Essay: Bring home the looted Benin Bronzes

1897: Members of the British punitive expedition surrounded by bronzes, in the burnt down palace of the oba (king) of the Benin Empire. The bronzes were taken as loot, and shipped to collectors and museums all over the world. Beeld -
1897: Members of the British punitive expedition surrounded by bronzes, in the burnt down palace of the oba (king) of the Benin Empire. The bronzes were taken as loot, and shipped to collectors and museums all over the world.Beeld -

Institutions from Europe and Nigeria are cooperating in a project to exhibit the Benin Bronzes in their place of origin. European museums will loan these looted objects in their collections to a new to be built museum in Benin City. A journey to the scene of the crime shows the difficulties involved in the debate on restitution. Still, restitution should be the goal.

My trip to Nigeria in May and June 2019 started with a text-box I wrote for an interview with the Dutch expert on looted art Jos van Beurden about his PhD research, published in this newspaper in 2017. His message in the headline went: “Museums, return the stolen art”. As an editor I was looking for some appealing examples to include: the friezes of the Parthenon in London, the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin, the Benin Bronzes. The Bronzes - they seemed familiar, but what and how exactly?


This resulted in a blurb of some 90 words: “No collection of art treasures is scattered around the world like the ‘Benin Bronzes’. The bronze plaques and statues of kings, nobles and warriors stood in the palace of the Benin Kingdom (in current day Nigeria). This treasure trove was looted by British soldiers during a punitive e expedition in 1897. Estimates of the size of the collection range from 2400 to 4000 pieces, which found their way to museums in London, Oxford, Glasgow, Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg, Dresden, Leipzig, Stuttgart, Munich, Mannheim, Vienna, Paris, St Petersburg, New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago and Leiden.”

Having been in Nigeria in 1993 to report on the presidential elections, I never thought I would find an incentive to return. On Election Day, June 12, I arrived at a polling station early in the morning and was immediately apprehended by two gentlemen. I had been detained all day, and could not do my reporting. “Well sir, the results of the elections will be in all newspapers tomorrow,” a cop hissed. This turned out not to be true. The opposition candidate won, so the incumbent President Babangida declared the vote invalid.


What a coincidence then that during my stay last month, June 12 was proclaimed National Day of Democracy. Apparently although the result had been canceled the polls had never been as fair as on that day in 1993. The current government of President Buhari had now decided that that achievement should be celebrated.

Buhari’s current regime is the umpteenth government since 1993, and gives the population as little valid reason to celebrate as his colleagues since Babangida. Although oil-rich Nigeria is no longer a dictatorship, 94 million people - almost half the population - live below the poverty line. And that number is growing. Most Nigerians don’t have access to healthcare, around 40 percent is illiterate. Boko Haram terrorizes parts of the country and the government is among the world’s most corrupt; media report regularly on politicians and civil servants who amass millions.

In 1993, I met with lots of kind people, and heroes such as human rights activist Beko Ransome Kuti. But what stuck with me most was all the violence, and the sense of hopelessness: I decided I would never return to Nigeria if I didn’t have to. And yet, a couple of months ago I found myself eager to take that trip for a second time.

What had changed? While writing that initial text-box I had felt embarrassed that I, Africa editor from 1989 to 1996, didn’t know anything about the Benin Kingdom and its royal dynasty, which reaches back to the 13th century. When I started reading about this wealth of history I was sold. Such a versatile, intriguing story!

Bronzes in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London Beeld
Bronzes in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London

One of the first people to write about the Benin Kingdom was a Dutchman. Olfert Dapper, a writer from the 17th century, based his stories on second-hand information, as he had never been there himself. “The King’s court is square, and as large as the city of Haarlem,” he wrote in 1668 with a Dutch gaze. “It is divided into many beautiful palaces, houses and rooms of the courtiers, with beautiful, long square galleries, about the size of the stock exchange in Amsterdam. The pillars in the palace are covered with cast copper from top to bottom, with images of their wars and battles.”

‘Free trade’

So this is what the palace, which was actually a small town with the residences of court officials, looked like in the heyday of the Benin Kingdom. At the end of the 19th century that Kingdom was already in decay. The British colonial authorities had signed a “free trade agreement” with the then Oba (king) Ovonramwen. But they were dissatisfied with compliance to the treaty. In 1897, James Phillips, consul general of the Niger Coast Protectorate, went to the Kingdom to demand obedience. At the border of Benin City he was told that the Oba could not receive him due to royal obligations.

Phillips couldn’t care less. He probably wanted to provoke a war. “I have reason to believe that we will find enough ivory in the king’s house to cover the costs of removing the king from his seat,” he had written before he went. But he never saw the spoils of his war. He was shot on his way to the palace.


