition’ at face value. I have visited the Oba’s (King’s) Palace and seen the remains of the pre-colonial earthworks but still my shallow imagination has somehow failed to convey me towards the horror disguised in those somehow depersonalised words. No longer.

Reading for Discovery

As I described in Part One of this blog, I struggled with my attempts to recover my serious reading habit from Covid lock down torpor until I was catapulted out of my complacency by three books that consider the reality and consequences of that single phrase ‘punitive expedition’ each within a slightly different context. (See below for full details.)

“Loot” by Barnaby Phillips considers the specific actions undertaken by the various British colonial authorities at the end of the Nineteenth century that led to what was actually a massacre rather than an expedition and details the depth of the plunder that took place in the immediate aftermath. Barnaby traces the history of many of the stolen pieces and the people that took them, which leads him towards the debate about restitution and Nigeria’s ability to maintain returned artifacts.

Max Siollun’s ‘What Britain Did To Nigeria’ has a broader narrative that puts that particular military travesty into the wider history of Britain’s conquest of that area that is now called Nigeria. He recounts how much of that history has been written, by the victors of course, in a manner that belies the duplicity, coercion and violence that was required to ensure that Britain kept this resource rich land away from their colonial competitors, especially the French, and maximized the returns to the Treasury or the shareholders of the private stock companies that initiated the looting spree.

The first two books are easy reads that the layman like me can assimilate comfortably. Dan Hick’s ‘The Brutish Museums’ is more academic and the language more controlled but the challenges to complacency no less urgent. Coming from his position as Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford Dan is in the perfect position to describe how the modern western concept of museum has only developed as a result of the opportunity provided by centuries of extreme violence perpetrated predominately by Europeans on indigenous peoples around the world whose land and resources were coveted by those with the military technology to back their greed.

This destruction was perpetrated on a sovereign West African City State with such a rich cultural history that it includes Ambassadors in Lisbon’s Royal Court in the sixteenth century and street architecture and layout that European visitors at the time acknowledged was in advance of their own. However, this is just another example of a long line of viciousness that stretches from the destruction of entire civilizations in the Americas by the ‘conquistadores’, through the horrors of Leopold’s Congo to the annihilation of native North Americans and right through to the wrecking of the ancient cultural sites of ‘the cradle of the earth’ following the invasion of Iraq. What these and thousands of ‘campaigns’ have in common is the creation of excuses and righteous ‘reasons’ to disguise the true nature of the violence. From ‘saving the souls of the savage’ to destroying ‘weapons of mass destruction’ there has always been a justification for atrocities meant to disguise the true reason: extraction of resources. Another common consequences is that the churches, palaces and, later, museums of the victors have been crammed full of the spoils of war displayed in a way that justifies the violence and glorifies the perpetrators.

The title picture at the top of the blog is of British members of the 1897 campaign sitting in the burned ruins of the Oba’s Palace amidst looted objects ready for distribution. This picture is of the Oba promedaing around Benin captured in a Dutch engraving from 1668 (also shown in Barnaby Phillips’ “Loot”).


Museums of Horror

In this short blog there is little opportunity to discuss the arguments for the return of looted objects: restitution. This is a deeply emotional topic with moral but also logistical and practical considerations eliciting much disagreement. However, what these books and a growing number of voices argue for is a better recognition of the reality and degree of the extreme violence that facilitated this plunder. Museums and galleries should at least accurately describe the truth and intensity of the taking of these artifacts in the descriptions that accompany them.

If there is a single truth in these books that most exemplifies the horror of the sacking of Benin City is the detailing of military hardware and expended ammunition. Dan Hicks estimates from official records of the personal diary of the Chief of Staff for the 1897 expedition, that some 3 million rounds of ordinance for rockets, 7-pounder mountain guns and 14 of the ubiquitous Maxim gun were used against a force that predominantly only had flintlocks, ‘dane’ guns and arrows. There was also heavy artillery and 24 Maxim guns available from Naval vessels that sailed up the creeks and rivers. There is also evidence that much of the small arms ammunition was filed down into the ‘Dum Dum’ style of bullets. The debate about how many thousands of Benin soldiers and civilians were killed, the particularly indiscriminate nature of the killing and, finally, the burning down of most of the city and many neighboring villages is covered to different degrees in all three books. All three also reflect how the term ‘punitive’ is misleading and is part of the colonial narrative designed to justify the invasion of a sovereign state. I would recommend reading all three: Max Siollun’s for the full Nigerian context, Barnaby Phillips’ for the detail of the Benin atrocity and its legacy and Dan Hick’s for a full understanding of the implications of coming to terms with the truth for the future of museums.

