Germany will return 440 old Benin bronzes to Nigeria, 125 years after they were ‘looted’


In December 1896, Britain’s acting consul general in the region, James Phillips, began an expedition to depose Oba Ovonramwen, the king of Benin.

In his letter to Lord Salisbury, the Secretary of State, Phillips wrote: “ I have reason to hope that sufficient ivory will be found in the king’s house to cover the cost of removing the king from his stool. to get.’

Phillips left with a medical officer, two commercial agents, and about 250 African soldiers posing as porters – guns disguised in their luggage.

He had informed the Oba of his planned visit, which he said would be about peace and trade.

Despite requests from the Oba to postpone the trip, Phillips left.

The interior of the Oba Palace after it was burned during the sack of Benin. Bronze plaques can be seen in the foreground while members of the expedition force hang out

On January 4, the British delegation outside a village was ambushed by Edo warriors, apparently without the Oba’s knowledge.

Philips was slaughtered along with the entire British force – except for two men, Captain Alan Maxwell Boisragon, Commander of the Constabulary of the Niger Coast Protectorate, and Ralph Locke, District Commissioner of Warri.

The incident became known as the ‘Benin massacre’.

Days later, Vice Admiral Harry Rawson was appointed by the Admiralty to lead a force to invade the Kingdom of Benin and raid Benin City.

In February, a force of about 1,200 Royal Marines, sailors and troops from the Niger Coast Protectorate Forces arrived in Benin.

Warships approached the port city from all sides, overwhelming the basic defenses of Benin and the ancient walls of earth.

Sir Harry Rawson

Sir Harry Rawson

In ten days of bloody fighting, the British Empire had defeated the kingdom of Benin, ended 800 years of rule, and annexed the territory to colonial Nigeria.

The mission was heralded as a great success by the British Empire.

Dan Hicks, of the University of Oxford, has alleged that the British participated in ‘war crimes’ during the attack.

The Oba’s palace was looted and hundreds of priceless items were returned to England, hundreds were later sold to other colonial powers in Europe and America.

They later became known as the Benin bronzes, although many of the works were not necessarily made of metal, others were made of ivory and wood.

One of them, a bronze rooster, eventually became a fixture in the dining hall of Jesus College, Cambridge.

Many people have campaigned over the years to bring the rooster back, and in November last year, Cambridge University agreed to return it to Nigeria.

A number of other museums and universities have now also agreed to return items in recent weeks.

One campaigner was BBC historian David Olusoga who said the British Museum, which owns hundreds of sculptures, should have a ‘Supermarket Sweep’ where countries have two minutes to take back their artifacts.