A month after that incident, the British had mobilized a military force for a revenge expedition. They stormed Benin City and burned down the palace. They took with them thousands of bronze objects, and ivory and wood carvings. Many of these pieces were taken from altars, as they had been used for centuries by the dynasty of Oba’s to communicate with their ancestors and gods. The ‘curiosities’ were shipped to cities all over the world; 139 of the artefacts ended up in the current Museum of Ethnology (Museum van Volkenkunde) in Leiden, the Netherlands.

The bronzes - which made up the bulk of the loot - soon caused a sensation in Europe. The fact that African ‘savages’ were able to produce such high standard objects was met with disbelief: people were willing to believe that the bronzes could be of Egyptian, Indian, Turkish or Mexican origin, but African?

Less disputed at the time was the conception that the people of the Benin Kingdom, the Bini, were indeed ‘savages’. A few weeks after the battle, the London Review reported on the expedition, and made sure to include sections on the “hideous rites to their gods or fetishes” the Bini practiced: “The most savage, horrible and bloodthirsty customs that even Africa can show.” Drawings showed decaying bodies of sacrificed slaves, splayed out on crunchy fields and crucified on trees. As the article stated “Human sacrifices were scattered everywhere.”

Bronze altar, late 18th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art Beeld
Bronze altar, late 18th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art


Sure, the Bini had some cruel practices. They sacrificed slaves. Also certain priests, who were believed to embody the limbs of the Oba, were offered when the king died. In the complex social system of the Benin Kingdom, enslaved people sometimes attained high positions in the army - and went on to enslave others. Despite this home-grown practice, the Bini would probably have enslaved and traded fewer people without the demand of European traders. And they would probably also have cast fewer bronzes without the metal that Europeans traded for slaves.

The Benin Kingdom’s success was partly based on its strict constitutional order, which included compulsory military service for men. The divine Oba, mediator between the earthly and the spiritual realm, and guardian of the cosmological order, was the head of state. The state council maintained checks and balances, between councils of court servants, village elders, guilds and priests. Women (apart from the mothers of Obas) were of little importance in the Kingdom: they could be given to the Oba as wives, or gifted by the him to the chiefs.


What would be left of that culture from which those ‘bronzes’ were taken, I wondered? How do the Bini look at those bronzes and their culture in 2019?

In Europe, museums are increasingly struggling to address their colonial history and the looting that took place in that system. The debate about restitution has been going on for years, but it received a boost in 2017 when French President Macron spoke out in support of restitution of African cultural heritage (although he has not yet translated that promise into policy). The Dutch Museum of World Cultures, parent organization of the Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, initiated a restitution policy this year. Work is also being done on this in Germany institutions.

In the field of looted art the Benin Bronzes form a category in itself: so obviously stolen, so many pieces (several thousand), so scattered all over the world, so iconic. Another notable thing about the Bronzes is that last year authorities from Nigeria and ten European museums, including the Leiden Museum of Ethnology, signed an agreement: Nigeria will build a new museum in Benin City, and European museums will loan Bronzes from their collections to that museum.

Right: loan, not return.

The Nigerian institutions have stated in the agreement they will not abandon their claim for legal ownership of the Bronzes. But for that they will have to take a different route; restitution is often a matter for the state, which often owns the collections that museum authorities only manage.

School children visiting the National Museum. Although they form a large part of the visitors, the museum has practically no special facilities for children.  Beeld Petterik Wiggers
School children visiting the National Museum. Although they form a large part of the visitors, the museum has practically no special facilities for children.Beeld Petterik Wiggers

National Museum

Another question that I wanted to address: a Nigerian museum, what should we imagine?

When I made it to Nigeria last month my first stop was clear: the National Museum in Lagos. I had read a lot of bad things about the space. You get through it quickly. The exhibition comprises of a few hundred objects, arranged according to obsolete ethnographical principles: people A, B or C used this or that object at birth, marriage or funeral. Zero connection with the outside world.

Amongst the collection there are also a few ‘Benin Bronzes’ - though their safety in the museum has not always been guaranteed. Illustrated by an incident in 1973, when the president of the time, General Yakubu Gowon, was scheduled to visit the British Queen Elizabeth and wanted to give her a copy of one of the heads. But when the copy turned out to be a disappointment, the General went to the National Museum and picked the original 16th century artefact from the display and gifted it to the Queen. Until 2002, when this story came to light supported by material research and witness statements, the British court had assumed it had received a copy.

Shopping center

Next to the National Museum, a newer building stands tall. It was built with government money as a repository for the museum collection. But before the project was finalized management of the building changed hands and it became a shopping center instead. Now much of the museum’s collection of cultural heritage objects still are supposed to be in the ragged barracks behind the museum. The storage space is not accessible, but you pass it en route to the library which is housed in a similar barrack. A few hundred seemingly random titles are on the shelfs, such as ‘The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Mushrooms’, which could come in handy in the stuffy space where water has leaked into the hallway.