However, as important as the debate about publicly displayed artifacts is, there is another debate that attracts less open dialogue. Apart from the millions of items gathering dust in public store rooms (The British Museum is only able to display some 1% of all the items in their possession), the many unique artifacts given as ‘gifts’ to visiting European heads of state and royalty and therefore languishing unseen in private areas of palaces such as the UK’s Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Balmoral, Sandringham, Kensington and St James palaces and so on, there is the matter of private collections. These are not just ‘historical’ matters as there are still, today, sales regularly held in public as well in private auctions around the world, where the elite get the chance to acquire, apparently legally, religious and cultural artifacts that host communities claim were stolen from them. This is even without addressing the widespread market for illegal but barely policed items from current conflicts, looted from sites and museums in places like Baghdad, Palmyra, Aleppo and right across that region. These are sales that have been used to fund ISIS weaponry or even just to line the pockets of members of the US military who were able to bring back ‘trophies’ (not too different from the journey of many of the items from 1897).

The Looting Continues

One outrageous example, symbolic of the continued arrogance of the global elite, was the June 2020 auction at Christie’s of Paris. I quote from Christie’s own publicity.

“Highlights from this season’s curated Arts of Africa, Oceania and North America sale in Paris include works of art from the Collection of James and Marilynn Alsdorf featuring African masterpieces, such as a newly discovered Akan terracotta head and North American art. ….. The African art section includes works from an Important European Private Collection, including a major Urhobo statue from Nigeria, a museum-quality Igbo couple and beautiful masks from the Fang, Chokwe and Punu. From a Belgian collection, an important Songye kifwebe masks will be offered at auction, as well as a rare Songye power figure with a turned head.”

Note the term: “Newly discovered Akan terracotta head”. Discovered? Where? When? “From a Belgian collection” – Oh, well. That cannot remotely be part of the plunder from the King Leopold’s genocidal activities?

The Nigerian items come from the collection of Jacques Kerchache who built collections for Chirac, The French President who liked his African despots to buy Chateaus and keep their looted funds in French banks..

The “Museum Quality Igbo couple’ were sold for US$240,000 despite attempts to halt the sale by Nigerian authorities. The BBC website said “”Christie’s ought not be dealing in Nigerian antiquities that were probably taken out at a time of conflict, contrary to the Hague Convention of 1954,” Babatunde Adebiyi, legal adviser for the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments, said, adding that Nigeria “was saddened” by the sale.” (29th June 2020)

I would also make the point, with particular reference to the Igbo “Alusi” (Sacred Sculptures) that the looting of these carvings caused pain and hurt to the Igbo. The relationship between the living and their ancestors is a fundamental part of the Igbo’s belief system – as it is for many African cultures. It is a complex relationship and not only formed a part of the traditional indigenous faith but continues to have a central position in family structure in modern Christian families. To see these cultural icons being sold in such a way, as decorative trophies for the super rich, is despicable and should be added to the wider discussion about restitution and the management and policing of suspected stolen items of cultural and religious significance.

As we develop our thinking about the legacy of Empire: from statues of slavers to the failure to teach a truthful history of colonialism in our schools, from accurate descriptions of the source of museum objects to the prevention of private profiteering from stolen items, there is much debate to be had. The superficiality of the politically motivated ‘anti-woke’, ‘culture-wars’ is an attempt to divert attention from the genuine struggle to adequately consider a profoundly important matter. These three books helped me gain another toehold on the bridgehead of understanding.

I also recommend NOT buying these on Amazon. I order direct from the publishers’ websites or from my local independent bookshop (The Bookseller on Chiswick High St 0208 742 3919).

“Loot. Britain and the Benin Bronzes.” By Barnaby Phillips. Oneworld Publications. 2021.

“The Brutish Museums. The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution.” By Dan Hicks. Pluto Press. 2020

“What Britain Did To Nigeria. A Short History of Conquest and Rule.” By Max Siollun. C Hurst & Co Publishers. 2021


Music for Restitution

That there is today so much unremitting etho-nationalistic violence of military and rightist states against people that cannot defend themselves: whether it is Yemen, Myanmar, Colombia or the suffering Palestinians, that my heart bleeds.

In 1999 Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, the late esteemed scholar and critic, founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra comprising young musicians from both the Israeli and the Arab and Palestinian side of that conflict to enable intercultural dialogue and to promote the experience of collaborating towards some form of understanding. So, for this blog’s musical ending and in solidarity with the ordinary people of Palestine and a desire for peace through genuine dialogue I give you Barenboim conducting that orchestra for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.


For those that would like to know more about the project I also attach a short video explainer.


A version of this Blog has already appeared in local ‘News & Views” site:



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