“Great Benin is larger than Lisbon. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such security that they have no doors on their houses.” – Lourenço Pinto, Portuguese ship’s captain, 1694
Stan Trollip is our resident apologist for the art of Africa here on MIE. I am horning in on his turf here. I hope he won’t mind.
The Kingdom of Benin, founded in 1440, was a pre-colonial African state in what is now Nigeria.
Works of art from Benin now grace museums all over the world, notably in London and Brooklyn. They are made from cast bronze, carved ivory, and coral. They were originally produced as ritual objects and believed to have sacred power.
The divine ruler of Benin, the Oba, used the objects to honor his ancestors and to make contact with the deities. His first act on ascending to the throne was to create, in his courtyard, an altar to his father. He commissioned the craftsman of the kingdom to create works to adorn that altar and to be used throughout the year to mark important milestones, such as to bless the first buds of yam plants, to celebrate past victories, or to honor the Oba’s ancestors. Typical decoration of the objects included images of the Oba and his court officials in coral regalia: crowns, aprons, necklaces, and bracelets.
The Oba’s sobriquet was “leopard of the house.” The King kept domesticated leopards in his palace. Imagine the impression made on the common people by their king, who not only lived with the fearsome, cunning cats but had them at his command. Images of leopards abound in Benin art objects.
When Portuguese traders and missionaries arrived in 1400’s, the making of art in Benin entered a new age, and some say a golden age. The Portuguese did not come as conquerors but as business partners—their soldiers protected the kingdom from its enemies, and they brought in European artistic motifs and luxury products, such as mirrors and tableware. Many Portuguese loan words wound up in the local languages. Among the valuable trade items that the Portuguese took from West Africa were gold and slaves.
In the 19th century the British entered the picture, with their joint efforts at suppression of the slave trade and of empire building. The Bight of Benin was declared a British Protectorate in 1852. When all but two members of the Brit’s first expeditionary force were killed, the English sent in the big guns. In 1897, 1200 arrived under the command of Admiral Sir Henry Rawson. They razed the city of Benin, massacred many of its inhabitants, and wiped out its community of artisans. They rationalized their operation by declaring—some think speciously—that the local savages included human sacrifice in their worship rituals. And rightly by declaring that the British presence in West Africa would stop the exportation of slaves.
The British took away the artifacts you see pictured here; they put them in the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. They sold others to defray the cost of their “punitive expedition.”
I leave it to you to decide who were the real barbarians?
Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun, and they have not. - Hilaire Belloc, The Modern Traveller (1898)
Annamaria - Monday