“The National Museum had more than 500,000 objects when it was founded,” says Kolawole Oseni, director of the Lagos State Records & Archives Bureau. But many of those objects were stolen, or disappeared when they were lent to museums elsewhere in the country. “We don’t know where they are.”

Some of the buildings on the premises of the museum are in very bad shape.  Beeld Petterik Wiggers
Some of the buildings on the premises of the museum are in very bad shape.Beeld Petterik Wiggers

In 2008, Oseni wrote recommendations for the Minister of Culture to improve the organization of federal museums. But his report disappeared into the drawers of the minister and the responsible museum authority of all federal museums, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM).


The NCMM, led by a director with ministerial status, is also an important authority for the process of restitution of the Bronzes. The NCMM is a key player in the Benin Dialogue Group, in which negotiations between Nigerian authorities and European museums took place, which resulted in the agreement on the new museum in Benin City.

The NCMM is also responsible for the existing Benin National Museum in Benin City, which houses a few of the Bronzes. The Benin National Museum has an equally bad reputation as many of the other museums run by the Commission, but has been fixed up a little since the new director (see interview with Theophilus Umogbai) entered into a collaboration with the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. However the museum still attracts few visitors, and essential infrastructure such as a dehumidification system is missing.

Generally speaking Nigerian museums are oddities, ufo’s that do little to attract visitors. This isn’t helped by the fact that large parts of the population can’t afford a ticket, and even that many have an aversion for what they consider ‘demonic’ art housed in museums. This disconnection between museums and their intended audiences is also a consequence of the fact that history as a subject was missing at secondary school curriculums for years. Sometimes groups of students do come to the Benin National Museum, but there are no special facilities to receive them.


In Benin City, the second stop of my journey, a strong national consciousness is obvious: you can see references to the Bronzes in garden statues and graffiti. Oba Ewuare II, the fortieth of his dynasty, is held in high esteem. He is at the head of the traditional system of administration, which functions alongside the elected government. To all accounts the Oba and the popular state governor, Godwin Obaseki, govern in harmony. And the city is still home to a guild of bronze founders who produce art objects and souvenirs, though no longer exclusively for the Oba.

Bronzes in the Quai Branly Museum in Paris Beeld AFP
Bronzes in the Quai Branly Museum in ParisBeeld AFP

What I wanted to know: what do people directly involved - such as bronze founders, historians, artists and traditional leaders – think about the arrangement by which European museums loan the Bronzes back to Benin City, instead of actually returning them?

Bad idea

As you would expect, the majority of people I spoke to felt that those objects should be returned unconditionally, because they were stolen. However many of them stressed that if it ever actually comes to restitution, it would be a very bad idea to return them to the federal government or the NCMM: fat chance the Bronzes will disappear, they said, so instead please give them to the state or to the Oba, where they would be safe.

There is a lot to be said for that. But a thorny issue arises if Nigeria invokes the rules for restitution of the Dutch Museum of World Cultures. When it comes down to the Nigerian federal government, will the Minister of Culture, who ultimately has to approve any restitution, be in favor of handing over to local governments? The restitution provisions leave room for this, but would the Dutch government (or eventually those of other states involved) face up to confrontation?

I would say: take that stand. Admittedly, the safety of the objects even in the Oba’s palace is not as undisputed as the general conception has it. For example in 1818 an Oba set himself and the palace on fire as a competing pretender to the throne approached with an army. Much of the ivory the British were hoping for in 1897 was then lost; fortunately bronze is more fireproof. And in 1976 a burglar stole many pieces from the palace - everything was recovered, but still.

What if

One might ask other questions regarding safety of objects to be returned. What if the now warm relationship between the state and the Oba turns sour and ends up in a fight over the objects? What if the traditional Obas and chiefs have to make way, for instance under the influence of Christian fundamentalists? What if the Islamist Boko Haram assaults this ‘pagan’ art? What if a new kleptocrat turns his attention to the treasures?

Well, if things like that happen we can do very little against it. ‘Museums, return the stolen art’ was the headline above the interview that I provided with a textbox in 2017. To me that still seems to be a good starting point.

Recognize that we have these pieces in our collection thanks to a raid that amounted to cultural genocide. Recognize that they are so much more important there than they would ever be here. Transfer ownership. Ask for objects to be loaned to European museums – there is a willingness on the Nigerian side. Pay royalties for those loans. Help Nigerians who can make their museum a success, there are some good candidates among the people I interviewed. Return the Benin Bronzes in the end – no, not all at once, and don’t rush into anything.

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These articles have been produced with the support of the Fonds Bijzondere Journalistieke Projecten (

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