My adventures serving in the Peace Corps
Thursday, May 8, 2008
This is the sad story of the Benin Bronzes, a hotly contested group of objects that are still on view today at the British Museum in London. (Forgive me if this story is not 100% accurate, but this is how I remember it):
In 1897, the British sent a few men into the Kingdom of Benin (located in modern day Nigeria I think. Modern day Benin was known until 1975 as Dahomey, as it was the ancient kingdom of the Dahomey people. Thanks to Eric, a Beninese from France for this information!) to do some exploring. When they went to the royal city, they were not let in because it was a feast day in the kingdom, and were asked to come back in a few days. The British men didn't like this and went ahead into the Kingdom anyways, and were consequently killed.
As a retaliation for the loss of these few mens' lives, the British launched a "Punitive Expedition" of roughly 1,200 men to the palace in Benin, where they sacked the entire property and burned down the palace. (They were also instructed to essentially destroy whatever they could of the Kingdom of Benin) As booty from the expedition, they took all of the valuable Benin bronze plaques, sculptures, and ancestral figures back to Europe with them (many of which date back to the thirteenth century).
Many of these objects are still on display at the British Museum. Benin/Nigeria have been in a dispute with the British over the ownership of these objects (since they were stolen from them), but Britain has refused to give them back.
...and that's the sad story of the Benin Bronzes and the British Punitive Expedition of 1897 :(